A program pairing at-risk children with rescue dogs hopes to expand its services.

Kids and Canines, a 501c3, provides students, who are selected in collaboration with teachers, counselors, and therapists, the opportunity to learn basic life and work skills by helping to train dogs, who are recruited from animal rescue organizations.

Kids and Canines recently piloted the program at Hillsborough Girls Academy, a residential facility for young women required to stay in the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

One of the dogs enlisted for the pilot program was Rex, a poodle donated to Kids and Canines. Rex graduated, and went to live with Tony Schwalm, a retired lieutenant colonel with the US Army Special Forces who struggles with PTSD.

The Green Beret says Rex serves as his personal “mood barometer.” 

“His capacity to read my mood is very unique, and I don’t normally see that in an animal,” says Schwalm. Rex can sense when he’s getting angry, frustrated, or stressed, and the poodle lets him know, by keeping his distance or not wagging his usually happy tail. 

Schwalm says, “It forced me to consider how I was sending signals out that maybe I wasn’t even aware of.” 

Stephanie Schwalm says Tony was wary of having another dog – and especially a poodle. And, Rex, who was used to an all-female environment, was initially wary of Tony. But that apprehensiveness didn’t last long for either of them. 

“You could see very quickly that Rex started to bond with Tony. It just seemed like a natural fit,” she recalls.

Schwalm is convinced Rex’s training as a comfort dog, which involved spending six months living in a correctional facility, with young women battling their own emotions, gave an already smart dog an even keener sense of intuition. He credits Kids and Canines, believing that the program, by design, graduates pups that have a deeper capacity to understand and respond to their human partners.

A free event on Saturday, April 7, will benefit the Kids and Canines program. It’s being held from 10 a.m.. to 2 p.m. at Original Carrollwood Park, 11470 Orange Grove Drive, in Tampa.

The dog and family friendly event will feature agility courses, vendors catering to pet lovers, food trucks, music, and more. Learn more at this link.