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Troubled Teens and Shelter Dogs Find Their Way Together

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Update, 3/2006: Project Click has now completed its second successful year, led by Keri Gorman—now a certified TAGteach instructor. Contact Keri at TAGNorthWest.com.

During the summer of 2004, 16-year-old Lia of Camas, WA, was in trouble. She was on probation, had a social worker watching over her, and had to serve community service hours for an assault conviction. With no goals for her future, Lia figured she would join the Marines when she graduated from high school. It only took three weeks in August for everything to change.

As part of her community service hours, Lia took part in Project Click, an animal training program offered by the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. "I love animals," Lia says. "I was pretty excited when I heard there was going to be training involved." Little did Lia know that the training wasn't just for the animals. It was also for her. Project Click was a carefully planned program that targeted troubled youths. Teens used clickers to train shelter animals in an effort to make them more adoptable. Although the animals benefited, the goal was to help the teens become productive members of their communities. It worked.

Project Click was the brainchild of Keri Caporale, an animal education specialist at the Humane Society. Caporale has an impressive background in animal training; before moving to the Northwest, she worked at SeaWorld in San Diego for three years. There, she trained river otters, birds of prey, porcupines, dogs, and cats. But when she came to the Humane Society in Vancouver, she knew she wanted to help more than the animals. "It's the responsibility for us as the Humane Society, as a nonprofit business, to help better our community," she says.

Therapeutic concept

Caporale sought guidance from the book Teaching Empathy: Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs for Children and Families Exposed to Violence. It outlines ways that animal educators can team with social workers to provide therapy for troubled youths. Caporale carefully followed the book's instructions and even got help developing Project Click from the book's co-author, Dr. Lynn Loar. "Animal-assisted therapy has the potential to reach clients who would not necessarily buy into traditional treatment methods," said Loar, a social worker who lives near San Francisco. For some clients, "an hour of conversation [with a social worker or therapist] is more of a loss than a gain."

In her book, Loar details various animal-assisted therapy programs that involved troubled children. In one successful program, inner-city youths helped rehabilitate injured wildlife. In another, sexually abused teenage girls cared for farm animals, and yet another program had homeless families teach clicker training to shelter animals. Loar says when a family or a troubled child spends time thinking about a dog's wellbeing, "it gives them a vacation from the grimness of their lives."

Animals and children have a particularly close connection because they both "hold positions of vulnerability in families," Loar explains in Teaching Empathy. Children and animals can suffer from abuse and neglect, just as they can thrive with positive reinforcement and attention. Loar was hesitant to help Caporale at first, because she has seen many animal-assisted therapy classes go wrong. Animal educators think they are doing a service by teaching responsible pet care to at-risk kids, and they are shocked when the entire project goes haywire. Abused and neglected kids relate to homeless animals, and often during their lessons they realize that the animal is receiving better care than they are at home. That can be confusing and frustrating because, Loar says, the kids think they're "worth less than a dog."

That realization can lead troubled kids to reveal startling details about their home lives, which often catches humane educators off guard. Loar says a therapist or social worker must be present for all humane education programs aimed at troubled youths to handle disclosures of personal information or sudden behavior problems. In the case of Project Click, Caporale sought assistance from a social worker with Clark County Juvenile Court. Project Click and Clark County had similar goals: to make young lawbreakers become better citizens. It's called restorative justice, one of the results mentioned in Loar's book.

The pilot program begins

Initially, 15 teenagers signed up to take part in Project Click. After careful evaluation, only three were admitted to the pilot program, including Lia. The first day was a bit uncomfortable for the three teens. Although they had a lot in common—including a rap sheet and a love of animals—they were shy at first. All three were let down when they learned they would not be training animals right away. Instead, Caporale and Heidi Smith, an animal trainer, started the program with the "training game," as recommended in Loar's book. "She wanted us to get the feel of how the animals feel," said Lia.

The lack of punishment during clicker training makes it especially effective with at-risk youths. "While you're teaching impulse control, you're certainly monitoring your own impulses," says Lynn Loar.

During the game, the teens had to get each other to perform a certain behavior, such as stand on one foot or put a hand on a head, without speaking. Each time the learner got close to the desired behavior, the trainer clicked a clicker and gave the learner a reward (in this case, candy). The group enjoyed the game so much that they eventually created complicated behaviors for each other to perform. "At one point, one of the girls was training the boy to put the rope around his neck with the Frisbee on his head," recalls Caporale.

When the clicker training with animals finally began, Lia immediately bonded with a golden retriever mix named Farrah, who had feathered hair that looked straight out of Charlie's Angels. Lia was too young to get the Farrah Fawcett reference; she felt close to the dog because Farrah resembled an old family pet that died years ago. During the initial session, Lia held up a treat and Farrah sat up and held up one paw. It looked as if Farrah was trying to give Lia a "high five," so she clicked and rewarded Farrah for the behavior. She kept clicking and rewarding, and eventually Farrah knew to reach out to slap her paw against Lia's upraised hand, like a "high five." "I could tell the dog was happy," Lia recalls fondly.

Lynn Loar considers clicker training a valuable therapeutic tool because it relies completely on positive feedback. A trainer rewards an animal (or person) only for desired behavior and ignores bad behavior. "With clicker training, you're waiting for something positive that you can mark or develop," says Loar. "There's no room for yelling."

How clicker training helps kids

The lack of punishment during clicker training makes it especially effective with at-risk youths. The training allows troubled children to escape from their daily lives, which often are filled with rules and mistrust. When they're clicker training, trainers are in a safe place where they can take risks because no one will criticize if a mistake is made. A clicker training session starts by setting up an animal so that he or she can't perform "bad" behaviors. "They can't jump on you if they're lying down," says Caporale. "It's harder for them to bark if they're lying down."

Caporale says people initially are stingy with their clicking and their treats. She recommends rapid clicking and rapid feeding when a dog comes close to a desired behavior. For example, if a trainer is trying to get a dog to stop barking, Caporale advises the trainer to "click during the tiniest moment of silence." Then, she says, click again while the dog is chewing. He will soon learn that being quiet gets him treats. During Project Click, Caporale had the participants clicker train the dogs to keep the shelter kennels quiet.

Good clicker training not only teaches generosity, it teaches patience. The trainer must learn to time clicks perfectly when the desired behavior is happening, not after. Caporale and Loar agree that timing is the hardest part of clicker training, because it requires the trainer to pay close attention to the dog's behavior. Loar finds that kids with Attention Deficit Disorder are likely to be good clicker trainers because they're quick to click.

Besides, Caporale says, trainers can make mistakes because the dogs are forgiving. "Messing up the timing is okay, because it's all positive. Whereas if you messed up your timing with punishment, you are hurting your relationship with the animal. The other nice thing is when the trainer clicks, the trainer is being reinforced for the well-timed click," notes Loar. "It's as thrilling to the trainer as the learner."

Clicker training is also as educational for the trainer as for the learner. Most trainers go on to apply clicker training to their everyday lives. Families who took part in Loar's programs in California learned patience with each other. "While you're teaching impulse control," Loar points out, "you're certainly monitoring your own impulses." It's a connection that instructors do not have to point out to their clicker training participants. It just happens. By clicker training together, families learn that they do not have to yell to communicate. They learn to be patient with one another and to understand another family member's point of view.

Kids with short attention spans also benefit from clicker training programs because they still have a longer attention span than the dogs they are training. "They are in the role of the teacher," Loar says. "They can see there's no need to get frustrated."

Success for shelter dogs

In Lia's case, clicker training Farrah was emotionally rewarding but also heartbreaking. Lia was so successful with the dog that Farrah was adopted during the second week of Project Click. There were tears. "I was kinda sad, but then I was happy she got a home," Lia says. The shelter even allowed Lia to make the follow-up phone call to Farrah's new home, which made her feel better.

Another student, Jordan, bonded with a puppy that had behavioral problems. The little guy, named Burton, was guarding his food and growling at people. Jordan exhibited enough maturity and responsibility during Project Click that his instructors allowed him to take the puppy home for round-the-clock training. Jordan single-handedly turned Burton around and got him adopted after just a week. It was a victory that Caporale says he needed.

The entire Project Click team also faced an unexpected hardship when they had an aggressive adult dog who would not respond to clicker training. "It wasn't something we had planned on, but it came up," Caporale recalls. The dog was barking, growling, and making all the team members uncomfortable. Project Click instructors decided the dog was not adoptable, but they knew they couldn't make the decision to euthanize without input from the three teenagers. The group discussed the dog and decided that the aggressive dog needed to be euthanized. Eventually, all the other dogs and cats that took part in Project Click were adopted.

Valuable job skills and confidence

But adoptions were just a bonus, says Caporale. The real goal involved the kids. Specifically, Caporale wanted to give them job skills. She had the teens take tests about clicker training and had them put their communication skills to work by writing information cards for each animal. The group even went on a field trip to the Oregon Zoo, where they got a behind-the-scenes tour of the polar bear exhibit. The group discovered that zookeepers apply the same clicker training techniques to the polar bears. "That opened up some job opportunities," says Caporale. "The kids were brainstorming jobs they didn't know were available."

Caporale also trusted the teens with the responsibility of evaluating dogs for adoption and deciding what kind of home would be best for certain animals. "We went a lot further with them than I ever would've thought initially," says Caporale, "They were very responsible."

The teens also worked at the animal shelter without even being asked. They often stayed late to help clean the kennels or help adopters find the right pet. Each teenager knew the shelter animals even more intimately than the shelter employees did. "They knew the animals really well, and they ended up being great adoption counselors," Caporale says. But the real payoff came during the third week of Project Click, when Lia mentioned that she had applied for a job at PetSmart. Caporale helped Lia put together a resume that included her experience in clicker training.

Lia says when she dropped off her application and resume at PetSmart, she didn't exactly receive a warm welcome. "They didn't seem that interested in me, but when they read my resume and saw that I was part of Project Click, they wanted to talk to me right away." Out of a mountain of applications, Lia got hired six months ago. Today, Lia says she is doing very well, and working at PetSmart "has kept me out of trouble." Instead of joining the Marines, Lia now plans to become a veterinarian—something she wanted to do as a child but forgot all about during her tumultuous teenage years.

While Caporale is extremely proud of Lia's new job, Lia says her crowning achievement came about a month after Project Click concluded. In September, Lynn Loar was the guest speaker for the shelter's annual donor appreciation dinner. She introduced a video about Project Click and then had the participating students join her on stage for a round of applause from the audience. After the presentation, the teenagers were worried that they would be judged because everyone in attendance knew they had been in trouble with the law. But Lia and the others quickly found themselves fielding questions about dog training from the shelter's financial backers. In a room full of people, they were the experts! "It was enormously validating for the kids," said Loar. "It makes the behavior of the recent past seem like ancient history and irrelevant."

The future of Project Click

Lia and the other teens have asked to help out in this summer's Project Click. "I want to teach kids what I know about how to clicker-train animals," Lia says. "It's an awesome experience." That's the sentiment from all the teens who participated in Project Click. The teens filled out evaluations at the end of the three-week-long course and each one suggested that the program be longer. Next time around, Caporale plans to keep the program the same—small, fun, and educational. She also is writing a grant proposal for a second pet-assisted therapy program. She hopes to team with the housing authority in Vancouver to help low-income or homeless families, much as in one of Lynn Loar's pilot projects in San Francisco. Loar approves of Caporale's future plans for Project Click. She supports a small, structured environment with built-in safeguards. "She's willing to grow very slowly and responsibly," Loar says. "That's the way to do it."

Animal-assisted therapy programs are relatively new, and Loar stresses the importance of starting with a "small, responsible design and implementing it." Loar says she doesn't want to see people "jump in" to an animal-assisted therapy program without doing the legwork that Keri Caporale did. "I would like to slow down people with a good idea." Safety precautions need to be built in to protect the participants and the animals. "If an animal is not screened well enough and bites somebody," Loar warns, "that's going to shut your program down." Children who aren't screened well enough and have a history of violence against animals could also cause animal-assisted therapy programs to be shut down. Participants who live in apartments might not have a history with animals, so they need to be screened for uncontrolled impulsivity or violence. Simply put, participants in animal-assisted therapy must exhibit some interest in animals. Loar suggests that anyone who wants to start an animal-assisted therapy program read Teaching Empathy, which has step-by-step worksheets for starting a safe therapeutic program.

More on Lynn Loar's work and other clicker training research:

Humane Society for Southwest Washington

Teaching Empathy: Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs for Children and Families Exposed to Violence, Dr. Lynn Loar and Dr. Libby Coleman


I'm Lia and I have to say that was the best time of my life was working there at the Humane Society with those animals! If you love animals then i sugest you get into this program, its something you'll never forget about.

Hello Lia!

This is Keri and I'm so excited that Lia is on this site after all this time! Project Click is entering it's 4th year this summer and we are very excited. It has gone through some minor changes, mostly being the addition of TAGteach principles. For more info you can check out my website: www.tagnorthwest.com or feel free to email me. And thank you Lia for being such a critical part of the first year of the program, you were wonderful to work with and a great clicker trainer!

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