By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Gainesville State School’s newest resident bounded onto campus full of energy.
She rushed to meet everyone that first day, searched every face for responses and darted from window to window to check the view from all angles. She evinced a fun-loving attitude that easily offset any ill will raised by her obvious nosiness and awkward invasion of personal spaces.
You might wonder, who was this young teen so excited to be signed up at at Gainesville State School?
She wasn’t just anyone that’s for sure. She was Sarang, a canine of mixed breeds, with a smooth honey and vanilla coat and a pup-like charm that prompted a dozen young men on the “BARK dorm” to all, to a person, reach out to pet and encourage her.
She got enough strokes and cuddles that day to have reciprocally comforted a regiment of soldiers or quell the anxiety of a small town. Her mood was so bright it lit up that dayroom filled with teenagers commited to TJJD.
And that’s the plan. The BARK (Building Attachment and Resilience K-9) program aims to lift spirits and aspirations.
It’s about building mutual caring connections and giving the youth enrolled in the program an opportunity to shepherd a project that’s bigger than themselves.
“They’re basically learning the responsibility of taking care of a living being and I think that’s very helpful for them,” said Jabari Anderson, a Sr. JCO who supervises the BARK dorm where Sarang is now staying.
Sarang was the sixth of six dogs to come to the dorm, making a full house. The six dogs are being stewarded by 12 youth working in pairs, who’ve earned the privilege and been vetted for the program. The youth receive training via a weekly interactive online meeting with a trainer from a group called “Good Pup” who teaches techniques and helps them with specific questions.
Sit, stay, there's mutts more
To get ready for the BARK program, TJJD provided 25 staff members with classes last spring with trauma-informed dog trainer Roman Gottfried, owner of Roman's Holistic Dog Training. He worked with those who are supervising the canine dorm at Gainesville and another group of staff who're preparing for a similar dorm at the McLennan County campus that will launch later.
Gottfried covered how to work with dogs while being mindful of their past trauma and not engaging punitive measures. He advocates treating our furry "best friends" the same as our hooman best friends. Get to know them, he says, watch and listen and know their personality -- their activity level, distractibility, tolerance for schedule changes and sensory sensitivities -- and you will cultivate a strong relationship. Then, when it comes to problematic behaviors, a dog owner will know the underlying “why” of the behavior and be able to address it compassionately and effectively.
Gottfried's philosophy parallels in significant ways how staff work with youth at TJJD, trying to understand the needs and events in a child’s life that drive behaviors.
The BARK program initially launched at a different campus at TJJD in 2022, but moved its pilot program to Gainesville State School, which had better capacity. Gainesville facility Supt. Darryl Anderson says the program is having a positive effect that has enveloped the campus. Faces light up when the dogs are out being walked and the program serves as a strong incentive both for the youth in BARK, who want to do well, and those who aspire to join it. Youth who earn Stage Three (of four) while at Gainesville State School are eligible to participate.
The boys accepted into BARK must have good behavior records and be progressing in school. They benefit in multiple ways through their service with the dogs, learning good habits and life skills, such as practicing patience while training the dogs and the value of forming strong relationships, said Lisa Broussard, coordinator of the BARK program.
Broussard decided to partner with Dallas Pets Alive because they had a good reputation for saving shelter dogs and a special fostering program that seemed like a great fit for BARK, with dogs suitable for living with the youth.
Sarang and her four-legged dorm mates, Merlin, Atticus, Loki, Baxter, and Maverick, come from that program, which helps people who need temporary foster care for their dogs while they get medical treatment. Participants of the program are in substance abuse rehab or other medical recovery situations. They need someone to care for their animals just until they can return home.
Sarang explained a bit about this in her introduction letter: “I’m so excited to meet you! My human is trying so hard to get back on his feet, and because you welcomed me, he’s able to continue focusing on getting better!”
The serendipity is that the TJJD youth stepping into the breach – as temporary foster care providers -- also are working to turn their lives in a new direction, and many have struggled with substance abuse as well.
The temporary fostering serves a huge community need, said Dallas Pets Alive Executive Director and Founder Leslie Sans. Her organization gets multiple calls every day from people who need a temporary residence for their furry family members.
“People don’t want to let go of their best friend and shouldn’t have to let go of their best friend when they’re going through a crisis,” Sans said.
"We're all about collaboration and innovation and this (alliance with GSS) is a prime example of that," she said. "We are absolutely loving this partnership right now."
Good pups and good service
The program not only provides a service to the dogs' owners but also to the wider community by helping keep their canines out of a shelter. The BARK program adds a third virtuous aspect by providing the youthful temporary caregivers with a meaningful service opportunity.
While the dogs came from loving homes, those homes have likely experienced some upheavals, even a measure of chaos, and that means some of the animals could use a little brushing up in the command and manners department.
The boys are ready for that, thanks to those weekly virtual training sessions with Good Pup. Supported by those classes and the JCO staff who trained with Gottfried, the youth are empowered to work with the dogs each day and bit by bit improve their behavior. It’s a shared growth experience for dog and human.
Perhaps without even realizing it, the youth will learn some of the same things JCOs absorb in their TJJD preparation to work with young people. They will find out that building a trusting connection is foundational to unlocking change. They’ll see their efforts to connect with another pay off as their fur friend starts to trust and listen to them.
The hands-on aspect of the program brings the full magic. The boys keep the dogs in their rooms at night, and during the day they watch and work with them. They let the dogs out, feed, walk and teach them commands. They learn that there's a bit of poo to pick up with any job well done. They must be patient, understanding and responsible because they’re the trainers, not anyone else.
“The benefit is they have to figure out and implement and do all the training themselves, with the guidance of the virtual trainer,” said Sarah McGoldrick, vice president of animal operations for Dallas Pets Alive. “They have to learn the skills.”