The youth in our community are no strangers to change and challenge, especially given the events of the past two years. Luckily, there are great resources and programs to help and guide them through the craziness of adolescence. An organization helping children in our community is K9 Crew, which offers a unique and rewarding program that allows youth to work with perhaps the most smile-inducing animal on the face of the earth—dogs.
Through a year-long program, kids ages 12-16 learn how to train different kinds of dogs, and while a smile is nice, the K9 Crew kids are gaining much more. In creating K9 Crew, Owner and Founder Joe Fluge combined his passion for working with canines with his desire to see healthy and drug-free youth in our community.
The majority of the kids in the program are currently facing challenges with things like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, the mental and physical impact of autism, among other things.
Where do dogs fit in? After getting a bag full of supplies on the first day, the kids meet weekly to learn how to train the dogs. By the end of their program, they are in front of people, teaching courses at Joe’s boarding and training business, Sheyenne River Kennels. Some of them even find a passion for the trade and end up working at his kennel when they are done going through the program. The kids grow their confidence when working with the dogs, they develop trust and build relationships through the process; which can be a huge obstacle for those who have suffered trauma throughout their lives.
“In dog training, you need goals for your dog, and you have to break down those goals into how you’re going to train a dog and what your end result is going to be. Which is a life lesson for them,” Joe explained.
Joe started dog training in 2006 as a hobby to help him quit drinking. A few years and many dog treats later, Joe found himself witnessing the 2017 community-wide outbreak of fentanyl use among youths while working as part of the Cass County Drug Task Force. This fueled him to immediately take action and figure out the details to start his own nonprofit. Because of his personal and professional life experiences, he researched the positive psychological effects that working with canines could bring and, in time, founded K9 Crew. In the years since, Joe has seen countless kids grow through the program, working with all kinds of different breeds and learning new things not just about dog training but about themselves.
The dogs used for training in the program are provided by Leech Lake Legacy, an animal welfare organization that collaborates with other animal welfare organizations and Native American communities to better the lives of abandoned dogs and cats. Joe will take their rescues, train them in the program and eventually put them up for adoption.
Training the dogs with patience, using critical thinking and teaching consequences, allows the kids to reach K9 Crew’s core values: responsibility, courage and growth. “We’ve had kids stand up to the bullies. We had kids start school again after leaving because of being bullied. And that’s not me, that’s the dogs,” Joe said.
One memory that sticks out to Joe is when he had a young boy in the program who had autism and was being bullied at school. As they worked with the dogs, they found that although the boy didn’t like giving treats to the dogs he did really well with the animals who had behavior problems. Joe explained that he was “really good at settling the dogs down because of the way he did things.” The child’s mother ended up telling Joe about her son’s confidence boost at school and that he started applying the training he learned through K9 Crew to relatives’ animals as well.
Another success story shows the significant effect the program had on one child’s personal growth.
“K9 Crew has been the best therapy for my daughter. They helped her become more respectful and responsible, and most importantly boosted her self-esteem. She now has a plan for her future, and looks forward to each day. She recently told me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to try out for dance, I want to dedicate more time to K9 Crew. When I’m at dance, I’m more stressed out, and I don’t like all the drama. At K9 Crew, I’m happy. There is no pressure or drama there!’ That was one of my proudest moments, hearing the maturity in her voice while she reasoned her decision based on the greater picture, and not just her mood. K9 Crew is a life saver for my daughter, and I am eternally grateful to Joe and Kate for their kindness and generosity toward my daughter and the other K9 Crew kids. Thank you!” -MJ’s Mom
After the pandemic hit, Joe saw a slight shift in the kids who came through the program. They seemed a bit shyer than usual, but the dogs acted almost like a safety blanket for the kids. As soon as they began to warm up to the animals, they came out of their shell for classes too.
“They just seem to be under a lot of pressure. If you have all this energy built up, you don’t really know what to do with it,” he said. “They didn’t know how to express themselves as well, because they weren’t doing a lot of their normal social stuff… but you know, the dogs changed it every time.”
Although K9 Crew has always operated as a fairly small team, their influence is anything but. While they clarify that they aren’t licensed therapists or mental health professionals, they do provide a crucial, beneficial and healthy outlet for kids in need of it.
“I’m just teaching them one step at a time. The dogs, they do the rest,” he said. “It’s just up to me as a professional to know which dogs to use and what time to use them throughout their training.”
K9 Crew was able to offer classes through the pandemic all the way up until recently. Joe serves full-time with Air National Guard and was deployed in the spring of 2021. He plans to return this winter and pick up where he left off with his last class, and attend a graduation party for his last group that went through the program.
“The options are limitless when it comes to the program. But with any nonprofit, it’s funding, Dogs aren’t cheap, dog food and all that stuff isn’t cheap. But it’s worth everything you put into it, I can see it and the parents appreciate it,” Joe said.
Ultimately, the kids aren’t just training dogs while part of K9 Crew, it’s much bigger than that. Moving forward, they hope to work with more professionals like veterinarians, vet techs, groomers, mental health professionals and other professional dog trainers to offer a much wider curriculum for the kids
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS PEOPLE CAN CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR CAUSE?
“We’re a young and motivated nonprofit, so if there’s anybody out there that would love to provide any advice for the nonprofit side of things, we could always use it. Because it does change kids and we’ve proven that.”
Learn more at k9crew.net