Giving Unchained Program links needy dogs with troubled youth

A Living Unchained volunteer shares happy times with a dog in training | Provided photo

By Shouhe Shi and Yujia Jiang

RobinLynn is eloquent and joyful when she talks on the other end of FaceTime.

But the 17-year-old from Salinas was admittedly very different only a couple of years ago, when she had a difficult time as a student. “Like many rebellious teenagers, I was locked in my own world and unwilling to talk to anyone else,” she said. She called school a “torment.

Things began to change when RobinLynn, known to her friends as “Kiki,” was introduced to a dog, Lady, in spring 2017.

RobinLynn remembers well when she first met Lady, then a 6-month-old shepherd mix. With her body tensed, Lady shivered in the corner, while two other dogs in the room played joyfully.

Also in the room were five other teenagers and three dog trainers, who were in a program called UnChained, in which at-risk youths were taught to help train homeless dogs before they were adopted into permanent homes.

RobinLynn noticed Lady in the corner, walked up and tried to give her a pat. Lady dodged. She did not want to be touched by anyone.

Bewildered, RobinLynn was told that Lady had a trust issue because she had been abandoned twice. Her owner gave her away to an animal shelter, only to regret it and take her back after a while. Several weeks later, the family sent her to the shelter again. Since then, Lady was not able to trust anyone.

RobinLynn felt strongly connected to the dog, and was determined to help her. At that time, RobinLynn had her own problems. She went to a therapist, but did not get much help because she was not able to effectively communicate with people. The therapist then introduced her to UnChained.

UnChained is a nonprofit organization working in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties. Through its Canines Teaching Compassion program, UnChained trainers teach at-risk youth how to train dogs in basic skills, manners and socialization so the dogs could be adopted into permanent homes.

RobinLynn began her UnChained journey as a youth trainer for Lady. With the guidance of UnChained dog trainers, RobinLynn and another girl trained Lady twice a week for eight weeks.

“Lady was like a good book that I didn’t want to put down. We understood each other without even talking,” RobinLynn said. “I never wanted to go home after class. Being there made me feel calm and excited at the same time. Lady was somebody who was not a person, but who needed my help. I really liked that.”

At the end of the program, Lady rebuilt her trust with humans and learned how to interact with people properly, before being adopted by a loving family.

RobinLynn changed, too.

“I was not a very good student at that time. I didn’t care so much about my classes and grades. Lady helped me with my self-esteem and confidence, so that I could pass my classes and get higher scores,” she said over the phone. “She also taught me to care more about my friends, my family and myself.”

At the graduation ceremony after eight weeks, RobinLynn met with Lady’s new family and said goodbye to her furry friend. Happy for Lady, RobinLynn cried happy tears.

Founded in 2011 by Melissa Wolf, UnChained works with two vulnerable populations: at-risk youth and stray dogs.

Youth served are primarily at-risk, Latino males and females between the ages of 12 to 24, who often have ties with gangs, drugs and poverty.

Youth trainers at UnChained understand the plight of their program dogs, because they too may have lived behind bars, or been neglected or abandoned by their caregivers.

Each UnChained program focuses on six young people and three dogs. This design enables maximum safety for both the young people and dogs, team development, and maximum time with the dogs. Youth trainers are paired in teams of two and work with one dog and one adult trainer, twice a week for two to four hours per week.

Classes also include humane education discussions that support youth’s development of good stewardship toward all beings. Topics include overpopulation, breed-stereotyping, pet health and well-being, dog behavior and dog communication.

According to UnChained executive director Kristen Fletcher, working with dogs who often share similar experiences of neglect, abandonment and abuse enables these young people to develop compassion and respect for others while building confidence and self-worth.

The youth will also develop values of patience and responsibility for themselves and others, through the trust and relationship-building with their dogs, she added.

UnChained started serving students at the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus near Salinas in 2012. Since then, UnChained has expanded to include programs at Kinship Center in Salinas, Youth N.O.W. in Watsonville, and juvenile hall facilities in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties.

So far, UnChained has helped more than 370 youths and 170 dogs in the three counties, said Fletcher, noting that  around 92 percent of the program dogs are adopted within 30 days of program completion.

One of the programs at the Kinship Center was particularly meaningful, according to Fletcher. The center, as a partner to UnChained, works with youth who have been removed from their biological parents or live with another family.

Stewart is a cute little dog that UnChained brought to the Kinship Center for the program. Although he passed his initial evaluation, he just froze when he first got into the classroom, lying on the floor and not moving at all.

“He wouldn’t take a treat. He just didn’t know what to make of all of this, and we didn’t know what was going on,” Fletcher recalled.

After a few futile tries, the lead trainer offered to replace Stewart with another dog. But two youths who were taking part in the program — a boy and a girl — insisted that the dog should stay.

“They said the dog needs their help,” Fletcher said. “So they stuck with Stewart and adjusted to him, and some days they just sat there and brushed him. If all Stewart wanted to do was walking about 10 feet at a time and then sit, they would just sit with him and wait, and then they would go some more. By the end of eight weeks, they had Stewart running around the building.

“They have learned patience. More importantly, they have also learned compassion toward the animals.”

The girl trainer, who was recently adopted by a new family, one day talked about Stewart with her adopted mom, which opened up a conversation for her to talk about being left behind by her family, losing her biological parents, and being adopted.

“This is exactly what we hope to achieve through this program,” Fletcher said, noting that UnChained has built a bridge for troubled youths and dogs to reach for each other.

“If you think about it from the kids’ perspective: they have been pulled out of their families; they may feel abandoned or neglected, while the dogs have been through the same thing, so they relate really well to the dogs and what the dogs have been through,” said Fletcher.

“When we inspire young people to be their best people by caring for others, such as dogs in need, we are building a community of compassion and a future of hope for all people,” said Wolf, who now serves as board president of UnChained.

“By working with underserved youth, UnChained puts the dogs and youth in the driver’s seat to offer each other second chances to a better life,” she said.

Volunteers play an important role in the success of UnChained and are the heart of the nonprofit organization’s mission.

Apart from six paid staff, UnChained now has a network of more than 180 volunteers. UnChained relies on these volunteers from three counties to assist with the training programs, outreach and special projects.

Each volunteer brings unique skills and experience to enhance programs in the community. While some work as dog evaluation assistants or long-term committed coaches, others contribute to the program as dog foster parents or dog chauffeurs to transport the animals from one place to another.

Some volunteers are engaged in local event support such as fundraising and others are devoted to the promotion of the organization by taking photos and videos and reaching out to potential donors on websites and social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

RobinLynn became a volunteer, too, for UnChained. Not satisfied with being only a trainer, she wanted to contribute more to the organization that has changed her life.

After helping find Lady a loving home, RobinLynn joined UnChained as a volunteer for fundraising events in Monterey and Santa Cruz.

Thanks to the joint efforts by staff members and volunteers like RobinLynn, UnChained has gained a wider recognition among the public in recent years. UnChained is also part of Monterey County Gives this year and support will go to programs in 2020, according to Fletcher.

RobinLynn has an even bigger dream. She has recently registered for an emergency medical technicians program.

“I am planning to apply (to) Stanford University, and I want to become a trauma nurse someday,” she said.

The full names of the volunteers in the story and the photos are not being used to protect their identities.

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