Dillon Craig was confused when the cat in his arms began to vibrate at the neck — he had never held a purring feline before.
Kristi Cooney, the president of Good Sense Dogs, was there to explain to the 18 year old that it just meant the cat was happy.
Craig, like most of the kids Cooney works with, had limited experience with animals before taking Ahead with Tails classes, a program by Good Sense Dogs. Others, Cooney said, may have experience — but mostly bad ones with mean neighborhood dogs. The program is meant to reach at-risk kids with animal interactions in the hopes of fostering kindness towards animals, and also act as a potential intervention to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds learn about respecting themselves, others, and four-legged friends.
Many of her students at Gerber Junior/Senior High School have been suspended, expelled or even made trips to juvenile hall. If they have dogs at all, Cooney said they might just leave them chained up outside because they can’t control them or don’t know how to care for them.
Some students come into class conditioned to use corporal punishment with animals. Cooney’s program helps them understand “respect for animals and respect for each other, too,” she said.
Cooney has been leading Ahead with Tails for close to three years, providing underserved youth the opportunity to take care of animals and develop vocational skills by training dogs, some which will go on to serve the community as service dogs for people with disabilities.
The program is funded primarily by private donations and grants, and this year it may not be able to survive without community support.
After becoming more comfortable with animals, Cooney said students can take the skills they’ve acquired home with them to better serve their own pets and many even use them to earn a living.
Ahead with Tails brings in guest speakers with eclectic experience ranging from herpetology to ornithology, but also veterinarians and rescue workers, Cooney said.
Cooney also hopes to expand the number and caliber of internships she can offer to students through community partners so they can get valuable hands-on experience.
After going through the program, Cooney said students tell her they want to work at Petsmart or become animal trainers, but another, less obvious benefit of the program is what Cooney described as the “therapy aspect to the dogs.”
Aaron Varnell, 16, loves dogs, and had one of his own until he had to give it away when he moved into a building that doesn’t allow animals.
For now, Varnell said, he’s honing his skills with animals so when he finally does get another dog, he can train it and nurture a friendship with it.
“I feel like dogs understand you more than other humans would,” Varnell said. “I would like to take these things that I learn from class and take it home and train my own dogs. When I grow up, have my family and kids, I’m going to have a dog, and I’m going to make sure my dog’s trained.”
Cooney hopes that students can extend the skills they’ve developed in the program to human relationships as well, potentially even with their own children — dog training and parenting are not so dissimilar, she said.
She used to work as a dog trainer in prisons, but Cooney said she realized that by bringing animals to at-risk youth, she might be able to foster compassion before incarceration rather than after.
Since its founding, Ahead with Tails has partnered with Wind Youth Services, Gerber Junior/Senior High School, and the Key Club at Inderkum High School, and Cooney said it has been receiving more requests from community organizations despite falling funds.
This year, a large donor who had supported the program in the past did not come through, Cooney said, but students still need proper equipment to take home to their own dogs instead of using chains and padlocks.
Cooney would like each student to have personal equipment for practical purposes, but also so they feel like they are learning how to become a skilled and valued trainer.
Needed: Treats, bait bags, training clickers, and leashes for dogs. T-shirts and bus passes for students.