Program pairing Warren Central students, dogs returns after pandemic pause

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Away from the Warren Central High School classrooms and central area with other students, teachers and staff, sophomores Ralph Lewis and Haley Collins are the hallway of a building on the east side of the campus.

They’re sitting on the floor with a brown mixed-breed dog named Buck. Standing beside them is a trainer holding Buck’s leash. The teens are handed treats that they use to call out different commands to Buck. He eagerly sits, lays down and crawls all for treats, and the teens are smiling from ear to ear with every accomplished action.

They’ve been training Buck for a week now through the Paws and Think program, which focuses on at-risk teens teaming up with shelter dogs.

Ralph and Haley became buddies with Buck.

The nonprofit partnered with Warren Central to create the Pups and Warriors, or PAWS, program.

Ralph said, “I met Buck here, and it’s such an overall great experience to meet dogs and train them, mainly because school every day begins to get dull and you need a break every once and a while.”

In a way, the teens feel a connection with the dogs who are viewed as outcasts in need of homes, Haley said, “because sometimes they’ll feel distant and they really need attention, and they’ll also feel lonely, and you’ll, like, start to understand that they’re a lot like you.”

Roberta Kuonen is a Warren High School Spanish-language teacher who also serves as the school coordinator for the PAWS program. “It’s for students who have some sort of goal to achieve. Maybe they could have an attendance goal, a grades goal or even a social goal, and they’re referred to us through the counseling center, then we pair them with the shelter dogs. For one week, the kids teach the dogs basic behavioral cues and tricks. It makes the dogs more easily adoptable, and the students get a self-esteem boost. They feel like they’ve accomplished something in a short amount of time. It just works out great for both.”

Paws and Think has done two sessions during the school semester so far, and, Kuonen said, they’re going to do two more next semester.

The dogs come from the Indianapolis Animal Care Services, which the Indianapolis city government operates.

Kuonen said, “We have had some kids that were a little afraid of the dogs at first and that was one of their goals that they were able to accomplish throughout the week.”

The program hasn’t been in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic started. This semester was their first time bringing it back to the school since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

During a recent session, four dogs and eight teens participated. Organizers hope to get back up to five dogs with 10 kids as the group did before the pandemic.

Kuonen said, “Any way that we can come up with other ways to identify kids that need a little more attention maybe or kids who just feel disconnected, this is a way to bring them in and give them something that they feel strongly about, that they care about, and puts a positive spin on school.”

Whitney Riggs with Paws and Think says the nonprofit has two programs: one with shelter dogs and at-risk youths, and the other with therapy dogs for other mediums, such as hospital patients.

Riggs says their model with the shelter dogs is to pair them with teens to benefit both parties. She said she’s seen teens who may have low confidence, who may have struggles at home or may just even have a bad day light up because they can look forward to puppy kisses, wiggles and wags.

They focus on positive reinforcement with teaching the dogs, which means no choke chains, prong collars or shock collars. They do everything with treats and positive speech.

The dogs learn tricks — sit, down, shake, etc. — that in turn gives the teens something to look forward to and indirectly learn from.

Riggs said, “So when they’re in situations where they’re stressed or things are tough, these moments they’re learning to sort of take a deep breath and know that everything’s going to be OK.”

Once it’s all said and done for the day, Ralph and Haley have to leave for the day. They wave and say goodbye to the Paws and Think team and pet Buck before walking away.

Their buddy Buck stops and stares down the hallway while the team acknowledges that they know he’ll miss the new friends he made, but they’re happy that the new tricks he’s learned can one day give him a forever home where he won’t have to miss anyone.