At the end of the course, the teens show off their skills with their dogs at a graduation program. “They’re really good with the dogs; they form deep relationships with them,” Cozzolino says. “There’s a lot of amazement and pride when they’re doing agility, or even just teaching the shelter dogs the basics, like ‘sit’ and ‘down.’ In the first couple of weeks, the kids are reluctant [to participate], but after that, we’ll ask for a volunteer, and somebody’s hand shoots up.”
The organization also runs programs at two Chicago public high schools to train teenagers in humane education; the youths, in turn, travel to area elementary schools and teach children what they’ve learned. “We talk about how to treat a dog kindly, safe ways to approach a dog, quite a few different things,” Cozzolino says. One activity involves a grab bag with items such as a dog brush, rabies tag, bowl, slippers and chocolate. Children take turns pulling items out of the bag, and the group discusses whether each item is “good” or “bad” for a dog.
The Humane Society of the United States started reaching out to Chicago’s urban youth in 2006 with its End Dogfighting campaign. In this innovative project, young male consultants — some of them ex-dogfighters — walked the streets in high-risk communities and started up conversations with preadolescent and teenage boys. Often, the boys already had a Pit Bull or Pit mix on a leash, enjoying the status the dog brought them. HSUS volunteers invited the boys to free dog obedience and agility classes, and the program proved to be surprisingly popular, with dozens of boys teaching their dogs new skills. Area vets helped with free vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery.
End Dogfighting was expanded into a larger program called Pets for Life, and quickly spread from Chicago to Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. Both young people and adults now can enroll their pets in its free training classes, wellness clinics, in-home dog training and other activities. “We’ve found that people in underserved communities really do care for their pets,” says Laurie Maxwell, the program’s Chicago director. “They just don’t have the resources or information they need.”
Maxwell describes a man in his 20s, who was having financial difficulties, breeding his Pit Bull in his home. Then he encountered the Pets for Life program. It took weeks of education, but the man finally got his dog sterilized and vaccinated. HSUS is helping him by providing dog food and other supplies as he tries to get on his feet financially. As Maxwell notes, “It’s very difficult for people to have the energy and resources to care for their animals when they’re worried about their housing situation, gang violence or other problems. Sometimes, in the inner city, the problems can seem insurmountable.”
Maxwell recalls a 15-year-old boy whose life was difficult. Gang violence raged on his street, frequently forcing him to stay inside his home with his younger siblings, whom he babysat. Then one day, the boy found an abandoned dog in a nearby alley. Surrounded by poverty and violence, he could easily have turned to dogfighting for status and cash. But he enrolled in Pets for Life, putting his dog through HSUS dog-training classes. He has taken the dog to a veterinarian for free vaccinations and neutering, and learned to care for him properly.
“This dog means the world to him,” Maxwell says. “He keeps the dog with him. It’s amazing to see the humananimal bond manifest itself in the midst of all this adversity.”
Maxwell acknowledges that some feel dogs should be removed from adverse situations, and says that HSUS does call authorities when there is clear evidence of animal abuse. However, volunteers stress education, respect and the benefits of the human-animal relationship, and this approach brings good results. “People are so thankful,” she says. Since January 2010, Pets for Life has reached about 2,000 people in the Chicago area alone with humane education, dog training and other services.
She added that Pets for Life refers animal guardians to community services that can help them with job training, medical care, groceries, housing and other forms of basic support, taking the pressure off and creating a better environment for the animals.