Echo Glen Children’s Center students learn life lessons from canine pals

September 18, 2012

By Sebastian Moraga

Jo Simpson, recreation director at Echo Glen Children’s Center and the director of its Canine Connections program, plays with her dog Tux. Troubled children staying at the center spend time with dogs that, unlike Tux, have suffered neglect. By Sebastian Moraga

The fellows behind the fences arrived at Echo Glen Children’s Center two weeks ago and they hate the place.

Their complaints are deafening, their looks threatening. Furthermore, in about eight weeks, they’ll be gone from this juvenile rehabilitation center and inside someone‘s home.

By then, Echo Glen Recreation Director Jo Simpson promised, they will be very different dogs.

From Chihuahuas to bulldogs, dogs with traumatic pasts and children at the facility help each other overcome their struggles.

The program, Canine Connections, is a joint project between Echo Glen and the Issaquah School District, which runs the school inside the facility.

With the help of Simpson, who has trained, showed and owned dogs for decades, 10 Echo Glen children reverse the age-old saying and become a dog’s best friend every three months.

“Each child becomes the dog’s case manager,” said Patti Berntsen, Echo Glen’s associate superintendent.

This is only week two of the fall quarter, which explains the snarls from the dogs. In a few weeks, these wild dogs that sat in a shelter almost ready to be put to sleep before Echo Glen brought them in will be ready for adoption instead.

The therapy the children learn to teach dogs resembles in many ways the therapy the children receive from the staff, Berntsen said.

“Recognition, validation, teaching moments, positive reinforcement — they are strong components of behavioral therapy,” she said.

Students have to apply to be in the Canine Connections program. Some want to be in it. Some need to be in it, Berntsen said.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it can be very therapeutic for the kids.”

The dogs come to enjoy it and grow attached to their case managers.

“The dogs just love their kids,” Berntsen said.

If you go

Canine Connections fundraiser

  • 6 p.m. Sept. 21
  • Dinner starts at 6 p.m.; music begins at 7 p.m.
  • The Black Dog
  • 8062 Railroad Ave. S.E., Snoqualmie
  • 831-DOGS

At the beginning of the 10 weeks, love is in short supply, with troubled children learning how to control troubled dogs.

“The life of the dogs sometimes is similar to some of the kids,” Berntsen said. “They’ve been abused, abandoned, delinquent, they are aggressive and violent, and their families can’t take care of them,”

Children learn through videos, classroom talks and hands-on experience how to treat a dog. They can’t yank, jerk, hit or tell dogs no. Sometimes they can’t even use the dogs’ names, as some dogs have associated their names to a sign that punishment is coming, said Simpson, director of the Canine Connections program.

Instead, the children have to learn how to communicate, and find other methods to get what they need by not being aggressive, Simpson said.

“The really remarkable thing,” said Curtis VonTrapp, one of the teachers at Echo Glen, “is that it teaches these children compassion. They both have had trauma and once they can identify with the dogs, they can start feeling compassion.”

What follows, Berntsen said, is an “a-ha” moment for the children, when they realize that the way the staff at Echo Glen tries to help them is the same way they try to help the dogs.

“They go, ‘Hey, this is the same thing they were teaching me at the cottage,’” Simpson said. “And we go, ‘Yup.’”

At the end of the 10 weeks, the program finds homes for the reformed dogs. The dogs go, the children stay, but so do the lessons learned in the two months. Some children, once released, have won “Best in Show” with their dogs at county fairs, Simpson said.

This week, the program gets an unexpected boost from an aptly named business in Snoqualmie.

The Black Dog will host an auction and concert fundraiser for the Canine Connections program at 6 p.m. Sept. 21. Berntsen said all proceeds will go to the program, which turns 13 in February, and which keeps warming the hearts of creatures — both two- and four-legged — who have felt precious little of it over the years.

“You can just see the kids when the dogs are there waiting for them,” Berntsen said, “and their tails are wagging 100 miles per hour.”

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