Detroit program connects homeless people with shelter dogs
By MEIRA GEBEL
Detroit Free Press
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DETROIT — The short and stout pit bull, tugging at its leash, bounded up the stairs of Detroit Animal Care and Control into the loving arms of Robyn Wesley.
Nugget, a gray pit bull, is not up for adoption just yet, but will be receiving lots of attention.
Wesley and Nugget have a lot in common. Wesley, 19, is homeless and living in a youth shelter, and Nugget is living here, among 300 other dogs. Both are looking to pick up certain skills — one to get employed, and the other to get adopted — through the program Teacher’s Pet.
The program, a partnership between Covenant House and the animal control center that’s been in place for nearly 10 years, teaches young adults 18-24 how to train dogs — from simple commands, like sit and stay, to more intangible social skills. This, in turn, helps the dogs become more adoptable. And for the trainers, it is something they can put on their resume.
The young adults can be found at the center every Wednesday and Saturday, though Wesley tries to come every day.
“When I first came in, tears dropped from my eyes,” she said of her first visit back in May. “I had an instant connection with the dogs.”
Claire Vanraaphorst, the development communication specialist for Covenant House Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press that there are seven youths actively participating in the program, which is offered on a case-by-case basis to shelter residents. The program, she said, can be therapeutic for nearly all involved.
And it’s felt.
The room on the second floor of the center, where Teacher’s Pet takes place, feels warm. Participants eat, chat and play, while the dogs themselves wander merrily around looking for attention, or treats.
Still, there are rules. A lot of the time, the young adults help teach the dogs to have impulse control. That means no jumping, no begging. Participants must learn not to give attention to the dog when it’s misbehaving, and let the dog come to its own conclusion about which types of behavior are bad.
The parallels between the participants in Teacher’s Pet is actually striking. Most of the dogs have anxiety and don’t think well of humans. Some, like Nugget, have to be taught that a human hand is not a bad thing. Similarly, most of the teens have had traumatic experiences with dogs and have always avoided them.
“I didn’t know a dog could be your best friend,” said David Williams, 20, who graduated from University Prep Science and Math High School in Detroit.
Williams, who has been living in the youth shelter for almost a year, had a dog bite him when he was young. When a mentor at Covenant House mentioned the Teacher’s Pet program, Williams was hesitant. But he needed a job if he wanted to get out of the shelter.
Now, after nearly a year of participating, Williams can’t imagine his life without dogs. He’s even been hired as an animal control officer at the center and plans to adopt a dog when he gets his own apartment.
For Laura Witkowski, the facilitator of Teacher’s Pet, this is why the apprenticeship program, and its “teach a man to fish” philosophy, exists.
“If these kids can learn how to train dogs, to read their signs and body language, that means that in the future they can teach their family members or their neighbors,” said Witkowski.