In many segments of our society members are given up on, both human and animals. They’re too far gone; old, delinquent, not cared about, just tossed away. Well now there’s a wonderful program that is bringing these ‘last chance’ members together for a second chance.

Renaissance Program at Boys Totem Town, a juvenile treatment institution in St. Paul and Home for Life, an animal sanctuary in western Wisconsin have joined together to give young men and dogs deemed unfit for adoption for one reason or another, a chance to learn and grow together.

“Boys who come from rough-and-tumble backgrounds are teaching dogs who come from rough-and-tumble backgrounds how to become therapy animals.”

Totem Town superintendent Tom McGinn feels that by teaching dogs the skills and discipline the boys are trying to learn, the boys will improve their own behavior faster.

Home for Life founder Lisa LaVerdiere gives sanctuary to dogs that others have thrown away, may are old, disabled and many have been abused and neglected or are just too “wild.” LaVerdiere believes that these dogs can still have a purpose in life and they do community service, often visiting domestic abuse shelters, nursing homes and hospitals.

“Just because a dog’s been given up on, it can still go out and contribute, and these dogs can help folks who are in worse off shape,” LaVerdiere said.

With LaVerdiere’s strong belief in community service, she approached McGinn about working together, “We say we help at-risk dogs and at-risk people.”

Shared need

At first, McGinn wasn’t sure how it would fit. But, he said, it didn’t take long to see the parallels between what the dogs need to learn and what his students are doing. The program is in its second session, and by McGinn’s account has been successful.

Five students meet with the dogs twice a week for eight weeks, and during the program they’ll also take field trips to observe different careers involving animals — from the University of Minnesota veterinary program to doggie hydrotherapy. To participate in the training program, the teens have to apply and go through an interview process.

It’s a way to teach the boys something new and to push them out of their comfort zones, said Jayme Brisch, a community corrections worker.

At the end of the program, the teens run their dogs through the Therapy Dogs International certification test. Dogs that pass can then go out into the community. And their teen trainers can boast about new skills.

But first, LaVerdiere said, she has to teach the teens how to gently teach the dogs. It’s like teaching a 4-year-old how to tie shoes, she tells the teens. Hitting won’t help, but showing them how and praising them will.

Dogs are great barometers, LaVerdiere said. “They give instant feedback. If the boys are positive and work hard, the dogs will respond.”

Eric, who had no prior experience with dogs, said he’s catching on.

“My dog listens to what I tell him,” Eric said. “Sometimes he gets unruly, but that’s just what a dog does.”

That’s the kind of patience and understanding McGinn wants to see. Empathy is something most Totem Town residents lack, he says. “But it’s an important lesson for them to learn.”

Niko, an 18-year-old who works with Tiger, a German shepherd mix, knows his dog is going to take some more coaching. That’s OK with him.

“I’m glad to see the dog can look forward to live another day and not give up hope,” Niko said.

It’s not just about the dogs, he added. It’s nice, he said, to know that he’s helping to give other people, people who have it harder than he does, something to look forward to each day. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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