May. 5, 2003
by Donna Douglas
Lisa Grey is a social worker. For years, she's been a counsellor in
the young offender system and has a strong working knowledge of the probationary
client, the court system, and kids.
In fact, she's been a foster parent for young offenders.
And Lisa Grey has a hobby. She's a dog trainer.
And then disaster struck when Lisa was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and began having seizures.
As many people with disabilities will tell you, it's often this fire - this disaster - which turns bad into good. And Lisa's story is surely that.
She is program director and senior trainer for a brand new program based in Penetanguishene, but serving all of Simcoe County. It's called AARK, Adolescents at Risk & K-9's. This home-based business is using volunteer staff, home-office equipment, Lisa's sheer determination and the dedication of a volunteer board of directors to bring together three or four social needs and develop something wonderful from it.
Young offenders. Adolescents with anger problems. Children who are grieving. Kids with self-esteem problems. Kids. That's need number one.
Disabled people. People who don't have the use of their large or small motor skills. People confined to wheel chairs or beds. People with mobility problems. That's need number two.
Dogs. Dogs that are people friendly. Dogs that are smart, that can be trained to do laundry (yes, indeed, they can!), dogs that can answer the door, dogs that can assist their adult companion with their daily life demands. These dogs can be trained. That's need number three.
AARK brings them all together. Kids with problems work to train dogs to bring specific skills and services to disabled people who want to stay in their own homes. Sounds simple, and it is. Lisa has clients in four parts of the county right now. A young person enters the program, for as long as two years, and by using a training method based on positive reinforcement, the 'kid' works with the dogs. Because dogs are non-judgmental, kids learn a communication method that does not involve aggression or anger. It gets positive results.
Lisa breaks down each training need into modules and her people clients work with their canine clients to achieve a tremendous gift for another person. In order to do that, they need to learn what it's like to be hearing impaired, or confined to a wheelchair. They need to be able to work with the dog from the perspective of the dog's eventual companion.
"Kids are always part of the training package," explains Lisa. They're asked what works best for their dog. And in the six weeks to two years that the young person and the dog are paired, magic happens.
It's a much better program than doing time in a treatment facility and the results are more positive, says Lisa.
Now, where does Lisa get her young human clients? Probation Services. Parole Services. Social Workers. Attendance Counsellors. There is no shortage of kids who would benefit from positive activity which results in good self-esteem.
And dogs? Where do they come from? Well, Lisa currently has four dogs in the program, and ultimately each of these dogs will become an assistance dog for someone with a disability. Pushing buttons, being on alert for a heart attack, practical solutions for people with disabilities.
Certain dog breeds are better for certain activities, according to Lisa, and AARK is running a dog-sponsorship program, a puppy donations specifically from companion breeds like labs and poodles. Breeds like shelties, Jack Russells - dogs that are sound-oriented - are excellent assistance dogs.
Lisa's quick to point out that breed isn't everything. It's personality that matters first. AARK needs foster homes for puppies in training, volunteers to help with fund-raising and business operation costs, such as dog food. Pledge-a-pup programs of $10 a month help house and feed a puppy in training.
"It takes $8,000 to $10,000 to train a service dog," says Lisa.
Right now, she's the only instructor with experience in both dog training and young offender work, but finding others with similar expertise would allow the program to move forward more quickly.
But for the four clients training the four dogs for hopefully four individuals, this is a terrific beginning. It's a huge commitment by this non-profit corporation. But it's one of those commitments that has life-changing results.
The kid communicates better, learns to negotiate and problem solve. The dog gets trained. The person with a disability wins. The justice system wins.
Copyright © 2003 Metroland Printing, Publishing and Distributing