CROWN POINT — A timid nose peaked out of a pet carrier as four teens, clad head to toe in white, waited in anticipation. Dropping treats on the floor and eliciting encouraging squeaks from dog toys, the teens' efforts finally were rewarded.
A tiny paw slowly stepped out and two puppies apprehensively emerged. The 3-month-old mixed-breed puppies, Serenity and Clarity, had been found in an abandoned building.
“They may have never been in a home before,” Donna Pinkus, Humane Indiana adoption counselor, told the teens as they started the dogs' “socialization” session.
As the session continued, the puppies became more bold and playful, jumping into the teens' arms and chasing after toys scattered about the Lake County Juvenile Complex gym. The teens also became more playful, laughing on the ground as the puppies romped around.
“See, now they look like puppies,” Pinkus said. “You guys are actually helping them to get adopted. When people come to adopt, sometimes they don't want a shy, fearful dog. They want a happy, wiggly one.”
Life can be rough behind bars. It's a reality both teens in juvenile detention and shelter dogs know all too well.
The Lake County Juvenile Complex and Humane Indiana have teamed up recently to spark transformational friendships between “man and best friend.”
“There's a ton of shelters that work with adult correctional facilities, but I didn't know of one that's working with youths,” said Jessica Petalas-Hernandez, director of Humane Indiana.
The program has just recently taken off, pairing teens with shelter dogs for weekly training sessions at the Lake County Juvenile Complex. Often the teens start off guarded, but by the end of the session they're swarming with questions about the dogs, she said.
“The kids identify with the dogs, saying, 'They're in a cage, just like us,'” Petalas-Hernandez said. “They empathize with them more than we can because they spend time in holding, too.”
The two organizations met in September after Lake County Judge Thomas Stefaniak, who works in the juvenile division, reached out to Humane Indiana about the idea.
“I've always been a dog kind of guy,” Stefaniak said. “I know the power an animal can have in a person's life.”
Starting mid-November, they began hosting regular Sunday morning sessions.
“For us, it's been amazing,” Petalas-Hernandez said. “Some of the dogs have learned some cool tricks, which ultimately makes them more adoptable.”
From sit and stay to fetch, the dogs learn an array of commands from the teens during the two-hour sessions each Sunday. The teens learn how to read the dogs' body language and how to foster positive reinforcement with the animals.
“Something I didn't think about but has come up as the kids work with the dogs, is that some of them are really excellent at dog training,” Petalas-Hernandez said. “They have this great talent that wouldn't have been tapped before. So much so that after they've turned 18, we'd be open to giving them a job.”
She said some of the teens with natural training talent already have shown interest in a future of working with animals.
However the sessions aren't all work — the teens and dogs also get in some crucial snuggle and belly rub time.
Stefaniak said the program is an expansion of their therapy dog, Moxie, who has served Lake County courts for more than five years. Stefaniak is Moxie's handler. He takes her to and from work to spread some love.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to show love,” Stefaniak said. “Animals tend to help people take their guard down.”
Dijah Gunn, activities coordinator for the Lake County Juvenile Complex, said she has seen the program make a transformation in many of the teens.
“A lot of them have a passion for it, no matter how big or small the dog, they work really well with them,” Gunn said. “My favorite part is seeing the kids come down in a good mood, laughing and just being a kid. They laugh when the dogs lick their face. I like watching them enjoy it.”
The teens tend to get attached to repeat K-9 visitors, Gunn said, and notice if a certain dog doesn't come out.
“They'll ask, 'What happened to this dog?' and when they hear the dog got adopted, they're really happy for them,” Gunn said.
The amount of dogs and teens involved in every session varies but averages around four to eight juveniles and up to three dogs. Usually the teens, who are anywhere from 13 to 17 years old, group up in teams around a dog. However, volunteers are needed for the program to grow.
“The more volunteers we have, the more intimate of an experience this can become,” Hernandez-Petalas said. “We can bring more dogs and get more kids involved. This is perfect for anyone who wants to work with youth and is an animal lover.”
Volunteers must be older than 18 and pass a background check, she said, and those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 219-922-3811, ext. 203.
From butterfly gardens to creative incentives, there are progressive programs afoot at the Lake County Juvenile Complex, Stefaniak said. Plans include connecting the teens with career paths and trade skills, he said.
“We lose jurisdiction of them at the age of 18,” Stefaniak said. “It helps to form bonds, and hopefully when they do turn 18, they decide they want to do stuff like this and serve the community. We want to teach them the philosophy of, 'You get more by giving more.' You can't just take.”