Behind Bars: Kids and Pups Learn Love Together
by Stephanie Gold
The Los Guilicos Juvenile Youth Center in Santa Rosa, California is not a warm and fuzzy sort of place. Hidden from the public, it's in Santa Rosa, the way Pluto is in our solar system. Directions include long country roads, dirt lanes, and parking near the building that looks like a prison. Actually it's not that bad from the outside. Los Guilicos' Bella Hall doesn't feel like a prison till you get inside. The door slams behind with a bone-shaking, explosive clap that echoes down the long hall. I peel myself off the ceiling and take in the institutional lock-up aura: the tired hall, worn linoleum, tiny cell rooms with slivers of window, steel doors, and mattressless metal cots. I've never seen a hallway more in need of a swarm of warm puppies.
The kids are teenagers in trouble with the law. The dogs are Bonnie's, and Bonnie is Dr. Bonita Bergin, who founded the Canine Companions for Independence program in 1975 then started The Assistance Dog Institute in 1991. There are now, thanks to her work, scads of dogs helping the disabled by pulling wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, getting the phone, and gazing adoringly into the eyes of the people whose lives they've liberated. This was a laudable program to set in motion, but Bonnie's not the sort of person to rest on her laurels, or even sit still, for more than 20 seconds at a time. A self-admitted "driver personality," she liked what the dogs were doing for the disabled, but she saw a way to make it better: get at-risk kids to train the dogs, and help two needy populations at the same time. So began High Schooled Assistance, her program of troubled teens teaching dogs to serve the disabled community.
Class starts at 9am. Three students are released from English and roil out in a cloud of conflict. Then the puppies are released from the truck. Five soft, 11-week-old, wheat-colored wigglies tumble out and play tug-of-war with a rag. Kids or pups, it's hard to tell who's the happier to be sprung. Bonnie instructs the kids to say "better go now," to encourage the puppies to pee and poop outside, and to praise them to the skies when they do. The field resounds with sweet adolescent voices singing "ooh, good doggie, you did it!"
Inside Bella Hall again, the musty sweet smell of puppy fluff dissipates much of the dungeon feel. But before training comes hygiene. The kids are handed toothbrushes and instructed to go for the plaque. One student is absent today, so there's an extra bundle of fuzz with bad dog breath. I'm handed a tooth brush, a puppy, and within minutes my black blazer is coated with blond hairs. In case anyone tells you otherwise, puppy dentistry is not easy. I restrain 14 pounds of squirm, and occasionally get near a tooth. On the other end of the table, Anna has a similar time of it, but it takes her mind off the fight she had 30 minutes ago. Lesson #1: it's impossible to sulk and brush puppy teeth at the same time.
The teens teach the puppies the nuances of "sit" and "come" while I visit Jim and his class of Sierra Hall inmates. Jim is a nice guy, and a pro. He's been with Los Guilicos 13 years and says he's never seen anything as positive as this dog program. He has a wonderful way with the students, respectful while still in control, but even so the chip-on-shoulder energy of the room is palpable. The kids smart-aleck and test limits. They posture and bully; the atmosphere of attitude is thick. So the next dog class I see takes me completely by surprise.
These same adolescents, five of the 15, are hugging their dogs, saying "ohhh aren't you sooo gooood," crooning and pursing their lips and making the loving gooey sounds that doting parents do with their newborns. Their open faces retain little trace of the carefully guarded facades they show the world. Shouts of commands and praise bounce off the cell room doors. "Hoja sit, sit Hoja," and "Good girl, stand Angel. Come on. Good girl." Bonnie's voice gets their attention back for a session of wheelchair pull. The dogs are instructed to pull the kids, in wheelchairs, down the hall. This is more than fun, it's one of the most important tasks the dogs will perform later for their wheelchair bound owners. Bonnie demonstrates how to pitch your voice so it really encourages the dogs and rewards them for doing what you ask. "Pull Heidi PULL Heidi YES YES YES!!" Bonnie's enthusiasm is so infectious I'm on my feet cheering, too. Heidi pulled!! It's so joyous I forget how oppressive this hall is, and what deep water these kids are in with the law. I watch them pamper their charges, doling out dog treats and hugs. The dogs give them doggie kisses, and it seems like all's right with the world. One guy who'd been obstreperous in class now says "god, I love my dog" in a voice that hasn't a bone of contention in it. Bonnie tells them "You did so good today. I'm very proud," and the class hour is up.
Bonnie Bergin wants to get this program up and running in other schools, too. She says the kids learn many skills, but top of the list is emotional self-control. She teaches them to refrain from responding to behaviors they don't want to encourage, and to pour on the emotional goodies to reinforce the behaviors they're after - excellent lessons for these teens. But you can't overestimate the value of unconditional love, either. "There's no one in your life - not your parents, not your spouse, not your children - who doesn't want to change something about you," Bonnie says. "Only your dog accepts you totally as you are, and loves you for it." The dogs welcome the kids and communicate as clear as day "you're mine, you're mine, I love you." No wonder these boys and girls think twice about running; no wonder Bonnie's class makes them feel special.
The program seems to be an unqualified success. In the El Camino Continuation School pilot session, her students' truancy rates dropped 50% and they successfully trained 34 dogs. At Los Guilicos, it's looking just as good. But impressive as the statistics are, the kids' voices speak louder still. "This is the one special thing we get to do, that we were chosen for," says Clarissa. "It gives us responsibility, it gives us something to look forward to every day, and it gives us a friend while we're here."
Dr. Bonita Bergin of the Assistance Dog Institute is preparing to license more teachers to set up High School Assistance Dogs Programs in their own schools. For more information, contact her at:
The Assistance Dog Institute
PO Box 2334
Rohnert Park, CA 94927-2334
Phone: (707) 585-0300 | Fax: (707) 585-0445 | Email: Assistdog@aol.com