Youth connect with dogs for ‘New Leash on Life’

Nothing softens the heart like a cute, furry friend, with big lovable eyes, floppy ears and a tail that always says, “I’m happy.”

“How he reacted to me was all positive,” said the young man holding the leash.

At the other end was a dog he spent four weeks training. On Wednesday it was time to say goodbye. It was graduation day for five teens and several of their four-legged friends. The youth, whose names will not appear in this article, are clients of Mesa County Division of Youth Corrections, 380 28 Road, the hounds are wards of the neighboring Mesa County Animal Services. Together they are the “New Leash on Life” program.

Since 1998 Bob Simpleman has taught the class.

“The dogs and them have one thing in common, and that is neither the dog nor many of them know how to take direction,” Simpleman said.

The Division of Youth Corrections serves youth between ages 10 to 21. The average age is 15.

Learning how to be patient, said one of the youth dog handlers, is the main thing he has learned after graduating two dogs through the program.

“It has really shown me how to be patient,” he said. “I saw a lot of myself in the dogs.”

The youth are given the opportunity to express love for the dog, but perhaps more importantly they are given a responsibility. The dogs look up to them, and not just in a literal sense, as one youth discovered.

“There were times I thought about giving up,” said one of two girls who participated in the latest go-around of the program.

At 14 years old she was able to confess that she was “not in a good head space.” Her life has been marked by abuse, she said. When it came time for her to train a dog, she initially found herself trying to teach it in the same manner some abusive adults have taught her, she said.

But with help from the Division’s staff and Simpleman, she fought off her own demons and found a kinder, gentler — and successful — way to train her dog.

“I never thought I could do it way back in the day,” she said. “Now I know I can do anything I set my mind to.”

And that is the goal for those who pass through this institution, said Dave Maynard, director of Youth Corrections.

“This program shows the youth how to start a relationship and work through the problems of a relationship,” he said.

The New Leash on Life program is just one of many offered at Youth Corrections. They are all aimed at helping the individual be successful once they are released, Maynard said.

“The dog program is a treatment aspect of the overall continuum of care,” Maynard said.

The dogs also benefit.

Simpleman said many of the dogs are adopted while in training. The new owners are guaranteed an animal that can walk on a leash and knows the five basic commands of sit, heel, come, down and stay.

Selecting dogs for the program is left to Animal Services.

“We try to pick dogs that would benefit most from the program,” said Penny McCarty, director of Animal Services. “They need that extra help.”

When Animal Services moves to its new home near the Mesa County Landfill late next year the program will continue, she said.


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