By Brandon L. Black
Since 2016 a unique partnership has been evolving between the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA (PHS) and K9 Youth Alliance in a program whose goal is to prepare homeless dogs for adoption – with fostering as another option – through natural progressions in their obedience and overall behavior.
What sets the relationship apart is that the three-week program offered three to four times a year by K9 Youth Alliance, takes homeless dogs from PHS and partners them with participants from the Boys and Girls Club of Pasadena and institutions such as Hillsides Education Center.
Predicated on rewards-based training coupled with positive reinforcement, the program teaches participating youths, many of whom do not come from a home with pets, humane methods for developing obedience in dogs.
Youths as young as 12 years old and teenagers as old as 18 are often from underserved, low-income communities.
“For a lot of them,” said Kelly Osburn, co-founder of the nonprofit K9 Youth Alliance, “they just want to help another being [dogs].”
Shelter dogs, both large and small, at PHS that are selected to work with youths must go through a rigorous vetting process of their behavior and temperament by teams from both PHS and K9 Youth Alliance.
“We’re looking at all the behaviors that a dog presents and then we’re placing them in different color categories according to what those behaviors are and what groups of behaviors we see,” said Jessica Powell, Behavior Manager at PHS.
“We work with the students and the dog teams to determine what that dog may or may not know,” said Osburn who elaborated on how the program tailors its training to accommodate the aptitudes of both youths and their dogs.
“Some dogs come in with being trained already,” she said. “Some dogs come in and they don’t know anything and they just need to learn how to be with people.”
According to her intake notes, Rexi, a brindle pit bull terrier, used to be chained for up to 22 hours a day outside alongside another dog who was blind.
She was deathly afraid of men and would get defensive at their mere presence. Barking and cowering were frequent behaviors.
The Pasadena Humane’s animal care team took a less invasive approach to earn Rexi’s trust and confidence by walking by her kennel and dropping in treats.
By not waiting for her to respond or engage with them, the hands-off approach by animal care staff allowed Rexi to, over time, become desensitized to being around men.
The troubles from her previous life etched away by the care and affection shown by PHS staff, volunteers and those youths participating in K9 Youth Alliance.
Not only improving Rexi’s behavior while in the presence of men, but she also needed to learn how to focus on her handlers and how to loose leash walk, said Krista Goodsitt, a dog training instructor at K9 Youth Alliance who worked with both Rexi and Ham, a chestnut-colored Pit bull.
Like Rexi, Ham was turned in to PHS by his owner because he was not getting along with the other dog in the house, according to his intake notes.
Once at PHS, Ham was very shy and would back away when a staff member or volunteer would reach out to pet him. His drab demeanor reflected his lack of confidence.
He was quiet and sensitive which required a gentler approach in his training regiment.
“We rewarded him for approaching people,” said Goodsitt. “We taught him that approaching people, good things would happen to him.”
While the relationship between K9 Youth Alliance and PHS is still in its infancy, it has proven to be dually beneficial.
“Having partners like Pasadena Humane is really beneficial for us,” said Osburn, “because they are giving us their training space, so not only are we able to work with them and help their dogs but they also provide an ideal setting and location for us.”
“It not only gives us the opportunity to find out things about the dogs that we may not be able to find out through our daily activities,” said Powell, “it’s a unique opportunity for them to develop some skills and for us to find out more information about their personality.”
“We’ve got breeds that maybe people still have a negative perception of so if we can highlight the fact that they can cope and do well and are like any other breed – especially around children – then that is such a positive to put out into the community,” she said.
It also chips away at stereotyping certain breeds with a particular behavior, for instance, associating pit bulls with being aggressive and threatening.
The whole program is about planting seeds, said Osburn. “You’re planting the seed then nurturing it, then letting it grow.”
Despite the three-week duration of the program, the seeds that are planted by K9 youths in their respective dogs, day-in, and day-out, help those dogs to evolve their behavior towards interacting with people and other canines.
At the very least, “it gives the dogs positive connotations about what people are like and experiences that will help them,” said Osburn.
K9 Youth Alliance was established in 2013 and modeled after the West Los Angeles-based k9 Connection, a nonprofit focused on building a relationship between at-risk youths and shelter dogs through a variety of training activities.
How to bring a similar program to the Pasadena-area was a thought that didn’t take long to come to Osburn.
While attending a graduation ceremony for k9 Connection, Osburn arrived at her “Ah-ha! moment.”
“Listening to the kids talk about their experiences and how much it [the program] meant to them just gave me chills,” said Osburn. “That’s where I knew I had that feeling that this is what I need to do.”
That feeling was again felt earlier this year on February 27, when K9 Youth Alliance held its graduation at PHS to celebrate the accomplishments of its two-legged and four-legged graduates.
With the students in command, Rexi and Ham were among those canines who culminated their achievements in the program by demonstrating to the audience their range of skills and behavioral commands learned over the last three weeks.
Afterward, the students took turns at the microphone speaking about their experience with K9 Youth Alliance and shelter dogs from PHS they had helped to train. One student, Mici, was particularly affectionate in her words about Rexi:
Rexi is a very happy dog and I really love her. She is a very positive dog even though she has trouble with her larynx. It may sound like she’s growling but it really is just because she’s very excited.
Another graduate, Jake, spoke about his experience training several dogs including Roxy, a 3-year-old white Husky and Simon, a Chihuahua Miniature Pinscher.
But it was his comments about Ham that demonstrated to the audience the unique relationship forged between youths and homeless dogs participating in the program:
I could tell he had a past, he was great at sitting, watching and finding, but he didn’t like being pet. He also was distracted very easily and backed away whenever someone approached him. After about 2 days I tried petting him and he let me, this was a breakthrough! Ever since he has made nothing but progress.
While Rexi is now described as being a “happy, well-rounded dog” she still exhibits a slight cough, a lingering residual from her past. Ham, on the other hand, has become much more sociable and self-confident when around other dogs and humans.
“Those are the dogs who once they bond with you they’re going to be the best dogs you’ve ever had,” said Goodsitt about Rexi and Ham.
Both dogs are ready and available for adoption at PHS.