Being a business woman, Jenna da Silva Pinto saw a unique opportunity. She made a connection which now seems so obvious. But this would not be a lucrative business, delivering large returns on investment. “I’ve always marveled at the therapeutic power of animals and I decided to start a project that could bring together troubled youth and troubled dogs – two sets of underdogs coming together to help each other.”
Jenna realised that teenagers from challenged backgrounds do not have the same chance to make a success of their lives as others do, even if they are presented with the same opportunities. “Kids are being exposed to violence, crime, drug abuse, domestic violence and extreme poverty – and they’re expected to check their troubles at the door and attend school as model students.”
In the same way sheltered dogs, who are offered safety and the promise of adoption, develop behavioral problems due to lack of human interaction and kennel stress and boredom. “The longer they spend in the shelters, the lower their adoptability.”
How the underdogs help each other
Jenna runs the Underdog Project in Hout Bay with a team of volunteers, including an occupational therapist and professional dog trainer. Participants are children identified by their superiors and sometimes self-assessed as at-risk teenagers. The at-risk teenagers – now young trainers – are presented with the challenge of training the socially unskilled shelter dogs so they can get adopted; and the teens are taught the skills they need to do this.
The first hour of the twice-weekly extra-curricular class consists of animal-assisted therapy where the teenagers use force-free, reward-based training to prepare the dogs for adoption. “Dogs in therapy weave incredible magic simply by being dogs. They can improve communication skills, reduce stress and foster a love and responsibility for other living creatures.”
The second hour is spent on group discussions, diary writing, guest speakers and the acquisition of life skills.
“The essence of what we’re trying to instill in our students is the responsibility to make the right choices and conviction to stick with it. We motivate them to reorient their lives, stay in school and find their feet in the real world.”
In order to keep doing this though, they need skilled volunteers such as teachers and social workers to assist with the classes; lunches; transport and various dog accessories and training aids.
This is Jenna’s story of help. To read more stories like these, visit www.youcanhelp.co.za
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