Warm Hearts, Cold Noses to the Rescue

For Troubled Teens

Brian Wilks came to MacLaren School a bitter, trash-talking teenager who used his fists to navigate a troubled life.

Almost two years later, Mr. Wilks is a calm, polite young man with an promising future.

Salvation came at the end of a leash.

Wilks is one of seven youths taking part in a reform-school program called Project Pooch, which puts dogs in the care of the young inmates.

MacLaren is believed to be the only juvenile corrections school in the nation where dogs are kenneled on campus.

The idea is to teach often disaffected teenagers responsibility and empathy by putting them in charge of abused or neglected pets.

In the case of Wilks, it appears to be working. The 18-year-old inmate, serving time in the juvenile facility for an attempted sex-abuse case, has developed a bond with an adorable Saint Bernard-Collie mix. He named him Barkley, after the basketball star Charles Barkley, and has taught the dog to sit, lie down, and bow.

On a recent afternoon, with Barkley sprawled at his feet, Wilks petted the animal and talked about the progress they both have made.

"He helps me talk with people," he says. "He's taught me lots of patience, that's for sure."

A hard home life

Both Wilks and Barkley got rough starts in life.

Wilks's mother and stepfather moved him around a lot, living in motels and even cars when they ran out of money.

His father was in prison. Kids at school teased him because he didn't wear nice clothes. And to silence their badgering, he became a bully.

Barkley had been severely neglected by his previous owners. They had left a collar on the puppy so long that his hide had grown over it and become infected. When first he came to MacLaren, he barked constantly for attention.

By guiding Barkley and other dogs, Wilks has emerged a better man.

"If they stay in the program long enough, they get a chance to see another side of themselves," says Robert Ford, project coordinator for the MacLaren project. "They get a chance to be responsible."

Joan Dalton launched the privately funded program in 1993. Project Pooch is one of the programs for the 449 students at MacLaren.

The campus sits on about 250 acres in this northwestern Oregon town. The state juvenile correctional facility houses a full range of young criminals, including murderers, robbers, and sex offenders.

Project Pooch is an acronym for "Positive Opportunities - Obvious Change with Hounds."

"I think the four-legged creatures can be our teachers as well as two-legged ones," says Ms. Dalton, director of the program.

The first youth to join Project Pooch came to MacLaren because he had killed a teenager who shot his dog.

That young man has since been paroled, holds a job, and attends school part-time, Dalton says.

The MacLaren campus now kennels as many as four dogs at a time. They come from local animal shelters. Many had been destined to be put to sleep. Students spend up to four hours a day cleaning kennels and grooming and walking the dogs, which are adopted for $75.

Adoptive homes screened

Before they can be adopted, the dogs must pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test.

Dalton says the most difficult part of the program comes when students have to give up the dogs for adoption. To ease the transition, students help screen potential homes and often are there to hand over the dogs to their new owners.

So far, about 40 MacLaren students have participated in Project Pooch, and 28 dogs have been adopted. To get into the program, students must undergo a rigorous screening of their own. They can't be an escape risk.

No student with a history of animal abuse or neglect is permitted. Students admitted into the program are interviewed by others already in the project.

Wilks knows that Barkley soon will be adopted. The playful dog with orange hair, almost the same color as Wilks's, has given him so much, he says. But he knows Barkley can't be part of his life forever.

"Just having him around, it makes the whole day go easier," Wilks says. "Because I have something to look forward to."

Mario Landeros, who came to MacLaren on a five-year, 10-month sentence for helping to steal a car at gunpoint, joined Project Pooch because he thought walking the dogs would give him a sense of freedom.

Like Wilks, the 18-year-old Landeros had shunned authority and often picked fights when he came to the school. But through the care of dogs, he has learned to do better. The reformation of the dogs was soon closely joined by his own.

By caring for them, he hopes to learn how to be a better parent to his two sons.

"I look at the dogs and how I was," he says. "They're locked up in a cage and that's how I feel."

They're here, he says, because someone gave up on them.

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