As it turns out, teaching old dogs new tricks is possible: A beloved program for local youth at the Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena recently found a way to break through the COVID-19 pandemic’s barriers to virtually teach kids to help shelter dogs and foster their love for animals.
The club’s collaboration with the nonprofit K9 Youth Alliance has long involved a “kids helping dogs helping kids” program, which typically connects teenagers from the club with four-legged friends sheltered by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services. The effort helps foster animals become more socialized and better behaved — and ultimately more adoptable — through an intense vocational training period. Yet when COVID-19 effectively shut down in-person educational programs in March, the two nonprofits struggled to imagine a time when they could resume the popular dog-training sessions.
But K9 Youth Alliance decided not to wait out the pandemic. With the club operating as a remote learning facility for children of essential workers this summer, it was the perfect time to change up programming and introduce younger students to work with shelter dogs, said K9YA co-founder and Executive Director Kelly Osburn.
“We are so excited that we’ve recently completed our first virtual K9 Youth Alliance program, where our 11 members of the Boys & Girls Club Pasadena learned all about humane education and teaching foster dog parents how to teach their fosters better behaviors that will help them find forever homes. We are super proud of their efforts,” Osburn said.
Those members of the club’s Mackenzie Scott branch, ages 11-12, participated in the virtual training program, which used a creative approach. Students were each given a stuffed, lifelike breed dog and worked in socially distanced, masked pairs at the club. Individually, they would log in with K9YA program directors, who walked them through the basics of training shelter dogs. The students would practice commands on their stuffed dogs in anticipation of meeting their real foster animals and the human foster parent via Zoom, when they would re-create the commands and instruct the parent in ways to encourage the dog to obey.
“We weren’t sure how this would work out via Zoom; we didn’t want to make it too easy, we wanted to challenge them, but also make sure the kids felt connected and successful,” said Osburn, adding that the idea to use stuffed dogs actually came from the K9YA practice of using them with their typical foster animals (“It helps us gauge how they will react to real dogs”).
Of course, the students fell in love with their stuffed dogs as well, and the nonprofit ultimately made gifts of them. “Our board discussed it, and these kids had named all their stuffed dogs, taken them home with them, really gotten attached. … There was no way we could ask for them back,” Osburn added.
The K9YA nonprofit, begun in 2013, uses rewards-based, force-free dog training as a model for promoting self-discovery and nonviolence. The program also enriches the lives of the dogs it works with by providing socialization, teaching basic behaviors and developing trusting relationships. The dogs, meanwhile, enhance the lives of the teens they work with by helping them develop patience, empathy, initiative and positivity.
The move to an online pilot program at first intimidated Osburn and K9YA program director Sara du Bouchet, but both noted how smoothly the online version ran and how much the students and foster parents seemed to enjoy it.
“At one point we were thinking, ‘Wow, have these kids just adapted so quickly to this online world that this is seamless for them now?’” du Bouchet said, laughing. “But many of the [nonpandemic program] lessons were exactly the same: You get to see the kids really mature and take ownership of their training. In this program, the kids are training the dogs but also teaching the parents virtually, learning all different kinds of communication tools. You could really see their confidence grow.”
The kids spent time studying the body language of the dogs, and deducing how that might predict their behaviors.
Foster dog parent Lex Roman said she appreciated that the program is online, and that it didn’t feel like volunteering. The children were sweet and eager, and pressed her to try new things with her foster dog, Jet. Roman said she decided to foster Jet in March, back when the pandemic hit and she was no longer travelling.
“Jet’s been my quarantine buddy, and the K9 program was a great way to set aside some time to bond with him as human and dog. … With COVID it’s been tough, we can’t go to the dog park or other places to socialize him,” said Roman, adding that surprisingly, Jet liked the screen time and would respond to his name when the kids called him. “Jet enjoyed the whole idea. It was fun for him, he loved the treats and the learning. He’s good at several tricks now, and it’s been easier to train him new ones even after the program.”
The kids also crafted social media posts for the foster dogs — to bring more attention to their Instagram or Facebook page — that were “super cute” and created a lot of buzz on Jet’s Instagram, bringing him that much closer to getting adopted, Roman added.
One of those students, 11-year-old Eden Wilson, said she heartily enjoyed the program and would love to do it again. She thinks she might like to start her own animal shelter one day.
“It was really fun, I love dogs and I think they all should have a chance for a good home, and this will help them get adopted,” said Eden, adding that she also got to develop friendships during the K9 program at Boys & Girls Club. It’s been a tough year attending school online, she said, especially since she had just moved and recently started at Odyssey Middle School.
Eden said she loves attending the Boys & Girls Club, where she goes three times a week to do her remote learning for Odyssey. The club has socially distanced games to play, as well as cool programs like the K9YA opportunity.
Eden’s mom, Heather Wilson, said the nonprofits’ work together made for a wonderful addition for her daughter, and the outlet of working with foster dogs online helped give the kids at the club something different and new to look forward to.
“I really commend the K9 Alliance and Boys & Girls Club to come up with a program as creatively as possible in the midst of a pandemic and give them the opportunity to connect with these dogs,” she said. Of the program’s culmination, which recapped the youngsters’ work with dogs and foster parents, she said, “When they did their speech and presentation in front of everyone, that was really impactful — I was so proud of her.”
Meanwhile, the Pasadena club’s CEO, Lisa Cavelier, praised the K9YA for sticking with the youngsters during the trials and tribulations of distance learning.
“We love our partnership with the K9 Youth Alliance — kids helping dogs, helping kids. They came up with creative new ways to provide their program, and all it has to offer, all while making sure our members stayed safe. The members had a great time learning the best ways to work with dogs while also learning something about themselves,” Cavelier said.
To learn more about K9 Youth Alliance, how to volunteer or help train a foster dog, visit k9youthalliance.org.