Youth and Dogs Helping Each Other

By Carrie Richmond
Young People's Press

Dogs aren't only a man's best friend, they can be best friend to a youth in trouble too.

Wes, not his real name, knows this thanks to his loyal companion, General Lee.

The 17-year-old resident of Bowron House, an open custody facility at Prince George Youth Custody Centre, and General Lee are part of a dog-fostering program that partners troubled youth with troubled or at-risk dogs.

"It has been a hugely beneficial project all the way around. The one thing that they (the youth) get that they haven't had a lot of is something that is completely unconditional, and that is love from the pet," said Grant Cooke, program supervisor at the centre.

"We assign one of our kids to look after the dogs and they create a bond. It doesn't matter what kind of a day you're having, the dog is still waging his tail and happy to see you. The kids truly cherish it."

Residents of Bowron House, who can range in age from 13 to 18, help in the dog-fostering program by taking care of dogs sent to them by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The youth built four kennels to house the animals and are responsible for grooming and cleaning the dogs and doghouses. They must ensure each has food and water twice a day. All the youth have a chance to interact with the dogs but only one at a time is apointed the dog helper.

Wes was the dog helper when General Lee visited the facility.

"I like having them around. We learn stuff about them and the right ways to take care of them. You wake up in the morning and you take care of the dogs. You just start to learn what to do. The best part about helping the dogs is I know it helps them find a permanent home," he said.

Wes doesn't have a dog of his own but said he plans to get one in the future. He recalled his first experience with the program.

"The first dog was a pit bull and it was abused and stuff so it was really quiet. We had that dog for three weeks then it went back to the SPCA. He recovered. He was a lot friendlier. At first he was sketchy, kinda scared, but then he got used to us, he got meat on his bones, and he got better."

Cooke said most dogs are in need of resocialization and some are in rough shape when they arrive at Bowron.

"Dogs can go kennel crazy. They start to chew on themselves and they run into the walls. So we bring them up here and give them the attention that they need. It is really sad to see the state of some of them," he said.

General Lee showed up at Bowron with a stomach parasite and an enlarged prostate and was in need of surgery. Only a week after his surgery he was adopted.

Wes said he grew attached to General Lee in the time he cared for him but the thought of parting with him wasn't that hard.

"Being the dog helper you get more attached than other people would because you spend more time with the dog. This is the first one I really got close to and it is not really too hard knowing he will go because I know he is going somewhere good," he said.

Cooke said that Wes was the perfect candidate for the job.

"He's a great guy. He has a great demeanour with the animals. He is really dedicated to making sure that he gets up and makes sure they are fed and makes sure their kennels are cleaned up," he said.

"We sort of match up the best client to the best animal . . . Most of the pets instantly bond with somebody and we watch for that when the dogs first come."

Cooke said the residents' enthusiasm is incredible to see.

"We even have one kid who is absolutely allergic to dogs. He would bundle himself up in a big winter coat in the middle of summer and full face toque just to get out there and play with them, because he absolutely loved it," he said.

The program, running for almost a year, has proved to be a success for the dogs as well as the youth, who not only receive unconditional love, but also learn responsibility and build self-esteem, and perhaps see something of themselves in the animals.

To date Bowron has seen approximately 94 dogs, from Rottweilers to Chihuahuas, and they have had an almost 100 per cent adoption rate.

Cooke enjoys the success of the project and said he is sure it will continue to grow because of the drastic impact the program has had on the youth.

"I have noticed a change. They are more responsible, more caring. There is definitely a calming effect. They have been absolutely amazing to the point of saying 'Listen I'm having a bad day can I take the dog for a walk,'" he said.