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Redefining Humane Education
Focusing on dogs and empathy helps children learn.
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Mikey hated school and everything about it. A firstgrader in a small town in Kentucky, Mikey already had a reputation as a handful. He disrupted, interrupted, erupted and was generally frustrated and isolated. He didn’t speak at grade level and resisted gestures of friendship.

Mikey’s school had recently implemented the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program that uses the affinity between children and dogs to teach kids the skills they need to develop emotional intelligence: empathy, resilience, self-awareness, cooperation and decision-making. All of the curriculum’s lessons build on children’s intense connections to canines, specifically shelter dogs, to illustrate the nuances of body language, the power of unconditional love, and the myriad similarities between dogs and people, as well as between people and people.

One day, after a Mutt-i-grees lesson called “Finding Feelings,” Mikey walked up to his teacher and said, “He broke my feelings.” Surprised, the teacher asked Mikey what he meant, and Mikey cautiously explained that another boy had taken his toy truck. Together, Mikey and his teacher approached the boy, who apologized and returned the truck. For both the child and the adult, this was a breakthrough.

“We’d just covered the lesson about recognizing feelings, putting them into words and having the confidence to talk about those feelings,” she says. “And that’s just what Mikey did. He found his feelings, named them and asked for help. It worked!” Together, Mikey and his teacher “fixed” his broken feelings. From then on, Mikey found a way to fit in with his schoolmates and feel calmer and more self-confident.

Small Moments and Oxytocin
Mikey’s ah-ha moment might be small in the scheme of things, but small moments and quiet breakthroughs are often what education is all about. Fortunately, for both kids and dogs, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum brilliantly creates the context in which these small but powerful moments can occur. The premise is simple: Acquiring social and emotional skills helps children develop self-confidence and trust in themselves and others. When they master these skills, they become better learners, which is why studies find a correlation between social and emotional learning and academic achievement.

Key to this phenomenon is oxytocin, “the hormone of love.” Research shows that even thinking about dogs lowers cortisol levels in our brains and ups the oxytocin. Cortisol is related to stress and the fight-or-flight response and is often associated with anxiety, depression and impulsive behavior. It also shuts down learning.

Oxytocin, which is exclusive to mammals, is released in mega-doses during childbirth and lactation, but is present in human beings of both genders all the time. Unlike cortisol, higher levels of oxytocin seem to increase trust and reduce fear; facilitate bonding (both maternal and social); and promote feelings of contentment, generosity and empathy. As for dogs, experts say that what’s good for the human is good for the Mutt-i-gree. The human-dog bond is just that, a bond, and both partners enjoy a boost of calming oxytocin with each pat, cuddle and shared glance.

The Mutt-i-grees Lineage
Launched in 2010, the curriculum is now in more than 4,000 schools, libraries and after-school programs across the country and Canada, reaching more than 3,000,000 students, their families, their pets and their communities. A collaboration between North Shore Animal League America (NSALA), in Port Washington, N.Y., and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century (21C), the curriculum has proven not only effective but also, hugely popular with students from pre-kindergarten through high school—not surprising when you consider the combined expertise of its creators.

North Shore Animal League America has been a pioneer in the no-kill shelter movement since its founding in 1944, and Yale’s 21C is a highly respected innovator in American education, famous for introducing the country’s first nationwide community-school model to address the needs of working families for quality child care and early childhood education.

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Marsha Rabe,  a writer and poet, has been active in animal rights and animal welfare for more than 35 years. She started a volunteer program at the New Haven, Conn., animal shelter in the 1990s. For the past five years, she’s been writing about humane education. She lives in Guilford, Conn., with her husband, Thom Brown, and their cat, Peppina.

Photos courtesy of NSALA/The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum except noted. Photo of kids on lawn by Amanda Marello.

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