Seven years ago, Gayle Hutchens founded Paws and Think, pawsandthink.org, a nonprofit service organization that pairs at-risk kids with doomed dogs. On March 28, The Indianapolis Star honored Hutchens with a Jefferson Award for her and her organization's outstanding service to the community. This summer, she will travel to Washington, D.C., for her shot at the national Jefferson Award. I know I'm rooting for her.
Since its inception, Paws and Think has bettered the lives of more than 2,000 kids and saved the lives of more than 200 dogs. The organization primarily works in partnership with schools, detention centers, youth agencies, and humane societies and animal shelters. They snatch qualified dogs from the jaws of euthanasia and match them with kids confronted by any number of challenges, from those facing developmental problems or physical handicaps to those suffering a lack of love, familial support and self-confidence to those serving time in jail or juvie.
Hutchens described her inspiration for the program as two-fold. "When my husband was diagnosed with a serious illness, I knew I had to make a career change. I was looking for something with kids or animals or healing. When I told this to a friend at church, she said, 'God is bigger than that. ... You need to do all three!"'
The light bulb flickered on shortly thereafter: Hutchens discovered Dr. Bonnie Bergen, who spawned the "service dog" concept for people with mobility impairments back in 1975. Dr. Bergen runs the nationally acclaimed Assistance Dog Institute (assistancedog.org), and Hutchens interned with her in preparation for her new endeavor.
Through Paws and Think, Hutchens and her all-volunteer staff train kids to train dogs to help others. And it seems with this program, everyone's a winner the kids, the community and the dogs. As Hutchens told the Indy Star, "We structure the programs for outcomes, but it's the connection that the kids and the dogs make that makes the programs work."
Hutchens cites her experience with one exceptionally troubled youth from Pacers Academy, a school for at-risk dropouts who once demonstrated strong academic potential. In an interview for the Indy Star, Hutchens recalled, "He was disruptive and aggressive, and his actions had resulted in several disciplinary actions. He vowed he would not participate with the dogs, but he just couldn't help himself. When he didn't think anyone was looking, he reached over to pet the dog."
It wasn't long before this one-time at-risk youth became "one of our best trainers," according to Hutchens. "And his grades improved because he started coming to school. He became more of a team player with his peers and his teachers, and he became more communicative."
These are just some of the positive results reported by programs that utilize the dog-human connection to better communities and the lives of individuals. Whether dealing with autistic kids, incarcerated kids, sick or disabled kids, lonely seniors, wounded soldiers, the hospitalized, the blind, the socially outcast, time and again the dog-human connection has been proved to help or even heal. My sincere thanks and salute to all of these organizations and the people who make them possible.Woof!
Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619. © Creators Syndicate Inc.