Nov. 21, 2018 — Humans love dogs. The bond between the two species is the story of a millennium-long partnership that has greatly benefited both. Archeologists have found remains from both species, interred together, that are more than 14,000 years old.
This relationship is also the cornerstone of a local program that matches youthful, at-risk offenders, with dogs that need a home and a caring owner.
“Project POOCH” began in Woodburn, Ore., in 1993. POOCH is an acronym for Positive Opportunities for Obvious Changes with Hounds, which is also the goal of the program.
Elements of this program have now been incorporated successfully into the curriculum at Camp Florence Youth Transitional Facility, a facility for youth located on South Jetty Road. It is run by the State of Oregon and the staff works with young men who are in the process of transitioning from a negative life situation to a more positive and productive one.
Camp Florence is the final step in that journey.
The mission of Project POOCH is to provide opportunities for youth in corrections to learn responsibility, patience and compassion for all life by working with shelter dogs. The program was founded by Joan Dalton, who at the time was a vice principal at MacLaren’s Lord High School. Dalton’s vision was to provide a situation where the principles of positive reinforcement, along with training provided by professionals, would help establish an empathetic bond between at risk youth and homeless dogs.
Project POOCH’s website shares the stories of some its successful graduates and offers an inspiring forecast for those interested in improving the lives of participants — from both the canine and human families.
The hope is to be able to recreate the success achieved at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility at Camp Florence.
Marina Lewis, shelter manager at the Oregon Coast Humane Society (OCHS) in Florence, said her experiences working with the young men at Camp Florence has been very positive.
“Usually what happens is we have a dog who we think would benefit from going to Camp Florence. We just call them and say, ‘Hey, can you come and pick this dog up?’ And we tell them about the dog to make sure it is a good fit,” explained Lewis, who said the shelter has gotten pretty good at judging what they [the dog] can and can’t handle — and what they would and wouldn’t enjoy. “And we also do it to get a better picture of who the dog is outside of the shelter environment,” added Lewis. “The boys are really good about telling us specific traits about the dogs and what they do and do not like, and how they act in certain situations.”
One of the residents of Camp Florence is a young man named Frankie, who feels the work he is doing with the dogs from OCHS is similar to work he has done previously at MacLaren, with the original Project POOCH, with similar positive results.
“What we do at Project POOCH is honestly learn how to work with the dogs,” Frankie said. “We are able to apply for certain certificates and, if we pass, we get certified and are able to look after dogs in a kennel environment.
“We are here to rehabilitate them and help train them.”
Frankie starts out by getting to know the personality of the dog he is going to work with and also identifies medical issues, like infections or hair loss, and points those problems out to the staff veterinarian for treatment.
“Before fostering a dog, we go and actually have to visit with the dog first, before even bringing it to camp,” he said. “We have other dogs and people there and we get to know what the dog’s behavior is and see if there are any behavior issues we can address and then we know what to expect and to work on — so we can decide whether it is a good idea to foster them at camp.”
The health aspects of the dogs working with the Camp Florence youth are often secondary considerations, with bad behavior and bad attitudes more pressing concerns.
“The biggest challenge is the fact that some dogs are really aggressive or are deemed unadoptable, so that is the real issue. The process is a bit of a guess for a person never working with dogs,” Frankie said. “But I come in with the mindset that I have to be patient and try to communicate with them, because they can’t talk, you just have to go off of their body language.
“That process is challenging, but it’s not a bad part.”
Lewis is hoping to increase the interactions between OCHS and Camp Florence. She sees the relationship growing in the future.
“All of our interactions with Camp Florence have been really positive. …The last dog we sent there was an elderly pit bull,” said Lewis. “Coco just needed some tender loving care. There is nothing wrong with her, she was just a house dog, she was like 11 years old, and was used to being in a house and she howled the whole time. We sent her to spend time with the boys and after that she did great,” Lewis said.
The experiences Frankie has had while working with shelter dogs has made a strong impression on him and he is pleased that he has been able to make a difference in a dog’s life. He has also found a dog that he enjoyed working with so much that he has decided to spend a lot more time with it.
“The most recent dog I worked with was a dog I ended up adopting. His name is Niko and I got him when he was a small little puppy,” said Frankie. “… I went to the humane society and they said we’ve got this dog we want you to take a look at. This little guy was running wild and had no type of manners … and I ended up adopting him.”
That scenario is the type of outcome that the Project POOCH founder would have hoped for when she started the program 25 years ago.
The sentiments expressed by Frankie, when discussing the positive aspects of the program, would also make Dalton happy.
“Success to me is when I get to see a dog have a happy home and actually be adopted rather than sitting in a kennel all day,” Frankie said. “I think it is beautiful to actually see them go. It’s kind of like the before and after. I like seeing the after because I know that all of my efforts to help them succeed were worth it. That to me brings me happiness and joy.”
For contact information for the Oregon Coast Humane Society and Camp Florence, see the groups’ respective websites.