Q: What shelter do you work with? How does that partnership work?
A: We work with the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in Georgetown, Texas. It is an “open admission” shelter, meaning they must take in any animal that comes to their shelter and they do euthanize animals, though their euthanasia rate is very low. The shelter provides the housing, care, and food for the dogs and also allows us to use their climate controlled conference room for training. We work with the shelter to improve the adoption rates of some of their less adoptable dogs and increase publicity for the dogs in the shelter.
Q: Where do the dogs live?
A: The dogs live at the animal shelter and the youth travel to the shelter four days a week to work with the dogs. We occasionally operate a program in our secure unit (meaning the youth cannot leave the facility) where we transport the dogs from the shelter to our facility to work with the youth and then transport them back to the shelter each day. The shelter staff is responsible for the care, housing, and expenses of the dogs. The shelter groups the dogs in kennels and we strongly prefer no more than two dogs are kenneled together. The shelter retains ownership of the dogs and takes care of the adoption process.
Q: How do you select the kids for the program?
A: The youth who are interested in the program complete an application (a copy can be provided upon request) to be in the program. Nobody is ever forced to participate in the program because it is a lot of work and they need to be invested. Once we have their application and are starting another session, we gather information from their counselors, case managers, and some direct care staff about the youth including which ones have been very challenging, which ones show exceptional leadership potential, and which ones have had average performance in our residential program. Youth are not turned down for the program for negative behavior issues unless they would be deemed a safety risk in the program. Following gathering staff feedback, we complete an approximately 15-20 minute interview with each youth (a copy of the interview questions can be provided upon request).
All the gathered information is used to determine which youth will be accepted into the program, including balancing a mix of personalities and aptitude levels. The program is designed for up to 6 youth at a time, though more can be added if there is additional dog trainer staff assistance.
Q: How do you select dogs for the program?
A: We first try to look at the dogs that have been at the shelter the longest and need some help getting out. We try to focus on dogs that would be less adoptable on their own due to color (black dogs are notoriously hard for shelters to adopt out) or lack of training and manners. We only use medium to large dogs because they have a harder time getting adopted and for safety since the dogs are kenneled together. We typically do not take dogs younger than 8 months. The average age is about 1-2.
During the selection process, we bring the dog into an unfamiliar room with 1-2 other dogs that we are testing and tie them to a hook in the wall. We sit next to them to see whether they have an interest in engaging with people or are more interested in the environment, we look at their energy level to get a mix of active and calm dogs, we look to see how reactive or pushy they are with other dogs, and we look to see if they are food motivated. It is important in our training program that the dog is food motivated. We also make sure that the dog is not rough/using teeth when it takes treats as that issue does not usually get fixed and the youth then get uncomfortable giving the dogs treats because it hurts.
Q: How do you pair the youth and the dogs?
A: We run a process a bit like “speed dating”. The youth spend about 3-4 minutes with each dog. At the end of that, they make a list of the dog they would like to work with the most all the way to the dog they would like to work with the least. Then, we look at the requests and try to match each youth up with a dog in their top 4 choices. Frequently, most of the youth gravitate to a different dog as their first choice but if several of the youth select the same dog, we try to match them according to the fit between the dog and the youth. For example, if we have a youth who is a little afraid of dogs, we will try to match them up with a calmer dog. It always works out that the youth get a dog that will help them grow.
Q: How do you get the dogs adopted?
A: We have a website where each dog has its own page. We post a number of pictures, information about the dog, including a biography written by the handler, and video of the dog that we posted on YouTube. We find the videos are the most helpful in getting the dogs adopted because they really show the dogs’ personalities outside of the frantic appearance in the kennels and they also show the training that the dogs are getting. We have a Facebook page and also post the dogs’ pages on the shelter’s Facebook page. In addition, we post the dogs as often as possible on Craigslist, which generates most of our adoption leads.
Q: How long is the program?
A: The program typically lasts 6 weeks, though we have done 4 and 5 weeks, too, when there were time constraints. We also occasionally do a single-session program for the kids in our secure unit who are not allowed to leave the facility called “K9 Lite” where we bring dogs down for an hour or two for them exercise, play with, and groom.
The typical Kids-N-K9s class is Monday through Thursday since many of the youth go home for the weekend on Fridays. The program used to be 2 hours a day and 2-3 hours a day is ideal. We would talk in the beginning of class about dog-related education topics or about how the concepts we were working on with the dogs applied to their lives, like delayed gratification, how their attitude affects others, self-control, etc. Then, we would take the dogs for a walk or run for about 10-20 minutes before starting training. We would train the dogs for about an hour and then we would feed them and put them away. We would also do some different activities like brushing and massaging the dogs.
Now, due to school scheduling, the program has been cut down to approximately 70 minutes so we no longer have time for the group discussions or walking the dogs. Though the youth still seem to get a lot from working with their dogs, the program seemed much more beneficial for the dogs and youth when it was 2 hours.
Q: Do the youth adopt their dogs?
A: We do not allow the youth to adopt their dogs. Many of the youth form a strong connection to their dogs and would adopt them if allowed; however, many of them will be in a state of transition when they get out that would make it difficult to commit to the long-term responsibility of owning a dog. If they get out and feel they are ready to adopt a dog, they may adopt a different dog from the shelter. In addition, we want K9 to help the youth learn lessons that will be helpful for their lives. At the end of K9, we do a grief and loss counseling group to discuss the feelings they will be having as they say goodbye to their dogs and the program. Through this group, we attempt to open discussion about other issues of grief and loss they have experienced in their lives and give them healthy coping strategies for the future.