Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Troubled teens find their match with abandoned animals

FRIDAY 12 DECEMBER 2008 - Lamar, 16, lays with Caroline and King, at left, at the end of dog training class Friday at Hogan Street Regional Youth Center. Offenders living at the center learn life skills as they train live-in dogs through a program called 'Loosen the Leash'.

By Nancy Cambria

ST. LOUIS — Both the teen and the dog beside him were very close to dying young.

The dog, a hound peppered with flecks of German shepherd fur, had been abandoned as a puppy on an ailing street in St. Louis where homeless canines routinely scavenge for food and sleep in dank basements of collapsing homes.

And the teen? He was 4 when his mother was murdered. His father was already in prison for a violent crime. Left to an unstable network of relatives, he relied on himself to survive a world driven by meth, heroin, drug dealing and stealing.

He had a short temper. Friends died of overdoses in front of him. He didn't care whether he died.

"I was just ready to accept it at a young age," says 17-year-old Ryan, who cannot be identified while in juvenile custody at the Hogan Street Juvenile Regional Youth Center in St. Louis. The details of his background, however, have been confirmed by youth corrections officials.

As he speaks, Ryan gently sweeps aside the super-sized dog paw tapping on the table in front of him, as if looking for a hand to hold.

Soon the dog nudges his boxy snout up onto the edge of the table.

"Down, King," Ryan says calmly while gently tugging his leash to lead the dog back to the floor.

It has been about a month since Ryan and another teen began training King and several other rescued dogs through Loosen the Leash, a new, nonprofit program under way inside Hogan Street, a state rehabilitative facility that houses some of Missouri's most serious juvenile offenders.

The program teaches teen offenders the fine details of dog training. For three months, the juveniles live with the dogs and train them, preparing them for adoptions and, hopefully, a safe and stable new home.

But in a world where teens like Ryan and dogs like King have been given few boundaries, little love and endless turmoil, it shows the juveniles something even greater. Patience, respect, praise, empathy and control don't just win over disobedient dogs, but also are the tools the teens must use to build their own second chance at a future.

Earlier this year, when Ryan learned his teenage girlfriend was pregnant, he armed himself with a baseball bat and set out to rob a known heroin dealer of $10,000.

After he was arrested, he was nearly uncontrollable in a juvenile lockup, spending hours in solitary confinement. He was transferred from a rural facility to St. Louis city's juvenile detention hall because it could better handle him. Because he was 17, he was eligible for a minimum 30-year adult sentence.

"I had the same charges as my father," Ryan says.

But St. Louis Juvenile Court Judge Jimmie Edwards took a chance on Ryan and sent him to Hogan Street, where there are no prison bars.

Ryan says he is working through his abandonment and rage, and the dog on his leash is leading his way.

"I want to use the skills I'm learning with the dogs to be a good parent to my daughter," explains Ryan, who will be released from Hogan Street in the spring. "This whole program teaches me to have patience."


Loosen the Leash was founded by Cindy Vickers, a dog trainer in St. Louis, who was given seed money by THF Realty President Michael Staenberg, a developer responsible for many of the region's Wal-Mart shopping centers.

She was inspired by the Prison Pet Partnership Program of Washington state, which matches dogs with inmates and has branched out into numerous services for former offenders.

Vickers hopes to expand her program to other juvenile facilities and open a residential dog training facility to help former offenders rebuild their lives.

Lewis Mueller, a regional administrator with the Missouri Division of Youth Services, said Vickers' program was a natural match for Hogan Street, where the teens spend their days working through the myriad emotional and physical scars that led them to commit irrational, sometimes violent crimes.

The dogs also have helped to further create a "safe haven" for adolescents who grew up in homes rife with abuse, poverty, addiction and neglect, said Valerie Valiant, Hogan Street's facilities manager.

Vickers said dogs like King are looking for trustworthy, consistent and praising leaders. For the teens, the dogs' loyalty and affection are a palpable demonstration of their own faith in another — a feeling that many of the teens shut off early in life to survive.

"Some of these kids have never been loved or taken care of in the way we are taking care of these dogs," Vickers said.

Equipped with a firm voice and free hugs and praise, Vickers said the work is an everyday reminder that inequality and poverty are the factors leading these teens astray.

"Even with a 15-year-old boy from an inner city, there's a great deal we have in common," she said. "It's the serious social injustice that sets us apart."


Vickers also has an indirect goal. She hopes the teens will bring their deepening respect for the dogs back to their urban neighborhoods, where the teens and those who rescue the dogs said lucrative underground dogfighting goes mostly unchecked by police.

In these neighborhoods, pit bulls or pit bull mixes are sometimes fed gunpowder to agitate them for fighting, the teens said. Some owners have taken to "trunking," a practice of driving the dogs around in closed car trunks to terrify and anger them. Dogs that are maimed are usually discarded in the streets.

Vickers said the program does not shy away from training pit bulls like D.C., a pit bull-Labrador mix found by the nonprofit organization Stray Rescue of St. Louis. The dog was found with nine other puppies. He was so hyperactive that rescuers first named him Crazy Horse, said Stray Rescue Executive Director Randy Grim.

The teens at Hogan Street first doubted whether D.C. would ever come around, but on a morning earlier this month, the dog lay relaxed on the gym floor and began snoring. He had just followed every command in a 90-minute training session.

A fellow trainer, Lamar, 16, sat nearby, gently petting a silky dog once so nervous and that it shied away from his touch. In Hogan Street for a variety of escalating offenses, Lamar also had gotten to the point in his life where he didn't trust anyone.

"If I ain't be knowing you the rest of my life, I thought, 'Forget you,'" he says.

Perhaps that's why he says he easily forgives the dogs when they misbehave.

"I wouldn't want him to feel like I just gave up on him," he says, looking at D.C. "Like I wouldn't want anyone to give up on me just because I made some bad choices."

Ryan and Lamar have several more months at Hogan Street, but their days with King and D.C. sleeping at their bedsides are numbered.

The dogs are responding so well, Vickers said, that their pictures and profiles soon will be posted on the Loosen the Leash website for adoption.

Ryan says it will be difficult saying goodbye to King, but he also knows he has given the dog something that he, too, desperately wants.

"I know that he'd rather go to another family than not have a family at all," he says.



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