February 09, 2014

Training Abused Dogs Teaches Youths Skills and Self-Confidence

Josh Feeney

A young man who participated last year in the Lifetime Bonds program and went on to do an internship with Safe Humane Chicago, shakes hands with Chocolate Drop.

When the police arrest people who abuse their pets, that doesn’t necessarily mean the animals will go on to lead happy lives. Neglected and battered animals can shut down or become aggressive in response to repeated mistreatment, and that doesn’t make them popular at adoption shelters. Many end up being euthanized.

One Chicago nonprofit has figured out a way to give abused dogs a second chance, and in the process help young men who have gotten into legal trouble.

At Safe Humane Chicago, created in 2008, “we focus on the special bond between people and animals that helps build empathy and opportunity,” says Cynthia Bathurst, Safe Humane’s founder and executive director.

The group has several programs that start when a dog is rescued from abusers. Staff and volunteers from Safe Humane assess, treat, and train the animals. From there, the dogs can enter the Lifetime Bonds program, a collaborative effort with the Illinois Youth Center, the local juvenile-detention facility.

Safe Humane runs four 12- to 15-week sessions throughout the year in which a total of about 60 young men from the center work with the rescued dogs to teach them to sit, roll over, and run an obstacle course. At the end of each session, participants perform a dog show for their peers.

Young people who participate in the program learn patience, self-confidence, and job skills. The dogs also provide a dose of affection, something that’s especially important because young men at the detention center aren’t allowed close physical contact with anyone, says Ms. Bathurst.

“When they can actually touch the dogs, put their hands on them, it’s pretty powerful,” she says.

The program has attracted so much attention that the Chicago group is now advising groups in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin that want to copy its work.

The group’s other major program is Youth Leaders, which enlists high-school students to make presentations at elementary schools and elsewhere on the humane treatment of animals. Safe Humane also advocates in court cases involving animal abuse and works with law-enforcement agencies on animal-related issues.

Safe Humane’s 2014 budget is about $250,000, provided mostly by individuals, foundations, and charities like the Best Friends Animal Society and the National Canine Research Council.