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Echo Glen programs instill values

The parallels run deep between the puppies that rotate in and out of Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie and the juveniles who populate its classrooms and housing facilities.

"Our dogs jump, can't walk on a leash and/or have really bad dog manners; they are healthy dogs but were never trained. That's why [the students] see a lot of themselves in them," said the juvenile correction facility's recreational therapist Jo Simpson. "It's a nice parallel."

Simpson, who has been training dogs outside of her job for more than 30 years, runs Canine Connections, a nonprofit agency connected with the center but not funded through public money. It has been in operation since 2000.

The pet therapy program pairs unwanted puppies deemed unadoptable due to their untrained behavior (not because of aggressiveness) with students at Echo Glen who are also learning how to develop life skills while serving time for juvenile offenses.

The dog training program encourages students to use and develop skills learned at Echo Glen that include taking responsibility, being patient, having empathy, conflict resolution skills and communication in hands-on situations.

Echo Glen has also been training service dogs since 2003.

Students are taught the four "Ps" for training a dog that also work in real life with people: patience, persistence, practice and praise, Simpson said.

"There are so many lessons that we take advantage of all the time," Simpson said. "There are so many powerful lessons you can gain from animal behavior, because it's like people behavior."

For the past few months, 18-year-old Echo Glen resident Ashley has been working with Edward, a golden lab/retriever service dog that is less than a year old. She has been teaching him more than 50 commands that he will one day use in assisting disabled individuals.

The popular program pairs each student with one dog; about 10 students take part in the program at any given time.

Edward's unruly and wild behavior made him undesirable, but so far he has been responding well to obedience training, explained Ashley, who will be leaving the facility at the end of this week.

She will be sad to say good-bye to the dog that she not only cares for five days a week in the pet therapy class, but that also occasionally gets to pend the night with her in her "cottage," what the center calls its on-site juvenile housing.

"It changed my outlook," Ashley said. "I'm not used to having people depending on me ... or dogs. It's a good feeling."

Echo Glen, established in 1967, is a state operated juvenile corrections center that also provides schooling to those in its care as part of the Issaquah School District.

It houses anywhere between 140 and 180 students age 10-20, focusing on serving young male and female offenders and those with mental and emotional issues; many of whom come into the center with traumatic histories that may include abuse, violence and/or negligence, among other problems.

"You can't justify a kid committing a crime, but you can understand why," principal Mike Williams said.

Turnover rates are high at the 200-acre site, so students have to be able to learn rapidly and practice their skills as often as possible while they are here, explained Williams, who added that classes are filled with no more than 11 students. There are about 16 teachers on staff.

"I like these kids," said civics teacher Stephanie Herkelrath. "They have a lot of problems, but they're very real kids."

Along with the utilization of coping and interaction skills, the Canine Connections program also trains students in practical skill areas such as grooming and kennel operations.

The program is a part of the Snohomish County 4-H dog program.

The dogs are trained by the students with supervision. Prior to pet adoption, the animals must pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen Test.

Dogs are typically in the program for two months; service dogs remain on-site for up to a year and a half. It is the only program of its kind in the state and one of only a few in the country.

Students typically select dogs that often reflect their own personalities, Simpson said, adding that students must go through a screening process before they are able to work with the dogs as a part of their recreation course.

After training is complete, the animals are available for adoption on www.petfinder.com for a $100 fee.

Simpson said the students participate in an exit interview with the adopting family and that the dogs rarely have trouble finding good homes after their training.

Simpson has numerous vignettes from students who write about their experiences at the end of their class and they all say about the same thing: Working with the dogs made them think and understand themselves and others in a different way and that even the most hopeless case was often fixable through patience and dedication.

One boy, who Simpson described as having difficulty with authority and being antisocial, found kinship with an abused, untrusting dog brought into the program a few years ago, she recalled.

"He said, I think I want that dog,'" Simpson said. "I said, 'I think this dog will take a lot of work.' He said, 'I think I would be good with that.' It was amazing."

Each day the boy would visit with the shy, cautious puppy and just sit beside him in his kennel reading and waiting very patiently for the dog to respond.

After about a week, the dog began to inch closer and closer to the boy until the puppy eventually let the boy pet him, cuddle him and, in time, even use a leash on him.

"The training that went on was incredible," Simpson said. "It was all his doing and he became more confident and the empathy, responsibility and patience, it just doesn't happen overnight."

Simpson said she works closely with the students to help them develop their skills and training techniques with the dogs.

"Sometimes I never know what they get out of it until I read some of the stories," Simpson said. "You never know what really affects them, but I think they gain a lot of responsibility and they gain confidence."

Students are carefully selected for the program, which is paid for through donations and fund raising.

It's great to actually see the students use the skills they learn, explained Brad Beach, the clinical administrator at Echo Glen.

"We use these situations as opportunities to learn," Beach said.

"You get to see them maybe become more nurturing," added Echo Glen's vice principal Jennell Reese. "It's great to visibly see that."

The hands-on application of lessons learned in the Echo Glen program extend beyond recreation; they can also be seen in the physical education program.

The center recently installed a horizontal climbing wall.

Not only is it fun and challenging, it serves as a metaphor for the life lessons the youth are learning while at Echo Glen, explained Williams.

"No matter what path, there's going to be challenges," he said.

"There's different courses in life and in climbing," said Teiara, a 15-year-old student at Echo Glen who has been climbing the wall since it was put up and is often asked to demonstrate her techniques to others. "I take the challenge-by-choice route. I don't give up."

Students in physical education typically have access to the wall during class once or twice a week, Williams said.

The climbing wall was acquired in October of last year for $10,000, which was paid through grant money provided by the Issaquah School District, said Williams.

It's a metaphor in that the students get their first glimpse and think that the wall will be easy to climb, but once they get on it, they find out how tough it can be and how they have to work hard to get what they want and go where they want to Williams added.

"It's one thing to be in a classroom learning skills, but it's another to be able to practice it," Beach said. "With Canine Connections and the climbing wall ... they're in real situations where they're able to use their skills."

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