Leading By Example
SPCA’s Take the Lead program trains at-risk kids to train shelter dogs
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Whether it’s a small group of middle school students in Salinas or at-risk youth at a probation center, the SPCA for Monterey County has found a way to train dogs while serving young people in the community.
The SPCA’s Take the Lead program is based on a very simple, but effective principle: Kids who learn – and take part in – constructive activities are more likely to excel in school and less likely to get involved in gang activity.
Amanda Mouisset is the pet behavior specialist at the SPCA; in addition to running classes in obedience training for pet owners, she also runs Take the Lead.
Mouisset’s work started in 2008 with students at Washington Middle School in Salinas when a parent suggested struggling students might benefit from hands on experience with animals.
Three years later, Mouisset travels to the middle school twice a week and has added previously incarcerated youth and foster kids to the list of young dog trainers in the program. So far, Take the Lead has helped 200 kids train 150 dogs.
The program’s shelter dogs range from the very shy to the very rambunctious, but all lack the obedience skills critical to their adoption. The same pups are trained by the at-risk youth for five weeks, something Mouisset says helps generalize their training.
Mouisset says the benefits are mutual to both human and canine: Adoption rates have increased and return rates have decreased since the program launched. Having letters of recommendation from student trainers also goes a long way toward helping dogs find homes.
Alex Carrillo, event coordinator for the Monterey County Probation Department, says Take the Lead teaches students serious lessons in personal responsibility, and personal pride: “They see the dogs go from not sitting to sitting, listening to commands and by the end of the day, they’re pretty proud.”
At Washington Middle School five students pair with each pooch and work on simple commands like sit, stay and come. The interactions prove more than just good for the doggies’ demeanor, they also do a world of good for kids who may not have access to man’s best friend in their daily lives.
Mouisset notices the growth in the middle school kids as they warm up to the dogs, but notices an even more important change in the youth on probation. Some of these dogs are being given a second chance after adopters returned them to the SPCA.
Former Probation Department Youth Center resident Luis Macias credits his involvement in the program with helping straighten out his life.
“If it weren’t for Take the Lead, I know I wouldn’t be going to college,” says Macias, who now works for the SPCA. “There is no way on earth.”
Mouisset says the program is all about redemption.
“After explaining (to kids) they are helping these dogs get second chances and talking in these terms, they start to understand,” Mouisset says.