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Teaching Love

Clark County Youth Shelter, Top Dog Training and The Arrow Fund teach empathy and compassion


ON A RECENT FRIDAY morning, the youth residents at the Clark County Youth Shelter in Jeffersonville received a special visitor: John Imler, owner of Top Dog Training, brought in an adoptable foster dog named Eclipse.

Over the course of an hour or so, Imler demonstrated to the kids simple training techniques to teach Eclipse easy commands, and then let those interested try for themselves.

The morning was part of a new program that is a collaboration between the Clark County Youth Shelter, Top Dog Training and The Arrow Fund that will hopefully teach the children not only practical life skills but also empathy and compassion awareness.

The program is the brainchild of Imler, who worked at the youth shelter in the past. He brought the idea to Clark County Youth Shelter Executive Director and CEO Laura Fleming-Balmer, who was instantly on board. “There was an immediate interest because I knew from him working here that he fully understood what we do here,” Fleming-Balmer said. “I knew he had thought that out and it would be a good fit. I knew he had thought out the intricacies of doing a program inside this building.”

screen-shot-2017-12-05-at-2-10-34-amIt works like this: The Arrow Fund provides an animal for a youth shelter employee to foster, and Imler comes in once a week to demonstrate training techniques. The hope is the youths will absorb what Imler is doing and then be able to leave the shelter equipped with useful life skills. But there is also the aspiration that caring for the dog – whom they are able to interact with outside of Imler’s training sessions – will help them practice empathy and compassion.

At the session, several young people looked on as Imler showed them how to get Eclipse to walk alongside a human and how the dog could play safely. The Arrow Fund Foster and Adoption Coordinator Kelley Luckett also showed a video that chronicled the troubled history of another dog she has worked with named Zeke. The youths watched Zeke go from neglected and unable to walk to healthy, happy and full of hope. The idea, of course, is to promote a sense of hopefulness and to illustrate that triumph can emerge even in the grimmest of circumstances, a sentiment that is reflected in the training.

“When Eclipse was biting people, I really didn’t get upset; I kind of let him work through it,” Imler said. “Let the dog think and take some time to work through a problem. And if (the youths) can see the dog doing that, maybe someday they’ll be in the same situation where they can stop, think for a few minutes and work it out.”

Luckett also appreciates how far-reaching the program is expected be, how it teaches others to teach kindness. “I have a major interest in this program from the kids’ perspective as far as empathy awareness and empathy building, but it’s two-fold with The Arrow Fund because one of the things that we want to do is prevent animal abuse,” she emphasized. “So, if we can plant the seeds that there are other ways to train animals and ways to work with animals other than hitting them – and if we can touch them and they then touch somebody else – we’re just exponentially growing the impact.”

This has already been seen, in fact, by Clark County Youth Shelter Residential Coordinator Samantha Vaughn, who fosters Eclipse.

screen-shot-2017-12-05-at-2-10-40-amWhen Imler isn’t instructing, she brings the dog in and lets the kids play with him and work on his training, which she points out is evidence of how the program is already having an impact.

“The kids who didn’t really participate today, whenever I bring Eclipse out, they’re playing with him and teaching him things,” she said. “I actually saw one of the kids who hadn’t been here for the first training tap the dog on the nose because he was biting, and then one of the kids who had been here said, ‘No, you don’t do that. Here’s how you can train him.’ So, he was teaching what he’d learned.”

Meanwhile, those who were actively engaged during Imler’s session maintain that they’re thrilled the dog is part of life at the youth shelter.

“Having him here helps with the anxiety,” one youth said. “I would love to take him home with me.” screen-shot-2017-12-05-at-2-10-21-am

Another youngster had the same feeling, though also a touch of sadness: “It was fun. He was so cute, and if I could adopt him, I probably would. … But it brought back a memory of me and my other dog. His name was Boo. He was a mix of Yorkie and Pekingese, and I had to give (him) up to animal control. … I had to give him up and I never saw him again.”

Though this is the first program of its kind at the youth shelter, everything is pointing to it already being a great success.

Eclipse is learning new things and becoming more adoptable at The Arrow Fund, and the youths are showing active interest in the training aspect while also exhibiting genuine compassion.

“Everything we do – I say it at least once a week probably – we’re planting seeds,” Fleming-Balmer said. “Everything that we do here 24-7 is planting seeds for them to take out of here and grow.”