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Originally published January 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2008 at 10:06 AM

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Teen offenders learn life lessons by training dogs

The tears came quickly, in private. And no one was more surprised than Teal herself. Her friends back home might laugh if they saw her now...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Canine Connections

The nonprofit program is run through Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie. The dogs need food, bowls, treats, leashes/training collars and grooming supplies. For more information on adoption and donations, call 425-831-2717 or visit www.petfinder.com/shelters/WA23.html

The tears came quickly, in private.

And no one was more surprised than Teal herself. Her friends back home might laugh if they saw her now, all broken up over a goofy Labrador retriever. But this dog, Vale, meant something. In a way, he'd become a reflection of her.

Teal, 15, hadn't expected the hurt to hit so deeply when she signed up last fall for Canine Connections, a program at Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie, a juvenile-rehabilitation facility.

The class was created in 2000 to build compassion and self-esteem in the teenagers. Every eight weeks, dogs that were on "death row" arrive at Echo Glen from area shelters. Many are skittish and ill-mannered with no basic obedience skills.

The unwanted dogs are each paired with a teenager. The teens — all juvenile offenders sent to Echo Glen for crimes ranging from drug possession to murder — learn how to train the dogs and, in the process, absorb critical life lessons.

"I call it the four P's: praise, persistence, patience and practice," said Jo Simpson, director of the program. "It's not about overpowering or being angry to get what you need."

The "handlers," as the youths are called, are there to help the dogs heal from abuse, abandonment and trauma and turn them into adoptable pets, Simpson said. It's all done through positive reinforcement — namely, praise and lots of dog treats.

But it's also about building a bond. Sometimes, a handler will sit alongside a dog for hours, petting the animal and reading aloud books, just to gain that trust. When it happens, the sense of accomplishment is huge, officials say.

"I've never seen a treatment program have the impact that this does," said Patti Berntsen, associate superintendent, who has worked at Echo Glen for 28 years. "There are some very sick kids here, kids that have mental-health issues and are violent. But you can see a behavioral change after they work with the dogs. They feel like they can't just give up on them."

Teal was paired with Vale in September. The laid-back yellow Lab was bred to be a service companion but ended up at Echo Glen after it became apparent that wasn't his calling.

(The youths in this story are not being fully identified because The Seattle Times doesn't usually identify juveniles involved in criminal cases.)

"At first I couldn't stand him, because he wouldn't listen," Teal said. "I said, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' But then I knew that if I quit on him, I'd be like everyone else."

She saw herself in the dogs who wound up here — alone, hurt, distrustful. She'd spent her life in and out of trouble and landed at the center after being sentenced for alcohol possession, robbery and assault charges, she said.

She wanted to join Canine Connections because she had two dogs at home she missed a lot, she said. It's considered a privilege to be part of the class; juveniles must be recommended by instructors to get in.

The learning curve, Teal soon discovered, was steep. Vale was used to being trained by another handler, Jasmine, so he didn't show Teal much respect at first.

When Teal gave a command, something as basic as "sit," he'd stare back with these eyes as if saying, "Yeah, right."

Over the weeks, they became quite the pair. Best buddies, even.

"It's hard to resist him," she said. "He knows how to manipulate with these eyes."

She was his teacher, but he taught her more, she said.

"The dogs, when they first get here, they think it's all about them," she said. "Like, they don't need your help. They want to be the boss. Then they realize, 'Hey, maybe this kid really does want to help me. And maybe if I listen, I'll get rewarded.' "

She drew a parallel: Like the social workers assigned to her, this dog was her caseload. Now she understood how the staff at Echo Glen felt, why they so much wanted her to succeed.

Graduation day arrives at the end of each session. The dogs take a group test where they show off their skills and leave with their new owners. On Dec. 18, Teal prepared for Vale to shine.

The eight handlers and their dogs assembled in a circle inside the gym. A judge was on hand to score them. Simpson gave her students some last-minute advice.

"Remember, your dog does not know he's taking a test," she said. "If he did, he'd be perfect for you. So hold your leash correctly. Ready? OK, forward."

The handlers and their dogs walk in a circle until they are told to stop. They ask their dogs to sit. Lie down. Come. In the end, all the dogs passed with flying colors. One, a German shepherd mix puppy named Zeppelin, earned the "Best Dog" award and Jasmine won a ribbon for training her.

Afterward, Teal briefed Vale's new family on all of his quirks, habits, and medical history. Jasmine joined because she'd also help train Vale.

"He's housebroken and good with children," Teal started.

"But if there's food on the floor, he'll eat it," Jasmine broke in.

"He'll bark at the door if someone comes over," Teal said. "That's just his way of asking 'Who's there?' "

"And he'll growl if that person doesn't pet him," Jasmine added.

The owners thanked them for their hard work, and Teal kissed Vale one last time before watching him trot off into his new life.

Vale was a temporary guest at Echo Glen, just like she is, she said. She, too, someday will leave behind all the people who helped her.

No use being sad about it for too long, she said. New dogs were coming in January.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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