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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
In the dog house
Labrador Frodo empties the washing
Assistance dogs are mostly Labradors and Golden Retrievers

By Sam Bagnall
Producer, Dog House

Dogs that can retrieve cash from ATMs and empty washing machines help disabled people lead more independent lives, but can they also help reform disruptive teenagers?

Midhurst in West Sussex is about as well-to-do as any small town in England. A mile or so outside, in a converted farm surrounded by peaceful, rolling hills, is the headquarters of a charity called Canine Partners.

The centre is dedicated to the training of assistance dogs - mostly Labradors and golden retrievers. Here the dogs learn the extraordinary skills they need to help give independence to disabled people.

Left-Right: Liam, head dog trainer Nina Bondarenko, Rob, Ellie and Katrina
All the youngsters had problems
Last summer this rural calm was shattered by the sound of teenagers screaming and swearing. Five youngsters had arrived to be taught how to become dog trainers. They were disruptive, violent or painfully shy, and they had agreed to be part of a unique experiment.

CP's head trainer Nina Bondarenko, who made her name training Rottweilers in her native Australia, had dealt with "stroppy" teenagers before and thought the teenagers would not be too much of a problem.

"Then I met them and I thought OK, this is going to be a bit more difficult," she says.

It was to be the start of a traumatic learning curve for her and an emotional journey for the youngsters.

The idea was simple. Kids really like dogs and the skills involved in training them - patience, consistency, rewarding good behaviour - could provide the young people with the discipline they need in their lives.

Sullen and aggressive

This kind of scheme was pioneered in America, where assistance dogs have been used with problem kids in High Schools. The results these projects claim to have achieved are impressive: school attendance up by more than 70% and major increases in self esteem.

The teenagers involved in the UK experiment were put forward by local schools in West Sussex, who had run out of ideas of how to deal with them.

Liam was typical - 14 years old, sullen, aggressive, foul mouthed and about to be permanently excluded from school. Allie, Rob and Ellie, while completely different characters, had similar problems - inability to concentrate, dislike of being told what to do and serious anger problems.

Dogs using a cash point
Open doors
Help people dress
Help with shopping
Call lifts
Pay in shops

Only Katrina was different. Painfully shy to the point of agoraphobia, Katrina suffered from depression and had taken herself out of mainstream education.

To help run the course CP teamed up with youth development charity Fairbridge, experts in working with challenging kids, and it was lucky they did. The course was nearly over before it began.

On only the second day of training youth worker Jason Cummings was having serious doubts. He thought the youngsters might struggle with the amount of time they were going to have to concentrate.

Their screaming, swearing and mucking about was also seriously disrupting the training regime of the dogs.

The dogs themselves are trained using a system of rewards - when the dog does what you want you give him a treat and you ignore the behaviour you don't like.


Parents might notice a similarity with bringing up kids. Dogs, like kids, need boundaries; they need consistency in order to learn.

Once fully trained, a CP assistance dog can carry out dozens of tasks, including unloading a washing machine, calling a lift, retrieving the TV remote control and taking money from a cash machine. They can transform the lives of people who use wheelchairs.

Dog and owner at a shop
Everyday tasks can be hard for people with disabilities
Gradually, working with the dogs began to have an impact on the kids. But, in order to fully appreciate the significance of what they were doing, the kids needed to meet the disabled people who benefited so much from having these dogs, the charity decided.

The meetings had a profound impact on the teenagers. Liam was typical. After a journey to London to meet Eileen Hobson and her dog Sailor, he changed his ways and his unlikely friendship with severely disabled wheelchair user Eileen blossomed.

Two months into the course Liam began to connect with the dogs too - particularly a young yellow Labrador called Aero. The relationship flourished to such an extent the dog often knew instinctively what the teenager wanted him to do before he'd even asked. "He just knows," says Liam.

His school noticed a phenomenal change in his whole outlook. "More than anything I see a confident and happy young man, any negative feelings I had about him have gone - it's been superb," says his year head Nick Brown.

The course had a profound effect on Katrina too. At the beginning she was so shy she struggled to even leave her house. After a couple of months with CP she managed to confront her fears by giving a talk about the charity to an audience of more than 40 college students. Her parents were overwhelmed with the transformation.

Serious lessons

All the kids went through an emotional journey and all of them gained something real from the experiment. Whether three or four months can change them forever remains to be seen, though so far the signs look good.

Ellie is now doing work experience at a kennels and Liam is working one day a week at CP itself. They are all more focused at school.

It wouldn't be practical to roll out such a scheme on a national scale, but there are serious lessons to be learnt from it and increasingly youth workers are seeing the value of animals in working with kids.

For Nina, it's a wider issue about our whole approach to young people. "If you look at society, kids are not positively reinforced, they are always told they are wrong."

Dog House is broadcast on Wednesday 11 April at 2240 BST on BBC One.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This story is heart warming to read. So much can be learnt through work with dogs and young people and especially with building up low self esteem. A lot of projects that work with young people, especially in Northamptonshire have/are being cut to save money. The negative affect this will have on local youth will be felt for a very long time. The importance of building confidence and self worth is priceless and for CP to encompass this need is very foresighted. Keep up the good work and thanks for training such worthy companions for people with disabilities.
Lorna Le Maitre, Kettering UK

I was Chief Executive for Canine Partners for Independance from 2000 to 2003, when I became convinced that a dog's ability to give unconditional love was of inestimable benefit not only to children who may have lacked this at home but to people like prisoners. I also concluded that this ability was what really helped the disabled people who were provided with our dogs, far more than the assistance given in tasks such as unloading a washing machine. We tried to interest people in this, but to little avail. Your report will have done an enormous good in publicising this report. I hope it will now lead to serious research. If the conclusions point in the same direction, I hope assistance dogs can be provided to all sorts of people whose lack of self esteem puts them at risk, including young people who bow to peer group pressure by experimenting with drugs or alcohol, disruptive children, prisoners and anyone else who indulges in anti-social behaviour
Alistair Lang, Winchester

I think this is a fabulous idea and to show that it can indeed help kids that are troubled is great. Dogs do have a calming nature as they need to have set rules and if troubled teenagers can do this with the dogs they know they can change their way of thinking in their on lives day to day. Fantastic!! I hope this scheme carries on and hopefully is adopted by other council areas and charity organisations to help Troubled Teens.
Liz McDougall, Glasgow

We can learn a lot of positive benefits from dogs. If we treated our body as though it was a dog we would exercise it, feed it good food and who knows we may even become more sociable, tolerant and optimistic people as a result.
Simon Lusty, Worcester

I think this is a great idea, anything to help kids settle down is good. But why oh why do we seem to be rewarding bad behaviour all the time? I know kids who would have loved this sort of opportunity, kids who work as hard as they can and often get little recognition. They aren't overly bright but aren't trouble makers and so get forgotton a lot of the time. It seems unfair to me, I wish I'd been a trouble maker at school I could have had more opportunities handed to me instead of having to make them myself.
Eleanor, Reading

I work as a psychologist with aggressive and violent teenagers and have mentioned "off the cuff" on many occasions about the possibilities that aiding/participating in the training and caring of dogs could have for reducing such problem behaviour with adolescents. I work for a large organisation and have not used such approaches myself with the adolescents I work with because it is not a well researched area or proven effective practise. I was fascinated to hear about this project and hope that more similar projects can be funded and set up in the near future across the rest of the country.
Michelle O'Sullivan, Brackenll, England

It's a brilliant idea and I think will be very effective not only in bringing the best out in the kids, but it'll teach them basic skills about parenting (training) which will bode well for the long term of the UK. If you care to look, you'll see that very similar techniques are used by 'supernannys' and natural horsemen.. . horses, people, life, it's all the same.
Alan, Dundee

Amazing what happens when young adults are treated as human beings not monsters!
Tony, York

I totally agree with Nina. More than ever these days kids are being told what they like to eat, wear, think and do is wrong, whilst adverts etc pump out the complete opposite message. More positive re-inforcement is definitely the answer.
Louise, Manchester, UK

This proves teenagers aren't violent little monsters who have to have 'respect' beaten into them. It's time we stopped looking at traditional ways of controlling bad behaviour such as beatings and punishments, and started trying to understand and help these teenagers.
MEB, London

I have a wonderful Jack Russell who is a registered thinking dog for the stupid. Couldn't live without her. In fact she's typing this now as I dictate it, cos I'm a bit thick when it comes to computers.
Bob Allan, Seaford, Sussex

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