OYA youth help dogs — and get back more than they give
With her teal-colored, rhinestone collar, her red “Ho ho ho!” holiday bandana, and her soulful brown eyes, Luna drew plenty of ear rubs and head pats on a recent day at Camp Tillamook Youth Transitional Facility.
The 17-month-old black pointer/lab mix trotted around the facility like she owned it. But when her owner and trainer, Victor, was around, she only had eyes for him (and his bag of treats).
From Scared & Shaky to Friendly
Luna’s friendly and obedient nature are a far cry from where she was a year ago, when Victor, 24, first started training her. She was living at the Tillamook County Animal Aid program, rescued from an owner who often held her in the air by the leash and hit her.
“She was scared, shaky, and didn’t want anything to do with anybody,” Victor says. “I started spoiling her and building trust with her. Sapper (Jim Sapper, Camp Tillamook director) would bring her over here to the facility, and the moment she saw me, she started pulling on her leash to be with me.”
Using skills he had learned in the Project POOCH program at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, Victor taught Luna to trust people again, to follow commands, and even to do some tricks — she can give high fives, roll over, and ring a bell.
Essentially, Victor saved Luna’s life. But she, and the other dogs he trained while at POOCH, also saved him.
“I didn’t know I had what it took to take care of someone. When I was out, I could barely take care of myself, let alone another life,” says Victor, who first came to OYA at age 17. “The program gave me a feeling of self-accomplishment. If I had a really bad day, I’d go to work and it would take everything off my mind.
“I don’t care what I do when I’m with my dog. I make silly gestures, things I wouldn’t do around other people. I can be who I really am, instead of holding a posture of who I’m not. I can finally be myself.”
Responsibility — and a Lot of Patience
The unique bond between a dog and its human is part of why Joan Dalton started Project POOCH — which stands for Positive Opportunities, Obvious Change with Hounds — 25 years ago.
Dalton was vice principal at MacLaren’s high school at the time, and she was looking for more hands-on learning opportunities for her students.
“I had heard about dog training programs in the adult prison system, but none in the juvenile system,” Dalton says. “Man’s best friend is dogs. We know from research that animals are important for providing unconditional love and bonding. Your dog doesn’t care what you look like, what you smell like, what you’ve done. When they see you, they get really excited.”
Youth Rehabilitate “Unadoptable” Dogs
POOCH takes in dogs from area animal shelters that are labeled “unadoptable” due to their personalities or behaviors, often due to past traumas they have suffered. Youth working in the program care for the dogs, train them to be Canine Good Citizens, and do everything necessary to find them new homes, from photographing the animals to creating flyers and advertisements to interviewing owner applicants.
Along the way, the youth learn the intricacies of dog care and training, how to run a business, and sometimes even hard labor skills — like when they poured a new sidewalk outside the kennel.
According to a 2016 paper in Public Health Nursing — which rounded up research on prison-based animal programs — caretaking of dogs has been positively linked with incarcerated people’s self-esteem, self-worth, patience, reduced disciplinary records, reduced tension, and an increased sense of responsibility.
Research has also shown that, among children, companion animals help them develop love, attachment, and comfort, while positively altering their perceptions of themselves and their ability to relate to others.
“I’ve seen the toughest kids with the most serious commitments and crimes, and when their first dog gets adopted, you see tears coming down their cheeks,” said Oregon Youth Authority staff member Makai Brusa, who runs Project POOCH along with staffer Elray Sampson.
“The guys in this program gain a lot of passion for doing the right thing,” Brusa adds. “We’re coaching work ethic and producing responsible, employable citizens to go back into society.”
On a recent morning at POOCH, Martin C. could be found outside working with a black lab, Trooper, who had just arrived a day earlier.
“I like helping the dogs and the people in the community,” he says. “I like seeing the dogs go to good homes. The dogs teach you a lot about patience.”
Then Martin looks down at Trooper, who is struggling to keep all four feet on the ground, and adds, “Especially black labs.”
Inside the kennel building, Robert M. takes out his current favorite dog, Blanca, to give her some love. She’s an American bulldog and hound mix, with potentially some pit bull added in.
“I feel like people have that stigma that pit bulls are violently aggressive dogs,” Robert says. “They’re giving us youth a second chance to do something positive in our lives. They’re giving the dogs a second chance, too. She has that stigma, and I have that stigma. I want to break that and show them we’re different. We’re defying the odds against us.
“I’ve learned a lot about patience and compassion for all lives. They’ve taught me a lot about accountability and responsibility. Besides my family, POOCH is the second thing that keeps me going every day.”
A Forever Home for Luna
Back at Camp Tillamook, Victor also talks about his POOCH days with a sense of reverence. During his time at OYA, Victor earned his high school diploma and then started taking college courses in business.
But after he began working for POOCH, he changed his academic focus and started studying to be a vet technician. He currently has a 4.0 at Portland Community College, with plans to transfer to Chemeketa Community College when he is released this month.
“POOCH changed my life,” Victor says. “I discovered something about myself that I didn’t know existed. I desired to grow more.
“Your mindset is better, too. For every dog you let go, you feel better about yourself for finding them a good home. It’s hard to let go, but you know they’re going to a better place.”
Youth Advocates for POOCH
When Victor transferred to Camp Tillamook, he immediately lobbied Sapper, the camp director, to start a training program there. The facility partnered with Tillamook County Animal Aid to work with their unadoptable, rescued dogs. Victor not only trained dogs, he also trained about five other youth to do their own animal work.
So far, they have helped save and train about a dozen dogs at Tillamook. All were adopted successfully. That includes Luna, although not in the way Victor initially expected.
Everyone at camp became so attached to Luna that Sapper let her stay around as a “camp dog.”
And when Victor paroled home this month, Luna went with him. Forever.
Victor is ready to show his family and friends the man he has become — and how his dogs helped him figure out what that means.
“People saw who I was before, trying to be something I wasn’t, but when I get out, they’ll see who I really am,” he says. “I want to show them I’m a good role model, despite my mistakes. I won’t let one mistake define my whole life. I lost so many years with my family, and I don’t want to lose any more.”
Read more about how the state is launching innovating programs to help youth and their communities here.