Bryson Kahaleua tried three times to get Manini, the brindle dog with which he was working Friday morning at the Hawaii Island Humane Society, to run up a short ramp.
After Manini came down the far side of the obstacle course element, Kahaleua, 15, turned the dog around and prompted it to remount the ramp. Again, Manini shied away twice before running up, this time lured by a bag of treats.
Kahaleua was one of a half dozen teenage boys at the Kona shelter, participating in the Humane Society’s New Leash on Life program, which brings residents of the Salvation Army’s Ke Kama Pono safe house to the shelter to work with the dogs on basic obedience skills.
“It’s good,” Kahaleua said. “(It) feels good to be with somebody (you) can have your emotional feelings with.”
Bebe Ackerman, the Humane Society’s humane educator and volunteer coordinator, said that’s exactly what she sees happen when teenagers begin the program. Kids open up to the animals in ways they don’t with adults, she said. Ackerman runs the same program, with a class of girls from Ke Kama Pono’s girls home, at the Waimea Shelter.
“The kids learn a lot of different life lessons in two hours of working with the dogs,” Ackerman said. “To see a 16-year-old boy cooing to a scared dog is actually pretty amazing.”
The teens tend to work with the same animal each week, if the animal has yet to be adopted, Ackerman said. The repeated contact bonds the at-risk teens and the animals they work with, she added.
Sweetie, a gaunt, light brown dog, seemed to have created just such a bond with 16-year-old Christopher Garcia. He was the first to bring a dog into the shelter’s Bark Park, leading Sweetie on a leash. When he stopped for a minute to talk about the program, Sweetie sat at his feet, looking up at his face.
“She’s just a lovable girl,” Garcia said. “I think (the program) is great. It’s an opportunity for us to take the dogs out and get active.”
Some of the animals have been abused, he said, but they still seem to enjoy the attention.
“We’re here to make her happy,” he said.
Sweetie seemed to get that message, as she happily followed Garcia around the park, pausing for the treats he offered and sitting beside him on the ground as they took a quick break. She did escape from him for a minute, when he tried to coax her through a tunnel. Sweetie opted not to go through the tunnel, but ran toward a wading pool. When Garcia approached her, she didn’t run away, returning to him and letting him take control again of the leash.
Some dogs surrendered to the shelter have completed some basic obedience training, Ackerman said, but others have not. Since the New Leash on Life program began about a year ago, Ackerman said shelter officials noticed a slight increase in dog adoptions in Waimea, and a slight decrease in animals being returned to the shelter after adoption. She credits the kids teaching the dogs basic skills — how to walk on a leash without pulling, how to take a treat nicely, not to jump on people — for those improved adoption outcomes.
Girls and boys both seem to enjoy the program, although Ackerman said she can discern slight differences in how they approach it. Both Ke Kama Pono safe houses have fostered dogs for the shelters before. Girls usually pick puppies, while boys pick grown dogs.
“The boys really want to be able to call themselves a dog trainer,” Ackerman said. “The girls are caregivers. The girls are good with a scared, shaking dog.”
Ackerman said she sees the teens pick up not just the dog training skills, but also confidence and a boost in self esteem.
“Dogs respond to kids,” she said. “Kids respond to dogs. It brings out a good side in everyone.”