By David Liebler.
Despite being surrounded by a dozen people talking and moving around, Humu – a 2-year-old butterscotch labradoodle – lies motionless on the floor. It’s not that Humu doesn’t have a care in the world; he’s just been trained as a service dog – and that training began at the Southwest Juvenile Hall in Riverside County. Near him a young, small black and white dog named PJ scampers around, anxious to see everyone in the room and oblivious to any commands cast his way. PJ is awaiting training that will soon begin at the hands of the one of juveniles housed at the facility.
It’s all part of a canine training program developed by Riverside County in conjunction with a local nonprofit organization. It’s a program where not only the dogs learn a lot but the juvenile offenders charged with their training do as well. Youths sign up for the program and are selected after meeting specific criteria. They are then put in charge of training a dog that lives with them 24-hours a day. Certified staff from the local “The Canine Support Team” come to the facility regularly to oversee the training. After about 12 weeks of basic obedience training, the canines graduate and move onto advanced training at the nearby California Institution for Women to become service dogs for the disabled.
The program has proven to be a success. The youths chosen to participate have shown remarkable progress beyond the dog training. They have learned responsibility, respect, discipline and empathy. Their participation in traditional classes has climbed while their propensity to fight has diminished. At one point the unit used for the dog program went more than 100 days without an altercation. The youths are learning soft skills that will serve them well when they are released and ready to begin the next chapter of their lives.
“It trains young men to look after others, to look after themselves,” explains Jaquez, one of the teen-age dog trainers currently in Juvenile Hall. “It’s a lot of work, but at the end of everything, it’s worth it.”
Supervising Probation Officer Gretchen Shipes tells the story of one youth who just wanted to fight every day. “But I couldn’t let my dog down,’ she recounts him saying. “He needed me. He needed me to stay on point.”
The program is an example of what can happen when local government and the community come together, says Stacy Adams, Chief Deputy for Institutional Services for the Riverside County Probation Department
“The meaning of this program goes beyond just what it does for the youths,” Adams adds. “Those youth now know they are helping disabled people in the community.”
The difference in the dogs after training is amazing. But more importantly is the difference in the juvenile dog trainers.
“It helps you strive to be a better person,” Jaquez says, “It’s worth it. It makes you grow.”
And, in the words of Officer Shipes, it makes them stay on point.