In training canine minds, at-risk youth learn lessons of the heart

The canine program is aimed at teaching youth responsibility and how to love unconditionally. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
The canine program is aimed at teaching youth responsibility and how to love unconditionally. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

KAILUA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - At a Windward Oahu school for at-risk youth, it's not just teachers or books keeping students engaged.

A canine program is having a positive impact on both the Olomana School students — and shelter dogs.

Twice a week, seventh graders take on the role of dog trainers.

"When we first get the dogs, they're anxious, they bark a lot," said Mariner Hawkins, co-founder of Kaaawa K9 Rescue.

The students are learning to teach rescue dogs basic obedience.

"It takes consistency and understanding," said Michelle Cooley, founder of Kaaawa K9 Rescue.

"They researched about dogs, what that meant, what that looked like and so they created this program all on their own," said Olomana School Principal Stacy Oshio.

The neglected dogs in need of a home are having a profound effect on the boys who've struggled with absenteeism and academics.

"I learned that dogs have more feelings than I thought," said student Issac Lai. "She came into the Kaaawa K9 program the same day I started Olomana School and the second I seen her, I fell in love instantly with this cute doggie."

"Before, we never used to get along, but she was shy and now she just opened up," said student Kainoa Grammer-Tanele. "This dog named Loki really helps keep me calm."

"They can teach them empathy, they can teach them patience," said Olomana School teacher Jen Ishida.

"They work better together more than they ever have before and that really helps with their academics," added Olomana School teacher Kelii Makamae Waiolama. "We are definitely noticing a big change in the students."

In fact, through the program, the boys learned to be leaders and showed up for class determined to train the dogs so they could increase their chances of getting adopted.

"It's discipline, it's knowing that what they're doing makes a difference in not only the dogs lives but the lives of the people these dogs will go to," said Hawkins.

Once their four-legged friends are better trained, the students hope to one day loan out the dogs to other high school students feeling stressed, anxious or looking for companionship or emotional support.

"Kids with anxiety and all kinds of other problems, these dogs can help," said Lai.

There are big plans to grow the program. Olomana School just got a grant for $35,000 from the Castle Foundation. The money will go towards building a new learning space on the campus complete with a dog training area.

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