New breed of class is motivating teens

Students, dogs find rewards in canine training

By Kim L. Hooper

 October 23, 2002

David Wong isn't a bad student. The shy 16-year-old Manual High School junior makes good grades, but he's easily bored with traditional classroom lessons.

He's more focused on learning this semester.

A program at the Indianapolis Public Schools high school has paired David with Lucky, a homeless brown and white pointer mix. David is teaching Lucky canine obedience skills in the hope that he may be adopted.

In return, David learns patience, responsibility and self-confidence -- behavior school officials hope will boost his academic performance.

"It's something different," he said as he guided Lucky through several commands with poise.

The unusual learning approach is called "Paws and Think," although it carries the unofficial moniker "Pooches and Teens." It's offered through the Southside high school's Science and Technology of Agriculture and its Resources Academy magnet program.

Students picked to take part usually are struggling and need a gentle nudge to get back on track, said animal-science teacher Ramona Schescke.

It's also a way to engage urban students through hands-on learning and introduce them to possible careers in veterinary science and medicine.

"Because the teens are excited about this nontraditional program and want to be in class, their attendance and their grades improve," said Gayle Hutchens, president of Paws and Think Inc.

Hutchens selects dogs from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. Temperament and adoptability are factors, but she also picks dogs she calls "least likely" to be adopted.

The dogs are brought to the school for 45-minute sessions with the students three days a week. In four weeks, the students will teach the canines basic commands, such as "sit," "down" and "heel." More complicated training also is applied if the animal should be used as a service or companion dog.

Junior Mike Dodd, 17, watched with approval as Magnus, a male German shepherd mix assigned to him, dutifully mastered "roll over." Magnus was rewarded with a doggie treat from Mike. Mike got an appreciative sloppy kiss from his four-legged furry friend.

"If I could have a dog, he would go home with me," Mike said.

Sophomore Marvin Mullins, 15, had a little trouble getting Missy, a frisky female Labrador mix, to concentrate more on his commands and less on the treats. But Marvin said Missy is starting to settle down.

"They know they can count on you to attend to their needs," he said.

Some teens spend their time listening to hip-hop artists bearing such canine monikers as 'Lil Bow Wow and Snoop Dogg; students in Paws and Think are more focused on a lofty challenge: finding permanent homes for the dogs to save them from euthanasia.

"It makes us work harder to get them trained, so they won't be put to sleep," Marvin said.

David said he's learned the lesson of responsibility -- and then some.

"I've learned how to bond with my (canine) companion. Maybe this will help me in forming relationships with other people. I'm pretty easy to get along with," he said.