There were no caps and gowns, or even a band, for a graduation ceremony Monday, but there were plenty of dog treats.
The morsels were enough, evidently, for Bella and Panda, a pair of hound-mixes who, through a partnership between the Humane Society of Northwest Georgia and the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC), became certified “Canine Good Citizens.”
The dogs were celebrated for having completed 12 weeks of obedience training that earns them the American Kennel Club designation.
“It is not an easy feat. (Earning the Good Citizen status) shows that these dogs are able to go out and be good members of families and good citizens in the community,” said Devon Brooks, who helped train the canines. “This certification tells an adopter that these dogs have good basic manners — they can be handled well, can work nicely on a leash, and won’t act out. The dogs are more adoptable and have good manners in the community and the home.”
The ceremony was also an opportunity to honor the pups’ unlikely trainers — a group of youths from the detention center.
According to Bobby Hughes, director of the Elbert Shaw RYDC, the center has for several years housed a small number of dogs at any given time to help offset crowding at the Humane Society and provide the youth with an opportunity to connect with dogs and learn responsibility.
For the first time, this year a small number of students were provided the opportunity to work with Brooks to provide the certified training.
Every day, during recess, and once a week with the trainer, students worked to teach Bella and Panda.
Chrissy Kaczynski, an animal program coordinator for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, said the program — officially called “Rescue-2-Restore” — was set up to not only make dogs more adoptable, but teach children lessons they’ll need long after their stay in detention is done.
“It encourages good behavior, and it does teach life skills like compassion and patience,” Kaczynski said. “It is a way for students to learn, even if they aren’t realizing it.”
Kelly Lewis, also an animal program coordinator, said, “It also helps to alleviate depression and those kinds of issues that we sometimes see. We have kids, a lot of times, that are able to satisfy a need to connect thanks to the dogs.”
Brooks said she sees firsthand how the youths respond.
“They really do (enjoy it),” she said. “And, we have found that some of the students have a real knack for this and really love it. It is heartwarming to see.”
During Monday’s graduation, Bella and Panda were stars of the show. The pair of pooches — when they weren’t seeking love from anyone willing to offer it — showed off their 12 weeks of work, alternating turns sitting, lying down and rolling over, among other tasks, when prompted by hand signals and voice commands.
Both dogs are a success story, for more reasons than completion of the training.
According to Rita Burrows, kennel manager for the Humane Society, Bella was found at a local dump in bad shape. She was rehabilitated and lived on a farm for three years before needing to be taken back, because her family moved away, without her.
Panda came in as a puppy that was having rocks thrown at her.
Burrows said Bella and Panda, like all dogs chosen for the “Rescue-2-Restore” programs, were selected to participate because they, “for whatever reason, haven’t been adopted — whether they aren’t a popular breed or aren’t a puppy.”
“These dogs are great,” she said. “We see it, and we want everyone to see it.”
The graduation ceremony also provided an opportunity for one of the youth trainers to share his appreciation for the program.
“The dogs have made a big change in my life. I feel like I can succeed, now, thanks to learning patience with these dogs. I had no patience before getting in here,” he said. “I’ve learned that if you work hard at something, you can achieve. I love (this program). I didn’t think I liked dogs that much, but now I love them. I’ve learned how great they can be and I hope they go to a good place where they’re taken good care of.”
Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock was among a number of individuals who spoke Monday, praising both the program and the efforts of the youth.
“Through this program and the positive collaboration, we are doing something special,” he said. “This program provides enrichment not only for the children but for the animals involved. The lessons learned here will increase the students’ ability to care for others, be more in-tune with their emotions, boost self-confidence, and let them know that they can achieve their goals. I don’t think we can ask for anything more than that.”