For about a year, a Toledo nonprofit has been pairing troubled youth with hard-to-adopt dogs in a win-win program.
Toledo’s PET Bull Project’s “Teacher’s Pet” program is a dog training class that puts teenagers ages 14 to 18 with rescue dogs who need a boost to find their forever families.
“The program is for those dogs who have been sitting there for a while,” Director Cindy Reinsel said. “Maybe they’re really shy or need some manners. This class really helps them.”
The teens in the program are struggling with their own issues. Some come from the Lucas County Youth Treatment Center. Others are referred by behavioral centers, schools, or their guardians.
“I grew up in a really rough neighborhood in Lima,” Ms. Reinsel said. “There was dog fighting all around me and a lot of really bad influences in my life. So I can understand and relate to a lot of these teens. ... When they’re here, they can enjoy themselves and the dogs. They’re not thinking about all the stresses they have in their lives.”
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Teens must write essays to apply for the program and local rescue groups supply the canines. The two-hour classes are conducted at the organization’s Education Center, 12 E. Bancroft St., Toledo, once a week for six weeks.
Jay Barman, the group’s lead trainer, said the program has helped 20 to 25 dogs over the last year. Class sizes are kept to a small, manageable size of five or six teen-dog pairs.
At the end of the class, the dogs are tested. If they pass, they receive a canine good-citizenship certification. So far, only two have failed.
“It gives them a little title they can put after their name and show potential adopters that they’re trainable and nice dogs,” Mr. Barman said.
Ms. Reinsel said the credential can help prompt a potential adopter to choose a “Teacher’s Pet” graduate. Most of the dogs who have completed the program have found loving homes.
“They’re just dogs that get looked over for some reason,” she said. “And they’re awesome dogs, just as sweet as can be. So to be able to put this program on there, people may decide to take one of these dogs.”
Nikki Morey, executive director of Planned Pethood who works with the program, said the training isn’t a “magic bullet” to guarantee a dog’s adoption. But even if a dog fails the final test, the program is still valuable.
“It’s a win-win situation for us,” she said. “Even if the dog doesn’t pass, they still get all the skills and socialization that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
The training helps calm and focus energetic dogs, and helps shy dogs come out of their shells.
“You can have a dog that is a crazy maniac and then turns into something manageable,” Ms. Morey said. “You can have a dog that was maybe scared and skittish that learns to be in a group of people and other dogs and builds confidence with the training.”
But the program isn’t all about the dogs — the teenagers find value as well.
For 16-year-old Breanna Ward of Toledo, the program helped her deal with bullying.
“They opened up a door to let me know that if I did different things and stood up for myself like dogs do, everything would change,” she said. “So I did, and it stopped.”
Breanna continues to be a part of the program as a mentor, helping teens work with the dogs. She said she has learned dogs shouldn’t be treated differently based on their breeds, just as people shouldn’t be treated differently because of their differences.
“And it keeps me out of trouble,” she added.
Ms. Reinsel and Mr. Barman noted the program gives the youths someplace to be at least once a week.
“It gives them somewhere to be and something productive to do,” Mr. Barman said. “Most of the kids have been phenomenal. We’ve had some really great kids.”
Ms. Reinsel said the group hopes to expand its programs for teenagers in the future.
“The kids enjoy it, the dogs get free training, and everybody wins,” she said. “What could be better than that?”