Troubled children in a secure Child, Youth and Family unit in Lower Hutt are learning empathy and life skills in a unique programme involving SPCA puppies, kittens and rabbits.

Just call him BigShow. That’s his tag-name, but if he writes it on any of the walls in this secure unit in Lower Hutt, he’ll have to scrub it off. He is learning that there are consequences for your actions.

‘BigShow’, and the nine other residents at Child, Youth and Family’s Epuni Care and Protection centre, are locked up for their safety or the safety of others. He has anger problems, catalogued in his 11-year-old mind as a collection of acronyms such as ODD, or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. “It means I don’t listen to anything if I”m angry.”

Today he’s a smiling, bubbly little boy from Christchurch but the acronyms offer clues as to what can be expected from his behaviour on a bad day. He can be attention-seeking, prone to angry outbursts and unable to hear reason when in a wild rage. He has been aggressive but some recent experiences are teaching him how to identify with the vulnerability in others.

BigShow holds a lead and feeds a puppy called Sheila. Four other puppies are scattered around the yard, each on the leash of a troubled kid.

The puppies are SPCA animals, waiting for homes, and in an innovative joint venture between the SPCA and CYFS, they are brought to Epuni fortnightly to help teach these troubled young people empathy.

SPCA workers sit on the ground with the children and teach them how to pat, cuddle and train the puppies.

They use clickers and dogfood to reinforce good behaviour. One trainer explains that the puppies need lots of cuddles so they won”t be afraid, and lash out, when they get into a home. Much like children.

‘Takn 1′ is 14, from Porirua. He has been here nine months. The puppies have sparked an interest for him and when he gets out, and is old enough to have a home of his own with his own rules, he’s going to get a dog. He might even work at the SPCA.

Epuni manager Ross Barber says the animal visits engender empathy in the young people. The regard they eventually have for animals can develop into appropriate regard for humans.

The average stay at Epuni is about five months. Many of the children are victims of abuse, but through contact with animals, they can learn the empathy that may have been absent in their homes.

Mr Barber said: “Developing empathy is natural but exposure to violence interrupts this process. Contact with safe, loving others can begin to redress this harm.”

The SPCA developed the programme, which is also run in Auckland.

Some of the residents at Epuni, and most of the young people in the neighbouring Severe Conduct Disorder Unit where they also visit, have a history of violence toward animals.

SPCA Wellington chief executive Judi Weir said animal-assisted intervention was shown to prevent cruelty.

Research showed those serving criminal sentences for extreme violence were often violent to animals before moving on to humans. Abused children were more likely to harm animals.

‘Shorty007′ says everyone here has a tag-name. She’s a 13-year-old established car thief from Te Puke.

She has been in CYFS care five years and came to Epuni a month ago. She had a dog at home, a golden retriever called Fang, but her uncle ran it over. She used to hit her dog. “When I kick my dog, it gets aggressive.”

Shorty007 says she has learnt that you don”t have to hit dogs to make them listen. “It’s made me think that animals are just like humans so the way I treat an animal is just like treating a human.”

When she goes home, she’s going to ask her mother for a puppy. She won’t kick this one.

BigShow is due home on May 1.

Asked if he”s excited, he shakes his head and changes the subject.

“I quite like the clicker thing, and it”s quite slobbery . . . I would like to adopt a puppy. Puppies like slobbering all over you but it”s also been quite good.”

The puppies are collected up after an hour and the children wander inside for an afternoon meeting. “My hands smell like dogfood,” one boy says.

BigShow sniffs his fingers and laughs. “My hands smell like dogfood too.”