At-Risk Kids + Shelter Dogs = One Interesting Sharpe Project

Miley is a pit-bull type (there is no such thing as a "pit-bull" breed) from the Heritage Humane Society - she was being trained in the Teen Trainers Program. Her sweet disposition and intelligence made her excel in training. During training classes, she failed to fit in the typical pit-bull stereotype of being a mean and dangerous dog. Unfortunately, this stereotype often discourages people from adopting a wonderful dog like Miley.

Hello everyone! My name is Kelly O’Toole and I’m starting to blog about my Sharpe Summer Research a bit late…especially considering the fact that the program that I have started will officially end tomorrow. However, I will still be blogging about my reflections on the past four weeks of my project and my analysis of the program. There are too many new things that I have experienced and lessons that I have learned to fit in one little blog anyway!

I received a Sharpe Summer Grant for the Summer of 2011 to originally conduct research on the human-animal bond at Williamsburg’s own Heritage Humane Society (HHS), located about three miles from the campus of William & Mary. The idea of my project was to involve at-risk youth from the Merrimac Juvenile Detention Center in a dog-training program which trained the dogs for their Canine Good Citizen Test. As funny as the title of the test may sound, it is in fact a nationally-recognized exam that is administered through the American Kennel Club. All therapy dogs have to go through this test to become certified to visit nursing homes and hospitals, and the test has been found to increase the likelihood that a dog will get adopted. I mean, would you want to adopt a dog that doesn’t know how to sit and stay or will annoyingly pull on the leash with his teeth like he’s playing tug of war with you while you’re walking him? Many of the dogs at HHS exhibit this kind of behavior, and I have seen firsthand how this behavior repels potential adopters – causing the dogs to stay at HHS for months and months in a cage. So yes, it’s a pretty big deal.

As I read up on the human-animal bond, I came across many articles on the effects that it has for children, prisoners, and at-risk youth in programs specifically designed to help these groups of people. Their success rates were oftentimes overwhelming – from programs involving dogs as companions for small children struggling to read to projects that use prisoners or at-risk juveniles to train abused and neglected dogs to become therapy dogs or search and rescue dogs, the human-animal bond had an enormous positive effect on the people and dogs involved in such activities.  W&M Professor Barbara J. King’s most recent book, titled Being with Animals: Why We are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World also reinforced the positive effects that human-animal interactions can have for both the human and the nonhuman animal involved. This got me thinking…why not create a similar program at a local humane society? After observing and assisting in several dog training classes and meeting with a W&M professor who has conducted research at Merrimac Juvenile Detention Center, I thought it was worth a try to establish some type of training program with dogs from HHS and juveniles from Merrimac. The dogs would receive much-needed instruction and socialization, while the juveniles would learn patience and empathy. With both helping each other out, it definitely seemed like a win-win situation to me.

All of my research throughout freshman year focused on the human-animal bond eventually led to the creation of the “Teen Trainers” program, which would involve 5-10 Merrimac juveniles coming to HHS every Tuesday and Thursday for training and guest speakers. All of this was made possible by the support of professors within the Sharpe Community Scholars program and the numerous professors that I consulted when the project was just a bunch of ideas floating around in my head. And I also want to thank the 100 Acre Woods Alumni for making this program possible.

Unfortunately, I was not able to conduct official research for my Sharpe project because I could not find a professor who was able to be a lead investigator for my PHSC approval. However, this program definitely has the potential for research, and going through the steps of creating a community service program from scratch will help me appreciate the things that I need to focus on if I decide to do further research on the subject.

After creating and solidifying all of the plans for my project by the time summer came along, I felt like I was ready to go and take on the challenge as “Program Facilitator”! But as the weeks went on once the program started, things didn’t always go quite as planned.


  1. The end of this post is such a cliff-hanger! Great job finding a research topic that (as far as I can tell) fits your interests so well! I look forward to reading more about your program.

  2. tribegirl2013 says:

    It is, indeed, rare to find an activity that one can feel as connected with as you seem to do with “Teen Trainers”. More than holding your own interest, I am sure there will be no lack of volunteers eager to interact with these great animals as well as the opportunity to better themselves and others in the process thereby emphasizing community involvement. It sounds like fun and I sincerely hope that you are successful.


  3. This project sounds incredible! From what I’ve read in your post, it seems that you will be making a huge impact on the lives of these dogs and children. I was wondering what kind of programs/training the juveniles from the Merrimac Detention Center will receive before/during their volunteer experience with the Heritage Humane Society? For example, how do you plan to prepare these kids for the “letting go” process when they can no longer work with the canines at HHS?

    Your project is going to do so much good for so many people and animals! Good luck with the rest of your work on the Teen Trainers program.


  4. Diann Bowman says:

    Great job. We have a similar program here in Wichta Falls and I woul dbe interested into where your research takes you,. I can also add to your research with the impact our program has had on the youth and the community.
    Good Luck with your efforts
    Diann Bowman
    PAWS for Greatness
    Positive Achievement WIth Success