Midland's troubled youth find solace, focus through training dogs
By Jeff Havens
Do you like children? Do you like dogs? If you do, then you’ll love PAWSitive Helpers, a Midland nonprofit that pairs hard-to-adopt dogs with adjudicated youth for their mutual benefit. Partners with a Cause received a Community Foundation grant in March 2016 after two years of showing some seriously impressive outcomes resulting from their work.
“I moved to Midland from the Detroit area about four years ago,” says Angela Lijewski, who founded PAWSitive Helpers and also works as a psychologist at Partners for Change. “In Detroit I volunteered for Teacher’s Pet, which has a similar focus, and I knew I wanted to do something similar here too.”
PAWSitive Helpers has been operational since 2014. The children meet with their canine partner twice a week for two-hour sessions, where they work with a licensed animal trainer on teaching basic obedience skills – eye contact, sit, stay, leash walking, etc. Their pilot program began with five kids and five dogs.
“Many of these dogs have been abused or neglected, and some of them are highly anxious, so the kids have to figure out how to get their dogs comfortable with their surroundings and decrease that anxiety,” Lijewski says. “The kids are responsible for working with their animal trainer to set goals for their dogs, talk about where they’re struggling, and work through their frustration when things aren’t going well. So far every one of our students have said that this has helped them learn patience.”
It’s helped with more than just patience, though. PAWSitive Helpers uses the Beck Youth Inventory to survey each student both before and after the program, and they have found that 100% of the students who have participated in the program report decreases in depression, anxiety, anger, and disruptive behavior.
“That’s a huge thing to see,” Lijewski says. “It’s simply incredible to see these hard-shelled, rough kids just open up around their dogs. Some of these kids are seeing and feeling love for the first time. It’s such a cool experience.”
And it’s not just beneficial for the kids. To date, 100% of the dogs that have participated in the PAWSitive Helpers training program have been adopted into forever homes. They’re currently working with Great Lakes Bay Animal Society and would like to expand to work with the Humane Society of Midland County as well.
“To be able to say that this dog was involved in a 6-week or 10-week training program, that really helps sell the dog,” Lijewski says. “All of them are in forever homes now.”
The Community Foundation grant will be used to fund PAWSitive Helper’s next program, a ten-week session beginning on June 21 with eight children and sixteen dogs, which will allow each participant to train two dogs (one at a time for five weeks each) instead of just one. There are also some additional opportunities that have opened up as a result of the grant.
“We haven’t done long-term tracking yet to see how the kids are doing after they’ve completed the program,” Lijewski says, “and that’s something we definitely want to do. And we’d love to run additional programs. We’ve done three of them a year, but I’d love to do four or five. I mean, when you see 100% of the children and 100% of the dogs benefiting from their interactions with each other, you want to do as much of it as you possibly can.”