The Blog

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The Parallels Between Homeless Youth and Homeless Animals


Our original rationale for pairing homeless teenagers with shelter animals was our founder’s observation that many young people living on the streets and under bridges had pets with them. Witnessing the strength of that bond, there was obvious potential to reach these young people through their love of animals and, at the same time, help chronically understaffed animal shelters through bringing in these young people as volunteers.

But the bond goes beyond young people’s love of animals.  There is a kinship between the two groups that we continue to learn about every day. In doing our work over the past five years, we have grown to see many parallels between the life experiences of the young people and the homeless animals we serve; similarities in how they arrived at their current situation in life and in how that makes them feel.  The same collection of reasons that lead to youth homelessness also send millions of animals to shelters each year.  For example, some of the young people end up homeless having fled an abusive home, choosing the uncertainty of the streets over the known danger of home. Others arrive at the shelter after a lifetime of more “benign” neglect or after the adults responsible for their care have disappeared from their lives to jail, drugs, another family or the unknown. In other cases, their families didn’t abuse them but were just ill equipped to provide them with the support, financial and personal, that they needed.

In the case of animals, the reasons for homelessness run a similar spectrum. Many of their guardians reluctantly gave them up, having no choice because of an inability to obtain pet friendly housing (or housing at all) or inability to afford their care, particularly veterinary care which is beyond the means of a significant percentage of people.   In other cases, the animals were seized from cruel owners who abused them, fought them or worse. Others were actively neglected through their guardians’ failure to provide adequate food, shelter or medical care.  Indeed, most of the animals in shelters end up there through the kind of passive neglect that leaves so many kids out on their own before they are ready. The adults that were responsible for both the kids and the animals were not sufficiently committed to their care to stick it out when things got tough,

Because of our work connecting these two groups., we are privileged on a regular basis to see that “I am not alone” light bulb go off in a young person’s eyes when looking into the eyes of a homeless animal. Even if before that moment, they may have felt that they had little value and nothing to offer, they clearly don’t feel that way about the dog they are playing with and they often make the connection that their lives also have value and that they too can bring another living being happiness and companionship. And, that, my friends, is the essence of Hand2Paw.




Washington Moves Toward Helping Kids Aging out of Foster Care

Hand2Paw helps homeless youth, many of whom end up that way because they turn 18 and are no longer eligible for foster care but they have not yet achieved a permanent family placement.  Their situation is almost beyond comprehension so we keep close tabs on legislation that might afford them more of a bridge to adulthood and a stable future.  Washington is currently considering such legislation.  Here is a glimpse into what it feels like to have no safety net:

Growing up in a trailer with her uncle and grandfather, Sharayah Lane always knew what her 18th birthday would mean: homelessness.

As expected, when that day came it was marked not by parties, but an immediate end to the foster-care reimbursement checks that allowed Lane’s relatives to cover the costs of sheltering her. No more checks meant no more housing.

“It was just common knowledge — when you turn 18, you’re done,” Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways. For me, that was couch-surfing — keeping my stuff in my backpack and staying wherever I could.”




A Former Foster Child and Current Caseworker Talks about Aging Out of Foster Care

This article is poignant and informative of the plight faced by many of the youth that Hand2Paw serves.  She states

“[A]dolescents in foster care are often forgotten. They become “lost” in the system, unless they become behavior problems and are referred to the juvenile justice system. But what about the children who are not a behavior problem and who can’t go back home? What happens to them?

In many cases, a youth will have a relative or other important adult in their life who will guide them through the transitional stage of emancipating from the foster care system. That adult will provide them with guidance, advice, advocacy and assistance in reaching that next step in life. Some youth will consider vocational training or college, while others will choose to enter the work force. The supportive adult will guide them through this process, helping them fill out college applications and financial aid forms, or help them find a job.

However, the reality is that not everyone will have this opportunity. Not every foster child will have a caring, responsible adult in his/her life. It’s really the luck of the draw.”

Hand2Paw seeks, in a small way, to be that supportive force in an adolescent’s life.  We welcome your support in our efforts.

A 2 for 1 Program Close to Hand2Paw’s Heart

For those of you who appreciate Hand2Paw’s mission of putting two problems together to create a solution for both, you may enjoy reading about this new program with similar goals. San Francisco has come up with a unique two for one solution to address both panhandling on the streets and increasing numbers of animals being turned into its shelters as a result of the recession.  With government backing,  WOOF, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, will pair residents in supportive housing who agree not to panhandle with adolescent puppies from shelters who are in need of more socialization in order to be permanently adopted.  The program also provides participants with weekly payments for fostering the puppies along with training in both animal care and job skills.

“We think it will be absolutely magic to give these individuals and these dogs a second chance together,” says Mayor Ed Lee’s point person on homelessness.  We at Hand2Paw could not agree more!

Suggestions from Foster Kids in Washington State

I read and appreciated this blog post from Ross Hunter, member of the Washington State House of Representatives,  about his meeting with foster youth and foster “alumni.”   The youth, having experienced the “system,” make sometimes remarkably sensible proposals for how to ease the transition from foster care to independence.  Things as simple as ensuring that the planning meeting that is supposed to take place when they are 17 actually takes place and is attended by the youth.  Read about these youth, who call themselves the Mockingbird Society, here.  Maybe you could make sure their suggestions are adopted in your state!

A Powerful Advocate for Support for Kids Who Age out of Foster Care

Anyone can tell you the dire prospects for kids who age out of foster care without finding the support of a loving family or a permanent home.  This article, written in support of California legislation that would provide additional support for these kids beyond age 18, is written by a young woman who lived it,  just as many of our Hand2Paw kids have.   It provides a window into what it would be like to be without any safety net as a teenager and underscores the need for all of us, government and individuals, to do what we can to be that net.


Peace for Puppies attends Hand2Paw session

Hand2Paw was elated to welcome Peace for Puppies to our session last week, where they got to see the H2P kids and animals in action! We asked them if they’d guest write a blog about their experience.
Peace for Puppies is so grateful to Rachel Cohen and the Hand2Paw team for allowing us to come visit them at PAWS and see how the program works.  We met a few of the volunteers from Covenant House and watched them as they learned training techniques, bathing, medical check ups, giving medication, and of course, a whole lot of TLC!
What amazes Lizzie and I the most is that Rachel put this whole thing into motion.  For the teens who have lived in foster care without the constant love and guidance and for the animals who have not had love or safe homes, this is a natural and beautiful relationship.  It was a true honor to see it come together.
Everyone, human and animal, needs kindness and deserves a chance.  Thank you Rachel for giving them all this amazing opportunity to move forward in their lives.

Photo Credit: Ashley Smith (

Hand2Paw expands to PSPCA

Yesterday, Hand2Paw doubled in size by expanding to our second site, PSPCA in North Philadelphia.

The session was lead by Hand2Paw’s trainer, Carol Siegrist, who is now a private dog trainer but actually used to be the behaviorist at PSPCA! Needless to say, she is an expert on the facility and on the best practices for the animals.

Photo: Amy DiDomineco

The youths enjoyed a safety instruction orientation done by Carol while chowing down on pizza. Hand2Paw always tries to provide snacks as we have found that the youths are typically quite hungry that late in the afternoon, and we want them to be able to focus on the tasks at hand!

After the safety orientation and a brief overview of what PSPCA does, the youths were instructed on the practice of “barrier training,” which is a technique that is used to encourage shelter dogs to present well in their kennels to potential adopters.

Five of the six youths at this session were returners – one has even come nearly 15 times, so they are all very aware of how important it is that these dogs behave and present properly, so that they are most adoptable. The youths are some of these dogs’ biggest fans – always asking if so-and-so got adopted yet – so their hearts were definitely in this exercise.

During barrier training, dogs are rewarded with a “click” and “treat” when they stand calmly and confidently by the opening of their kennel. The youths walked down the rows of the Greenhouse working with each and every dog.

Next, the youths worked on leash walking with several dogs upstairs in the auditorium. Dogs that pull on the leash or jump are less adoptable than those who walk calmly by your side, so the youths once again used clickers to reward dogs for proper leash walking behavior. Hand2Paw endorses only positive reinforcement training. Dogs that participate in our program are never scolded for bad behavior, only rewarded for good behavior. Our program aims to teach this positive method of training and interacting with animals to the youths, encouraging them to go back to their communities and teach their friends and peers these techniques!

Finally, the youths got a full tour of PSPCA, which included a trip back to the horse stables and a chat with the Humane Law Enforcement Officer, who told the youths about his training and what it would take for them to pursue a similar career!

It was all smiles at the end of the day – check out our proud future dog trainers!

The inspiration behind Hand2Paw

Hand2Paw is just one program among many that has produced synergistic solutions by empowering disadvantaged individuals to take control of their futures. Here, we highlight two of our favorites, and encourage you to send us tips about others you find throughout the country and around the world! Programs like these are spreading like wildfire not only because they are mutually beneficial but also, in some cases, because they are vital to the wellbeing of their participants.

The original inspiration for Hand2Paw , along with Back on My Feet (see below), was Puppies Behind Bars, a program that places Labrador puppies with inmates. This program empowers inmates to train these dogs to become service dogs for the disabled.

This program is incredible and benefits both parties. The inmates have all the time in the world to spend with the puppies, which provides them with the vital socialization and comprehensive training that they need. The inmates benefit by learning responsibility, patience, real skills, how to give and receive unconditional love, and how to work as a team.

Back on My Feet         

Founded in 2007 in Philadelphia by a truly amazing woman named Anne Mahlum, this program promotes the self-sufficiency of the homeless population by encouraging them to run as a means to build confidence and achieve their goals. They have developed a comprehensive program that includes job connections, employment, and housing.

They now have chapters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Chicago. Look how far they have come in only four years! Back on My Feet, you inspire us. Keep up the good work.

Welcome to the Hand2Paw blog!

It has certainly been an exciting month! The media coverage, volunteers, and support have been flooding in. If all goes as planned, we will be doubling Hand2Paw’s impact on February 7th when we expand to the PSPCA! Of course, we will continue to have frequent sessions at PAWS on Grays Ferry Ave, and are looking to develop even more structure and activities that will benefit the youth and the animals at their Wellness Clinic.

Photo: Amy DiDomenico

When I first drew out the faint sketch of this program, formerly known as the “Covenant House and PAWS Volunteer Initiative,” I never could have envisioned what Hand2Paw has become, complete with a logo, website, professional dog trainer, and internships. What began as a mere trial project has become a citywide organization that has the potential to reach hundreds of youth and thousands of animals over the next calendar year.  

Photo: Amy DiDomenico
Before Hand2Paw, back in 2009, I was putting together my thoughts on how to begin this program. I spent hours talking to a woman in Mendocino County, CA, who had started a program called the Dogs and Youth Job (DAY JOB) program. This program paid homeless youths for their work at a local animal shelter. She provided me with dozens of suggestions and insight into how to start my own program. The photos of her program were especially inspiring to me. I kept one photo as my computer background for months. It was a reminder of my goal: to create a similar program for Philadelphia’s homeless teens and shelter animals. This is that photo:

Photo: Abbey Kauffman

In November 2010, as I was looking through the photos I had taken at Hand2Paw sessions, I was struck by one in particular. By pure chance, I had snapped a photo of a Hand2Paw pair that was strikingly similar to the one from December 2009: 

Photo: Rachel Cohen

If this is what we can accomplish in one year, imagine what can happen in two? Five? Ten?! I am so excited about Hand2Paw’s future. This program is about to reach hundreds more youths and thousands more animals that deserve a chance to love and be loved.

Photo: Amy Didomineco

I welcome you to learn more and get involved! Supporters like you will keep our organization growing! Please explore our website, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and feel free to email us to learn more about how to contribute to our mission.

On behalf of Philadelphia’s homeless youths and shelter animals, I thank you. 

Rachel Cohen
Director, Hand2Paw: A Brighter Future for Homeless Teens and Shelter Animals