Two children with a dog
Aug 1, 2018

Building Safer Communities with Rescue Dogs

The Y’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) program has always believed that healing past traumas is the key to preventing future ones. But in 2017, our approach to trauma-informed care was affirmed in an interesting new way.

Last summer, Art Guerrero noticed a few of the teens in the Y’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) program in Pilsen/Little Village were too introverted to discuss the sensitive issues happening in their lives and communities, so he wondered how to bring the youth out of their shells.

His solution? A partnership with an organization called Safe Humane Chicago that brings together YSVP youth and rescue and court-case dogs through a program called Lifetime Bonds. Safe Humane Chicago aims to create safer communities by fostering positive relationships between humans and animals.

“The idea was to get them into a routine — to get them to work with the dogs each week — and give them the confidence to communicate with people,” Guerrero explains.

The idea worked. YSVP youth responded to the animals and opened up thanks to their continued work with Safe Humane trainers and dogs. Some of Guerrero’s shyest kids wound up leading training sessions and speaking to the public at Safe Humane graduations.

“The transformation has been simply incredible,” says Cynthia Bathurst, the executive director of Safe Humane Chicago. “Not only are these dogs being trained and finding loving and fulfilling homes, but the kids are making connections about empathy, and patience, and self-regulation, and how to use those traits to interact with people.”

Many youth made strong connections with court-case dogs, victims of abuse who were rescued by police or animal control. “Helping these court-case dogs shows the youth that you can have stability in your life, even amidst the chaos,” Bathurst says. “They also realized that, just as people don’t want to be judged for how they look, we shouldn’t judge dogs like that, either.”

One of the teens who participated, fourteen-year-old Karisma Contreras, loved it so much she signed up her younger brother to be part of the next cohort.

“These dogs have been through some bad things they shouldn’t have,” Contreras says. “We can relate to each other … by showing love to each other, we learn to trust again.”

Seventeen-year-old Steven Lopez also responded strongly to the program, coming back after his cohort graduated to speak with the other youth about his experience, and helping them work with the dogs.

“I learned how to communicate with my peers while we worked together,” he says. “This program and my mentors have taught me to be a better citizen, a better leader, and a better student in school.”

Now in their fourth cohort, YSVP and Safe Humane hope to continue their partnership to build safe communities ­— and so do the teens.

“This program is a sanctuary to me,” Contreras admits. “Love isn’t really a word I use often, because it’s something I’ve never understood before, but I’ve learned to love this program and the people here.”