This afternoon I stood before about a dozen teenage boys that are currently incarcerated in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention. It was the last day of our three-day program where we bring in dogs (three rescued pit bulls) to teach about empathy and compassion. We were summarizing the key messages and taking final questions. As a teacher, it would be naive to think that everyone receives intended messages, but I take solace in believing that programs like this are worthwhile even if they just make one young person stop and think before making a negative choice after his/her release. Just as I was wondering what long-term impact (if any) we would have on the boys in that particular pod, one young man raised his hand and blew me away with his words.
I was there with two other presenters (we’ll get to them in a bit) and we had already extended beyond our alloted time as we answered questions and wrapped up the session. One of the detention staff stepped forward and called on a young man as she said, “This is the absolute last question.” He straightened in his seat a bit and said, “This is more of something to say than a question. If I had a dog over the last four years, I wouldn’t be in here right now. Dogs are more than just for tricks and stuff, they take time to care for and if I had one, I think it would have kept me off the streets with something to do.” Every adult in the room encouraged him to hold onto that revelation and get a dog as soon as he gets released. The fact that he raised his hand to share such a revelation and the thought that without a dog, this young man felt so alone and turned to whatever choices led to his incarceration – nearly moved me to tears.
The three-day program is planned and coordinated by The Anti-Cruelty Society. The goal is to bring dogs in to juvenile detention to teach incarcerated youth what it is to be “humane”. The term was defined on the first day and the teens readily repeated the meaning when verbally quizzed throughout the program – “to be kind, merciful, and compassionate.” The term humane is so powerful for imprisoned youth because some have never discussed the strength displayed by forgiving, showing mercy, and reacting calmly in the face adversity. The concept of being powerful by caring for the helpless is novel for many incarcerated youth. For others, they were blindly loyal to so-called “friends” that did not reciprocate and treat them with empathy – it was their association that led to them serving time. Dogs provide a safe way to discuss all of these concepts and topics without challenging the young men about their specific personal situations.
Elliott Serrano, Humane Education Specialist at The Anti-Cruelty Society, leads this endeavor. He has been offering iterations of this program in three Chicago area juvenile detention facilities for over seven years. His insights, humor, and encouragement always get the young men talking. Talking may not sound like a big deal, but over the years corrections staff have told us that some of the inmates that offered lively and insightful participation in the program had not opened up to their counseling staff or in any other settings while at the facility.
On each of the three days, we are accompanied by a volunteer and their adopted dog. All three of the dogs are pit bulls. Many of the incarcerated youth only know these dogs as animals that are abused and forced to fight to turn a profit from gambling over their lives. Rescued pit bulls allow these kids to see animals that were abused, but went through rescue and recovery to go on to help others. One of the dogs was even a court case animal and thereby “incarcerated” himself during the legal process. The kids identify with the abuse, neglect, and incarceration that the dogs went through, but hopefully the fact that each of them is now a happy, loyal, and loving companion also serves to fill the kids with hope. They get to see that patience and positive reinforcement form bonds built on trust and love. In dogs (and in people) abuse and violence only teach fear and punishment avoidance.
Two of the dogs in this program have earned Canine Good Citizen certification, one is a blood donor so he can save the lives of other dogs, and the dog on the last day performs with his owner, Jeff Jenkins, in the Midnight Circus and at the Chicago Bulls half-time shows. Another common theme is that patience, good decisions, and hard work lead to far better rewards in the long run.
Today was a good day. It made me grateful for the good work of humane education. It made me overjoyed that a young man saw the positive impacts a companion animal could have on his life. I am truly grateful that Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention brings in meaningful programs like this to try and encourage the youth to think differently and hopefully not return to prison after release.
Animals and caring people can make a difference.
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