Life Connected

Program Teaches Students to Train Shelter Dogs in Exchange for School Credit

Each year, 20,000 teenagers drop out of high school in Los Angeles. But one group of volunteers has come up with a way to keep young people engaged in school by connecting them to homeless dogs.

One of those teens, Essence Diggs, was on the verge of dropping out of Cheviot Hills Continuation High School in Los Angeles -- until she was introduced to a program that changed everything.

"They were like do you want to train dogs for credits? Diggs said. "I'm like 'sure … I love dogs and I need to graduate.' It was perfect."

Diggs began taking part in a project called K-9 Connection. Since 2005, the non-profit program has partnered hundreds of at-risk youth in continuation high schools with homeless dogs from local shelters. They're taught how to train the animals -- to make it easier for the dogs to get adopted.

"They help us and we help them … we need them … if I wasn't in K-9 I'd probably still be ditching school or be lost or something," Diggs said.

The school's principal says it's a match made in heaven.

"As I see it, the dogs are kind of lost souls, lost puppies … and my students are lost puppies … so they bond," Mary Reid said.

By working with these rescue dogs, the teens gain confidence by learning they can be of service to others.

"I'm guiding a dog through agility and he's helping me realize there's a purpose ... you need to be here for something … don't just wake up every day and do nothing … come to school for something," Diggs said.

One hundred percent of the dogs who undergo this training program get out of the shelter and find permanent homes, according to the K-9 Connection Project Director Juliet Beynon.

"They start feeling more confident and will come to the front of their cages and be more friendly so their chances of being adopted are much higher," she said.

And the students start doing better inside the classroom as well. Lucas Hernandez, 18, is earning school credits by training Sammy, a rescue pup he met at a West Los Angeles animal shelter.

"What really got to me was when I saw Sammy locked behind a cage, I saw his face and imagined how sad he was feeling to not be able to play and run freely."

Sammy has come a long way in the past few weeks -- and Lucas is hoping his training will help the pit bull mix find a good home.

Diggs completed the K-9 Connection program, graduated from high school and now attends college on a scholarship. She's now interning with the program to help other teens succeed like she has.

"High schools don't have programs like this ... I bet these students didn't even talk to each other before ... but now they're actually friends ... making a difference in a dog's life ... everyone benefits from this," she said.

Contact Us