After 80 years of delivering tried-and-true programs to local youth, the Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena has recently hit another home run program for its members, one that is particularly hard to resist: helping shelter dogs.
The collaboration with the K9 Youth Alliance nonprofit is “kids helping dogs helping kids,” a program to connect teens with furry friends from Los Angeles Animal Services. They establish a working, loving relationship with shelter dogs through an intense, three-week vocational training program.
With thousands of dogs euthanized in shelters annually, and children in equal numbers willing to lend their hearts and hard work, the pairing offers an innovative solution.
“This really allows them to explore their love for animals in a safe and positive environment, and at the same time, gives the dog a chance to get out of that shelter environment and learn behaviors that will make it more adoptable,” said Brian Davis, Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena executive director/CEO, himself an avid dog lover. “As dog lovers, we know what we learn from loving our dogs, so we know what these teenagers can also learn from these invaluable skills.”
Each teen is paired with a dog and an adult volunteer, and together they help train the shelter dog — often bereft of any training whatsoever — to understand a variety of commands. The program culminates in a graduation ceremony where the teen trainers lead the dogs through an obstacle course in front of friends and family and then give a speech about what they’ve learned.
“Our goal is to make sure we’re helping as many kids and as many dogs as possible,” said Karen Rosen, K9YA co-founder and advisory board member. “This is about supporting the students and their self-discovery and what they learn through the interactions with the animal. It’s emotional, contextual learning — it’s a much better way to learn something than have it being told to you.”
The K9YA program is offered to six to eight teens every semester through an application and interview process. The students commit to attending two-hour sessions every day for three weeks at the Boys & Girls Club facility, working one-on-one with the encouragement of a dedicated team of K9YA coordinators. The K9YA nonprofit, begun in 2013, uses a rewards-based, force-free dog training as a model for promoting self-discovery and nonviolence. The program enriches the lives of the dogs they work with by providing socialization, teaching basic behaviors and developing trusting relationships. The dogs, meanwhile, enrich the lives of the teens they work with by helping them develop patience, empathy, initiative and positivity.
Rosen helped develop the local nonprofit after hearing about K9 Connections, a similar statewide nonprofit that helps connect foster youth and teens at continuation high schools with shelter dogs. Pasadena’s eager community of dog-loving volunteers was the perfect place for the concept, Rosen noted.
With so many animal-loving children at public schools, why not connect them for free with affection-desperate shelter dogs?
“It wasn’t the hardest sales pitch I’d ever heard — we’re all dog lovers,” said Davis, whose German shepherd happened to be waiting for him in his office at a recent Friday K9YA graduation.
After 2½ years at Boys & Girls Club, Davis has focused on attracting more teenagers to the afterschool program, which currently serves about 400 students per day between the club’s two locations. The program has been a big hit, with teens telling classmates about it and coming back with friends.
“That means these are teens who are coming every day, doing their homework here, checking in with our staff and reconnecting with their mentors,” Davis said, adding that the Boys & Girls Club model works effectively with teenagers in promoting high school readiness, healthy lifestyles, good habits and good choices.
He noted that because the club tends to serve a largely low-income population, with about 80% of members coming from a low-income household, it often means the teens in the program might not have the means to have a pet at home, especially if they rent, live in an apartment or live with extended family.
“A lot of our members have living situations that don’t allow them to have pets, even though they love animals,” Davis noted. “This is a way for them to learn a lot of the great values of having a pet and also teaches them the responsibilities and to recognize the needs of the animal.”
As part of the program, the team goes to the shelter together to see how the dogs live in the small kennels, and some of the students opt to enter the cages and close the gate. It helps teach the kids empathy to understand their dogs, Rosen said, especially some of the problematic behaviors such as neurosis and barking.
“We’re teaching the next generation of responsible pet caregivers,” said Rosen, adding the shelter is an eye-opening experience for the kids, and shows them what happens to animals that can no longer be cared for by the owner.
At the most recent K9YA graduation ceremony, parents and family eagerly filled the bleachers of the Boys & Girls Club facility, cheering as each student confidently led his or her four-legged companion through a host of obstacles.
One Wilson middle school student, Zara, led a pug-mix named Honey Badger through the course. Just a few days earlier, her original shelter dog partner, a challenging black border collie named Andrea, had been adopted by a “forever” home. (That was against some tough odds, Rosen interjected, noting that Andrea the dog was a hyper, ADHD barker at first.)
It was hard on Zara to adjust, she had to admit, but that is also the bittersweet goal of the program: to place the shelter dogs in permanent homes.
“I did cry a bit when she got adopted — it was hard; I was gonna miss her,” she said. “But you know, I realized it was because of me and our work together that she got adopted. I did that.”
Zara, who is a budding young musician, sang a touching song to Andrea as part of her farewell speech to the crowd: “Andrea is beautiful, couldn’t love her more. She’s 7 years old, couldn’t let her go. …”
Meanwhile, Marshall High School freshman Tony was preparing his dog, a special-needs mix named Jodie Foster. Because Jodie Foster is deaf, Tony said the training really helped him learn patience, and be creative when it came to getting her attention.
“I really learned to be patient, and not rush things. I have to be more active with Jodie, since she can’t hear. I have to get her attention in other ways,” said Tony, who hopes to become a dog-rescuer in the future.
As part of the program, the K9YA brings in all kinds of animal behavioral specialists who talk to the kids about possible careers in working with animals, including grooming specialists, canine trainers, veterinarians or vet assistants, and animal shelter volunteers.
The one-to-one time with an adult volunteer — all animal lovers, and some long-time shelter volunteers — help teach the students how to incorporate a love for animals in everyday life.
Andy Corrigan, K9YA board member and volunteer, noted how impressed she was with Tony’s patience and perseverance in training a special-needs dog like Jodie Foster.
“Tony really did train her — she had never had any proper training before. Getting to see Tony able to focus, to see his interest grow and their attachment to grow … to see that relationship grow is incredibly special,” Corrigan said.
The K9YA is a volunteer-heavy organization and is always looking for dedicated volunteers. To learn more about the programs it offers, contact the team at K9YouthAlliance@gmail.com or call (424) 272-5992. For more information on the Boys & Girls Club of
Pasadena, visit bgcpasadena.org.