And Now For Something Completely Different: YAPP
YAPP: The Youth and Animal Pilot Project!
Usually, I post stories on my blog. And that’s what I intended to do this time, but the urge to write about YAPP has become too strong for me to resist any longer. (This is a bit self-indulgent on my part and old news, but it was such an exciting and successful initiative that I want to share!).
The program was developed while I was with the Ontario SPCA, and the evaluation of the program was directed and published by Dr. Fred Mathews, Psychologist, Central Toronto Youth Services in 2002. But if you don’t already know about YAPP, I think you’ll find this interesting (I hope so)! (Especially the sample of comments made by the youth that I’ve included at the end).
First, I must acknowledge my appreciation for the professional work of all the partners, including Dr. Mathews (CTYS), Newmarket Probation and Family Life Centre (Aurora-Newmarket District), as well as the Ontario SPCA team of course. And the project would not have started without the grant approved by the then Solicitor General, Ontario, David Tsubouchi, and would not have proceeded without the commitment and support of the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.
The idea for the project emerged from my review of the literature that showed the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. I was particularly interested in the role that dogs could play in helping young offenders. I did this research in the context of the Ontario SPCA’s Violence Prevention Initiative that I launched (there is a link between animal cruelty and human violence that I’m sure you’re all aware of).
As Dr. Mathews states in his report, “The YAPP model was designed to combine group counselling, anger management and life skills instruction with dog training to support the rehabilitation of youth charged with violent offences under the Young Offenders Act.”
The youth were given a real job (this was key to the success, I believe). Each dog needed training to become ‘adoptable’. It was a serious responsibility because the selected dogs (from Ontario SPCA shelters) were considered ‘hard to adopt’ due to behaviour issues caused by neglect or abuse by their previous owners, and faced possible euthanasia. This was made clear to the youth. (Dogs that demonstrated any aggression were not eligible for the program).
For purposes of the evaluation, Dr. Mathews set up a control group of youth whose members did not participate in the program. The evaluation study consisted of five components: CTYS Client Outcome Survey; Youth Self Report; Risk Need Assessment; Youth Interviews; and Recidivism Tracking.
The young offenders were drawn from the caseloads of probation officers and ranged in age from 12 to 17.
In brief, Dr. Mathews documented the following results:
1. Increased ability to regulate affect and control anger
2. Reduced levels of violence or antisocial behaviour
3. Reduced recidivism or reduction in the amount or seriousness of offending
4. Improved coping and problem-solving skills
5. Improved cognitive functioning
6. Reduced minimization and cognitive distortions
7. Improved social skills
8. Improved relationships with family, friends and peers
9. Development of empathy
According to Dr. Mathews, the tenth and eleventh outcomes – improvement in knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards animals and acquisition of non-violent, non-coercive dog training skills – demonstrated the impact of the humane education aspect of YAPP. This outcome is promising in terms of the research linking animal cruelty to aggression toward humans. As a further note of the accomplishments of YAPP graduates, 41 dogs found new homes (more dogs found new homes subsequent to the pilot project since the program continued running).
What did I think? I was blown away. The dogs’ unconditional love for their ‘trainers’, whatever they looked like, however they behaved, was moving. The youth (nearly all male) weren’t always ready to bond with their dogs. But they just couldn’t help themselves. And the peer pressure to help the dogs and to make them ‘adoptable’ was strong.
I witnessed the powerful and trusting relationships that developed, and each young offender’s pride when he showed me what his dog could do (as part of the graduation ‘ceremony’). It was heart-warming to witness the pleasure each graduate experienced from his accomplishment, and his bond with his dog.
(By the way, we gave each graduate a certificate stating they had successfully completed an Ontario SPCA Dog Training Program along with a letter of reference. For nearly all of the youth, these documents represented very rare positive feedback and evidence of achievement).
Here are some of the comments made by participating youth:
“From the dogs I learned to trust. They opened me up. They never judge you. They taught me patience and (they’re) a reminder that someone is there for you. They helped me build a bridge to trusting people again.”
“It’s different from counselling by yourself in an office. Here you can learn more from others and the dogs give you a chance to learn about your attitude and to be responsible. It’s way better.”
“It’s better than pushing a broom in an arena. You don’t learn anything pushing a broom. Here you learn about the dogs, yourself, and other peoples’ problems. You give something back and you’re doing something important.”
“A new kind of dog training method. I learned you can be kind to the dog and if you keep focused you can help the dog learn. You don’t need to hit a dog like some people do.”
“The program takes you over, gets into you. The whole thing totally, totally worked for me. I learned it (to relate to others better) all from the dogs. It started with the dogs then moved to group members, then to my mom, then to other people. The dogs taught me patience. I was out of control and needed a lot of help. As the dogs learned commands, we learned patience.”
“I learned how to deal with conflicts in the community. Working with dogs transfers to people like having more patience, trust. It’s the same as dealing with people. It helps avoid conflict. You don’t have to be aggressive, be it with dogs or with people.”
“You learn to be responsible because if you don’t attend group, the dog misses out and we are trying to give the dog a second chance at finding a home. I would have felt bad if my dog missed anything and lost his chance. You change your priorities fast.”
“To control my anger, it’s definitely decreased. I have more patience with people and animals thanks to the dogs.”
“I take conflicts better than I did before. I can talk it out instead of using force. The dogs teach you that.”
“I take my time and think about things. I think it’s cause you have to be that way with the dogs.”
“I get to train dogs and that helps with your anger so you don’t end up in jail again. The dogs give you a chance to deal with your problems.”
“They should have a program so you can come back after you graduate to help out. I’d do that in a heartbeat.”
The evaluation report is 67 pages long, so this barely scrapes the surface, but I expect you get the idea. It was truly amazing. The results were better than I’d expected. The Ministry of Community and Social Services continued to fund the program without waiting for the results of the evaluation because they had received enough anecdotal evidence to convince them it was worth their investment.
I hope that the many youth who participated have grown into well-adjusted adults and perhaps have a dog as a member of their family!
Kelly, of the Meg Sheppard Mystery Series, has approved this article.
As you know, animals feature in my mystery series, especially Kelly, Meg's beloved border collie. Kelly was adopted by Meg from the Vannersville Humane Society. She is a trained therapy dog and volunteers at the hospital with Meg. She also helps Meg in many ways - not only in her investigations but also as a trusting and loving companion.
Kelly continues to help Meg on her healing journey from the abuse she suffered in her past.
Copyright Vicky Earle 2022