- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - Troubled teens and unruly canines may sound like an unlikely duo, but at the Harrison County Youth Detention Center both are frequently better off together.

A new program, called Beyond the Bark, puts teenagers to work helping train and socialize dogs so they can be adopted.

Center director Rick Smith estimated that 90 percent of the youth that come through the center are from broken homes, many of which are abusive.

“Interacting with the dogs is for some kids the first time they’ve experienced unconditional love,” he said.

Smith gave an example of one teen who was having a hard time after going through withdrawal in a drug treatment facility.

“We brought (the dog) Willis in and he just kind of calmed down,” he said.

Tiffany Neely, officer of programs and events who oversees Beyond the Bark, said that as a Chihuaua owner, she had a fear of large dogs at first.

“There was a time when I wouldn’t be in the same rec(reation) yard with Bella,” another dog, she said, but she’s grown more comfortable over time and looks forward to helping train the dogs.

“I know if it’s helping me, it’s helping the kids,” she said.

Started in August, the program has graduated its first three dogs - Harley, Vito, and Rocko - into new homes. The program coordinators choose “lonely hearts” dogs from the Humane Society of South Mississippi and return them to be adopted after they can perform a set of commands on and off a leash.

Willis, a goofy chocolate lab mix who couldn’t quite cut it as a police dog, and his “girlfriend” Bella, a spirited grey and white pit bull, are the current program trainees.

Another pit bull named Jon was deemed too aggressive and the center will fill his spot when floor officer Ruth Watkins completes her dog handling certification. Smith said the program lost its original two handlers to the sheriff’s office after two untimely but natural K-9 officer deaths there.

In addition to training, the youth also take care of health and cleanliness.

“Not just the fun stuff,” said Smith. “We’re trying to teach them a little bit of responsibility as well.”

The dog training program is taught to chosen center residents twice a week for four weeks.

There are only two youth residents in the program now, but others can interact with the dogs.

Smith said many times once a resident is chosen to participate they leave. The center is a short-term facility and the maximum length of stay is 89 days.

The program is run in cooperation with Mississippi Security Police, Harrison County Youth Court and Harrison County Sheriff’s Office.

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Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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