Shelter dogs teach juvenile inmates life skills
- San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center houses two dogs for 12 weeks as part of Kids for Canines.
- Staff and volunteers say the dogs teach the young inmates important life skills, like patience.
- In five years, 17 dogs have gone through the program. Two have been adopted by released inmates.
FARMINGTON — When Roxy arrived at the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center earlier this year, her trainer remembers the black and tan pup just wanted to be left alone in her kennel.
Terrified of new people, she would urine in fear when someone approached her. Plus, in addition to adapting to a new setting, the floppy-eared mutt was also adjusting to a recent amputation that removed her right front leg.
Now, after months of training with juvenile inmates, Roxy is still a little skittish, but she has made progress. She walks up to new people to sniff them, enjoys a good petting and wiggles her entire body when she recognizes someone.
Roxy is among 17 dogs that have gone through the Kids for Canines program at the juvenile detention center in the last five years.
The program is the brainchild of Farmington attorney Terry Walker, who approached the administrator of juvenile services, Traci Neff, with the idea. Though she admits she’s not a dog lover herself, Neff agreed to give the program a try.
"I love what animals do for people," Neff said.
The detention center worked out an arrangement with the Aztec Animal Shelter. Every few months, shelter director Tina Roper selects several female dogs — females have a reputations for being easier to train — to live at the detention center in Farmington.
She usually brings three or four dogs, and the inmates select a pair to train. For about 12 weeks, the inmates are responsible for caring for the dogs. They feed, walk and socialize the dogs. And they take the dogs with them to class — juvenile inmates attend school while at the center — and occasionally bring them into therapy.
"I think it's a win-win for both the kids and the dogs," Roper said.
Roxy is a good example of that.
When she first arrived as a limping stray at the Aztec Animal Shelter, staff discovered she had a gunshot wound deep in her shoulder that required amputating the limb. Despite the dog’s challenges, Roper decided she would be a good candidate for the Kids for Canines program.
"She felt that it was important for a dog that has experienced such trauma to be … (matched) with our kids," Neff said.
Roxy’s trainers at the center, inmates J.C. and D.B., recall Roxy’s initial timidity. Because the inmates are juveniles, The Daily Times is identifying them only by their initials.
"She would pee every time I touched her," J.C. said, adding that if he gave Roxy a treat, she would snatch it and run away.
Now, after months of training, Roxy's eyes light up when J.C. and D.B. enter the room and she hobbles over to them.
Volunteer dog trainers Kim Anderson and Marla Sipes visit the detention center weekly to guide the youth through positive reinforcement training and monitor the dogs’ progress.
"We also apply it to (the boys') current situations, which we don't know about," Anderson said.
For example, Anderson said, one boy struggled to train a hyperactive dog. The process, however, taught the boy a lesson in patience, she said.
"They both learned to have patience with each other," she said.
For some, the lessons continue even after leaving the detention center. Two dogs in the program have been adopted by their trainers.
One of the boys, who served a two-year sentence, brought his dog to the hearing for his supervised released. He demonstrated what he taught the dog and what he learned from the animal. After he was released, the dog went home with him and continues to help the boy with his recovery, Neff said.
Other dogs have been adopted by detention center staff. When the dogs are adopted or graduate from the program, the animal shelters sends over new dogs.
"I've actually seen the kids tear up at graduation," Anderson said.
Sipes added that while the boys struggle to say goodbye to the dogs, "they know that they've done what they needed to."
Right now, the juvenile inmates are caring for Roxy and Honey, a young, mixed-breed with a smooth, white and gold coat and upright ears.
"I think I'm going to miss her more than any of the other ones," said J.B., Honey’s primary trainer, as he took a break from his studies to pet her on Sept. 30.
As J.B. prepares to say goodbye to Honey, he is also anticipating his own return home in several weeks. He said he plans to apply the training skills he learned at the detention center to his own dogs, a sentiment echoed by both D.B. and J.C.
"I never knew how to do this stuff," said D.B., explaining he wants to work with his own dogs on calming down and sitting on command.
The three trainers all said they have benefitted from the program.
"If you get frustrated with everybody else, you can just go play with the dog," J.C. said.
He added "it's nice to have someone to take care of."
After J.C.’s grandmother died earlier this year, the boy said Honey seemed to sense something was wrong and stayed at J.C.'s side.
"She can't talk, but she can comfort you," J.C. said.
Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.
How to help
Adopt a dog: Call the Aztec Animal Shelter at 505-334-6819 or the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center at 505-324-5800.
Donate items or for more information: Call Marla Sipes at 505-634-0224 or Kim Anderson at 435-279-7302.