Last Update: 1/12/2013 4:32:00 PM
Juvenile deliquents get on right path with PAWS program in Texas
BROWNWOOD, Texas - Despite the names, these aren't characters in a board game. The Counselor, the Marine, the Police Officer, the Nurse, and the Cheerleader are youths at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex.
But ending up on the wrong side of the law isn't all these girls have in common. They have a future and, as minors, their anonymity, too. In this case, you don't need a name to know them, not when you know their hopes for their futures.
The five have one more thing in common: They each love dogs. It's one of the benefits of the PAWS program, or Pairing Achievement With Service, in which they are enrolled in at Ron Jackson.
"At first, I didn't want to do it, I just wanted to do my time and leave," said the Counselor, 16. "Then I thought, 'Well, that will give me a chance to give something back to somebody.'"
She smiled at the Chihuahua by her feet, whom she named after a grandmother, Ida Vera.
"I don't know (to) who, but somebody," she said quietly.
Hollie Fenton, the PAWS dorm supervisor, was a case worker at Ron Jackson when she proposed the program. The idea came to her after taking some of the kids to the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center, she noticed how the visits had a positive effect on the behavior of her young charges.
That led to a collaboration between the center and Ron Jackson, beginning in 2010. Girls in the PAWS program receive a dog from the shelter and for several weeks work on "canine good citizen" skills.
The dogs learn things such as sitting and staying, accepting a friendly stranger and loose-leash walking. At the end of nine to 12 weeks of training, the correctional facility and the animal center have an adoption day at which the girls can demonstrate their dogs' skills. So far, 67 dogs have graduated from the program, as have 41 PAWS program students.
Each girl keeps a dog in her room. But the dogs sleep in a pet crate, not at the foot of the bed, and, like the girls, are kept to a specific schedule.
"The canines learn that schedule, so at 9 o'clock at night, our canines are ready to go to bed," Fenton said. "The command is 'go home'; the canine goes into their crate and they both go down for the night."
There have been many stories, studies and anecdotal tales relating the therapeutic power of having a pet. The PAWS program is no exception.
"The girls' self-esteem and self-confidence changes because they have this sense of accomplishment," Fenton said. "They've taken this dog that could have been euthanized at the shelter and made it adoptable by teaching it skills."
Saving a life is one reason why the Nurse came to the program.
"To give them another life because when I think about it, they go through the same things we go through," she said. "The reason I'm over here is to help them get another life, just like us."
The Nurse doesn't just want to be a nurse. At 15, she also wants to sing and be a caretaker.
"I want to do all three," she said. "I'm going to Hollywood."
Chico is the name of her dog, another Chihuahua. She called his personality "Orange," a reference to a color-coded personality scheme used in the dorm.
The Marine explained how it worked, using her dog Looney, a blue heeler-mix, as an example.
"Looney is an Orange, a risk-taker, very outgoing, speaks their mind," she said, the words rushing out of her. "Gold is very structured and organized. Green is introspective and Blue is very emotional, caring."
Fenton said sometimes they use the color codes to match a student with a dog.
"It really depends on the youth. We try to pair them with a canine that they will do best with," she said. "Some you may match with a youth with a similar personality type. Then with others, to bring them out of their shell, you might give them an Orange."
Listening to the 17 year-old Marine, it's apparent how she and Looney are very much alike. Both are energetic and highly focused, him on her commands and she on her dream.
"I will be a Marine," she said, a steel in her voice that turns softer when speaking of the PAWS program.
"It taught me so much patience, I really like it," she said.
For centuries, people have spoken their troubles into the ears of their dogs. It's no different here.
"Sometimes when I'm frustrated, I say things I'm not supposed to say," said the Police Officer, 15. "But I know if I talk to my canine and I let out all my emotions, even though she just sits there and stares at me, I know she understands."
She named her dog Simply.
"Simply Beautiful," she said. "She's very cuddly. She comforts me when I'm upset."
The Cheerleader echoed those feelings with her 3-year-old border collie-mix, Junior.
"Our personalities are the same, he helps me," she said. "I have someone, a friend. I just tell him how I feel. He might tell his other dog friends, but nobody else."
She let slip a shy laugh. The Cheerleader has a lilting voice reminiscent of the character Luna in the "Harry Potter" films. At 14, she figures if she's going to dream, there's no reason not to dream big.
"Well, you see, I want to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader," she said, glancing down self-consciously.
She added that she wouldn't mind training dogs, too, and had a simple solution to how both careers could work together.
"I could teach a dog to be a cheerleader with me," she said, smiling.
Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, http://www.reporternews.com