Dogs help at-risk youth learn some TLC


Terrier mix shelter dog "Rocky" has been doing some intensive "TLC" training with 8th grader Refilwe Gqajela.

"TLC," as in the "Teaching Love and Compassion" program, is a new partnership between Oakland's Lighthouse Charter School and the East Bay SPCA.

"One of our main goals is teaching respect for all beings, and that's a really important educational lesson that everybody needs to learn," Ellen Fisher from the East Bay SPCA said.

This innovative violence prevention and intervention program focuses on at-risk youth ages 11 to 13, with an after-school opportunity to care for and train shelter dogs preparing them for adoption.

"I like being able to work with Rocky. I like that it's not only about dogs, but we learn about other animals and like the program is love and compassion," Gqajela said.

Lighthouse vice principal Tony Cuevas says it comes at a critical time period in these kids' lives.

"I think the most important thing for me is giving the kids something to do after school, from 4-to-6. Those are usually the hours when kids can get into trouble," Cuevas said.

The kids invest two hours daily for six weeks and they have to maintain good grades and good behavior to participate.

SPCA staff and a professional dog trainer work with them in a program designed to increase attitudes of kindness, caring and responsibility for both animals and fellow humans.

"It's an important lesson because it's something that they can carry over into the classroom with their fellow students that aren't even in this program, something that they can take home into their neighborhoods and with their families at home," Fisher said.

Some of the lessons learned include public speaking, anger management, conflict resolution and personal development.

"It definitely got me to be more patient, because I'm not a very patient person, but with Rocky you have to be patient," Gqajela said.

"As soon as I entered the TLC, I wanted to do more my homework because I was more interested to working with Babs," 8th grade student Alexandra Serrano said.

"The dogs bring out something that I haven't seen in any other program for middle school. I mean it brings out smiles, it brings out compassion. Kids that you wouldn't normally see interested in school love being in the program, so it gives them a success," Cuevas said.

The East Bay SPCA is the first organization to bring the TLC program to the Bay Area. It's already proven successful in high-crime, gang-plagued urban areas of Los Angeles and New York.

Funding is minimal right now and so far Lighthouse is the only local school participating. Thirty-six students have graduated from three sessions and many have new outlooks.

"When I grow up I want to be a veterinarian," Serrano said.

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