Youth Prep Dogs for Adoption — and Learn Empathy in the Process

A dedicated volunteer at Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility is teaching youth to train rescue dogs.

Anyone who adopts a pet from Great Basin Dog Rescue, the only dog rescue within 130 miles of Burns, will likely get a dog trained by youth at Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility.

Claire Larson, who runs Great Basin, has brought her canine charges to the Oregon Youth Authority facility in Burns for about six years.

Her partnership with Eastern started by accident.

Larson first came to the facility through her job at the Harney County Library. She visited to reward youth for participating in a library-sponsored reading challenge.

At the same time, she was trying to start a program at the library that would allow children to read to dogs.

“We thought we’d be there for 20 minutes, but we sat for two hours talking to these guys,” she said. “I had a dog that I thought would make a great reading dog, but she was afraid of men.”

Larson had an “aha” moment. She realized that these young men would be the ideal dog trainers for her reading program.

She started bringing two of her dogs to the facility for training. Even after the reading program was up and running, Larson knew she wanted to continue the training.

“The group I had at that time seemed to get real enjoyment out of training, and I was getting real enjoyment out of seeing them have these successes,” she said.

Larson started bringing rescue dogs into the facility. Youth learned how to teach the animals basic commands and obedience skills, including scent work, which teaches dogs how to find items using their noses.

The youth and dogs also learned the German sport of treibball, where a dog chases and pushes a large exercise ball into a soccer goal — fulfilling the animal’s herding instinct.

Larson also brings another dog simply to teach the youth grooming techniques.

J.F. has been training dogs under Larson’s tutelage for more than three years.

He already had experience working with aggressive dogs alongside his mom, an American Kennel Club dog trainer. His dream is to open his own dog training business.

“Dogs can sense when you’re mad or upset,” he said. “They know what you feel. It’s good for the guys here because it gets us to come out, and it gives us a sense of accomplishment of training the dogs. It gives the dogs a better chance at a better life because now they’ll know the basic skills.”

D.M. got involved for a different reason: His only experience with dogs had been negative so he hoped that would change if he learned to train them. He had almost no experience with dogs.

“I had lived with an uncle who had cattle dogs and I think I upset them, so I ended up with a bunch of bites,” he admitted. “So (I joined because) I was wondering what I was doing wrong, because in the future I know I (will) see them again.”

More recently, Larson has been rescuing huskies. This led her to add a new element to the dog training program: the dog sled.

For security reasons, she can’t bring a full dog sled into the facility. Instead, she brings a kick scooter that hooks up to one or two dogs at a time.

“A walk for a dog this size is not exercise, it’s just a sniff fest,” she explained. “With this, the dog gets to run, which is better cardio exercise, to give them adequate exercise safely.”

Larson recently retired from the library, so she’s able to devote more time to helping OYA youth and the dogs. She and facility superintendent Doug Smith hope to expand the program in the future.

“We’re seeing a decrease in any sort of depression (youth) may have, and even aggression they might have exhibited in the past,” Smith said. “Not only are they learning compassion for another living being, but it’s also teaching them social skills and it’s teaching them self-esteem. …

“In the past, because of the activities in their personal life, they did not share with other people. They kind of stayed guarded and were more antisocial. With the dog program, they have something positive to share with the community at large, and they’re willing to open up and talk about that.”

That willingness to open up is evident when you ask the youth what they’ve gained from the program.

“It helps (us) know we can help the community by helping dogs get adopted,” W.S. said. “It helps you forget there are four walls. I’m learning patience for the dogs and patience with myself.”

J.T. said he and other youth in the facility identify closely with the dogs, who have gotten a second chance at life.

“Once a dog gets things done wrong to it, it’s going to be really protective, so (we are) just breaking back the onion peel to get to these dogs and get them back on the right track,” J.T. said. “Honestly, we’re doing to them what everybody else is trying to do to us. I think we take from our treatment groups and try to put that mindset into working with our dogs.”

Smith said the youth are gaining skills that will help them even if they don’t pursue careers with animals.

“One of the things these young men lack — this goes to their time in the community — is actually having the discipline to do a job,” Smith said. “When you have a job, there’s certain expectations. Even something as simple as dog grooming … it’s teaching those job skills that translate and transcend into experience in the working world.”

Smith added that having dogs around the facility also helps comfort the youth by reminding them of positive things in the community. J.T. agreed.

“I’ve always had a dog, so it makes me feel somewhat normal,” he said. “It’s kind of just comforting. It makes you come back to earth and lose yourself because you’re just focusing on the dog rather than any of your problems.”

Check out dogs from the program who are ready for adoption at

Meet some of the rescue dogs!

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