Incarcerated teens train shelter dogs to make them more adoptable

An unexpected bond is forming at the Lake County Juvenile Correction Center.

Incarcerated kids are training shelter puppies to help make them more adoptable, and it's all thanks to a judge who's working to turn around the lives of troubled teens.

At the Lake County Juvenile Complex, you'll find Senior Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. walking the halls with his trusty sidekick.

“This is Moxie the therapy dog,” he said.

The American Mastiff brings comfort to kids in what can be tense and unfamiliar situations.

“Termination of parental rights cases, abuse and neglect cases,” Stefaniak Jr. said. “We bring her in here when there's a particularly emotional hearing.”

Moxie has made quite a name for herself.

“She's kind of an icon there,” Stefaniak Jr. said.

Now the unofficial mascot of LCJC is getting company in the form of puppies from “Humane Indiana.”

“We contacted the judge, just because we came up with an idea,” said shelter director Jessica Petalas-Hernandez.

Petalas-Hernandez says she was inspired by programs that work with adult prisoners, but didn't know of any that worked with at-risk youth.

So, she and Stefaniak Jr. decided to change that.

“I said yeah, let's do it. And it's been great,” Stefaniak Jr. said.

Now every Sunday since November, volunteers at Humane bring dogs out to the center.

The learning goes both ways.

“The dogs really have learned a lot. They really have taught them some great basic obedience and training so it makes it really easy for us to market them for adoption because of it,” Petalas-Hernandez said.

The kids learn new skills.

“We teach the kids about canine body language, humane handling, clicker training, and positive reinforcement,” Petalas-Hernandez said.

She says some of the teens have done so well that she wants to hire them.

“We definitely want them to come work for us when the time comes,” Petalas-Hernandez said.

“It takes the tension out and it drops people's guards,” Stefaniak Jr. said.

He hopes the program sparks change in the teens’ lives and helps them realize that it's not too late to turn it all around.

“To see that each one of us that comes to work here every day, we're not the enemy, we're just as jacked up as the rest of the world. We're not this stereotypical judge so to speak, or detention officer so to speak, we actually really want to help them and see that they don't become adult criminals,” Stefaniak Jr. said.