Redefining Humane Education

Focusing on dogs and empathy helps children learn.
By Marsha Rabe, November 2015

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.

So, when it came to creating the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the major players were in place. Matia Finn- Stevenson, PhD, a renowned educator and director of 21C, is married to NSALA president John Stevenson, and the couple has always shared a passion for rescuing shelter dogs. The Pet Saver Foundation, NSALA’s developmental arm, and the Cesar Millan Foundation provided the curriculum’s initial funding.

In just five years, the curriculum has grown to include eight carefully researched and structured binders for PreK–Grade 3, Grades 4–6, Grades 7–8 and Grades 9–12, as well as “Mutt-igrees in the Library,” “Paws Down, Tails Up, Physical Fitness” and “The Animal Shelter Guide to the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.” There’s also a version called “Cats Are Mutt-i-grees 2,” because, well, they are! All lessons and activities focus on five fundamental SEL concepts: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Cooperation, and Dealing with Decisions. What distinguishes this curriculum from other SEL programs is that all lessons and activities use shelter pets to illustrate and reinforce these concepts.

Miguel A. Cardona, EdD, is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Meriden Public Schools, Meriden, Conn. This past fall, his school system introduced the curriculum in its kindergarten classes. “This is much more than a dog-in-the-classroom program,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay dogs in the classroom, but that’s not what this curriculum is about. Most kids have an instinctive, positive emotional connection to animals. This program recognizes that connection and meets the kids where they are. It then adds complexity and structure to develop the interpersonal and emotional skills kids need for academic achievement. Skills like empathy, self-regulation and impulse control are crucial for student success. In fact, I would argue that Mutt-i-grees helps provide a social and emotional bridge that takes kids where they need to be to become successful students.”

Perfect Partnerships
Because the curriculum derives from a partnership between a world-class animal shelter and a prestigious university, it places equal emphasis on humane issues and educational concerns. In fact, the two components are so intertwined that it’s often hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

“The focus on the human-animal bond inherent in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is a powerful learning tool,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Although it’s especially valuable for children who are at risk and those with developmental and educational problems, all children love and benefit from it. The kids think it’s just plain fun. But from our perspective, we see them developing empathy and learning about themselves, animals and each other—learning to care.”

Finn-Stevenson says the curriculum’s methodology synthesizes concepts from the fields of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and resilience research to teach valuable skills that foster both social and emotional competence and academic success. She also says that it’s one of the few SEL programs available that works on a continuum from preschool through high school.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the program is its versatility. The curriculum now has applications for libraries, animal shelters, special education programs, after-school programs, at-risk youth, anti-bullying, physical education and families.

“We knew that children would respond favorably to stories and activities about shelter pets,” says Finn-Stevenson, “but we were—and continue to be— amazed at the interest the program is generating among teachers, counselors, parents and other family members.”

And a Dog Shall Lead Them
The curriculum has proven equally effective in small-town, mainstream classrooms like Mikey’s and in challenging inner-city schools like Brooklyn’s Shell Bank Intermediate School. Located between the Sheepshead-Nostrand housing projects and Sheepshead Bay High School, historically one of the most dangerous public schools in New York City, Shell Bank Intermediate enrolls 560 students in grades six through eight.

Shell Bank adopted the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2014. That fall, NSALA’s Mutt-i-grees Team visited the school with several dogs and puppies to conduct an interactive assembly. By day’s end, Denise Atwood, who teaches English language arts at Shell Bank, had fallen in love with a mellow black-and-white Mutt-i-gree who’d recently come from a high-kill shelter in Tennessee. Atwood named her Shelby, and together, she and Principal Teri Ahearn made Shelby the school’s canine counselor and goodwill ambassador. Every day, Shelby contributes to a calm classroom atmosphere, making the school day more fun and productive for faculty and students while doing her utmost to combat any misconceptions students may have about dogs.

Shelby isn’t the curriculum’s only campus Mutt-i-gree. In fact, at least 16 former shelter dogs (and one cat) are now members of the nationwide Mutti- grees Canine Corps. Finn-Stevenson is quick to point out, however, that real dogs are not essential to the program’s success, especially with young children. The curriculum uses plush puppy hand puppets, books, art activities, games and other means to bring the essence of dog into the classroom. Thanks no doubt to the oxytocin phenomenon, the puppets are so popular that young learners often compete to see who can take one home for the weekend.

Up Close
An important feature of the curriculum is the Mutt-i-grees Internship. Every year, NSALA brings Mutt-i-grees students to its busy campus to see for themselves what it takes to rescue, nurture and adopt a companion animal. The league also conducts off-site internships at several nearby sites, including those for high-risk youth. For students in other parts of the country, the program offers the almost-real thing through its series of Virtual Internship videos.

“I’ve worked hands-on in animal welfare for more than 35 years,” says Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at NSALA. “The internship is crucial to the curriculum, because it gives students a chance to experience firsthand what an animal shelter is all about, especially now, when people are proud of their rescue pets, of doing the right thing and adopting. I want these kids to feel that pride and to know that today is an exciting time to be a member of the shelter community.”

St. Martin de Porres Academy (SMDP), in New Haven, Conn., implemented the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2010. Located just a few blocks from Yale’s campus, SMDP is a progressive, independent Catholic school that provides tuition-free, extended-day classes for underserved students from low-income families. Admission is open to all regardless of race, religion, color or ethnicity. Now in its 11th year, SMDP enrolls about 60 students in grades five to eight. School days are 10 hours long, and the school year runs a full 11 months. In addition, SMDP makes a 12-year commitment to all students and their families, pledging academic, personal and financial support from fifth grade through college.

For the past five summers, incoming fifth-graders from SMDP have traveled the 80 miles from New Haven to Port Washington to spend five days as Mutti- grees Interns. The week begins with shelter intake and moves on to medical care, grooming, socialization and marketing. On their final day as interns, the students see for themselves what it’s all about as they help lucky Mutt-igrees get adopted from one of NSALA’s mobile adoption units.

SMDP President Allison Rivera, who adopted a Beagle mix named Penny in 2011, has seen the effects of the program on her students. “I’ve watched the transformative power that an intense focus on empathy can have and how it can extend to all living things,” she says.

Rivera notes that for many of these inner-city children, the internship offers a rare opportunity for positive contact with nature. “These kids are so removed from the natural world,” she says. “They really haven’t any experience with it. They’re terrified of insects, everything. That’s just one reason that going to North Shore is always an eye-opener. It gives them a chance to see and relate to animals, which means relating to nature.”

One of this year’s interns, Alexzander London, 10, has a dog at home named Oscar. “At North Shore, we learned not to judge a book by its cover when we learned about Pit Bulls,” he says. “We also learned about how important it is to train a dog well. When you treat them well, there’s always good inside a dog.”

“Love Is a Four-Legged Word”
Selma, Calif., which bills itself as “the Raisin Capital of the World,” is a small agricultural city of about 20,000 in the Central San Joaquin Valley. For 60 years, the town’s animal control problems were handled, grudgingly, by the police department, which housed dogs and cats at a secluded facility. Volunteers were frightened to go there; most residents didn’t know where it was.

In 2012, several town leaders who were also dog lovers decided to change the pound into a true shelter and upgrade Selma’s humane services. In January 2014, Second Chance Animal Shelter of Selma held its grand opening in a small but highly visible location just a few blocks from Selma High School. Second Chance is a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers with support from the town and local businesses. Its motto? “Love Is a Four-Legged Word.”

The shelter’s volunteer executive director is a 26-year-old dog trainer named Sarah Chambless, the sort of young woman whose enthusiasm and passion lead her to try things that surprise even her. She’d previously volunteered at the troubled pound, where she learned what a shelter should not be, and where she’d adopted her German Shepherd, Belle, now a certified therapy dog.

Shortly after Second Chance opened, high school principal Mark Babiarz, himself a dog lover, received a grant for an after-school program that required a curriculum. He immediately thought of Second Chance and called Chambless to see if she could use some high school volunteers. She said, “Yes!” Then he mentioned the curriculum.

“I had no idea how to make a curriculum,” she recalls. “So I went online and found the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, and it’s awesome! I use it with my volunteers and when I go into classrooms with Belle. We talk about empathy, and I always point out to the kids how Belle’s presence improves the energy in the room. Then we go to the shelter to work with the dogs. The students have chores, of course, but they also monitor playgroups and help me make sure that every dog gets outdoor time.”

Because her fledgling shelter faces a lot of challenges, she’s forged partnerships with local no-kill groups to move dogs out of Second Chance to safer ground. Adoption is slow, but many more owners now know where to find their lost pets. That, she says, is a step in the right direction.

“The only way to fix a problem is to change the mindset of people,” says Chambless, “and changing young minds is easier than changing the minds of a lot of old-school farmers. This is a rural community, really set in its ways. But education can make the difference. This curriculum opens a door that leads to change.”

For Principal Babiarz, that fortuitous phone call to Chambless signaled a turning point for Selma. “Building a community’s capacity to empathize and care for animals can only make that community a better place for everyone,” he says.

Power to the Mutt-i-Grees
At the high school level, the curriculum’s versatility and relevance have brought new energy and fresh ideas into the classroom. Teachers of any academic subject—from literature and social studies to art, science and psychology — can choose from among a list of thought-provoking Mutt-i-grees lessons, all designed to enhance academics while developing and reinforcing the students’ social and emotional skills.

One high school English teacher presented her students with the concept of “reputation,” and asked them to consider its thematic links to Michael Vick and Othello. The result was a collection of provocative essays about Othello, Casio, Vick and Pit Bulls.

A social studies teacher asked students to examine interspecies communication in relation to the anthropological development of the canine-human relationship. The students learned how ancient, rich and deep this bond really is—and, how to write a solid research paper.

Students, in turn, have seized upon Mutt-i-grees as a way to stretch their talents and play a role in the world outside the classroom. They volunteer and fundraise for local shelters, form clubs to spread the word about spay/neuter and adoption, organize adoption events, create anti-cruelty campaigns, and educate their families and community leaders about the importance of compassion and responsible pet care. Empowered by their Mutt-i-grees experience, kids are becoming informed spokespersons and leaders in the effort to create a better world for animals.

And they’re having fun doing it. Last summer, students in the Clinton, Ark., school district spent time at M.U.T.T.S. Camp. (The acronym, created by the campers, stands for Motivated Understanding Thoughtful Teenage Students.) They visited shelters, cleaned kennels and litter boxes, bathed and walked dogs, socialized felines, made friends, and learned lessons they’ll never forget. In July, more than 50 of those students worked with high school faculty and staff to stage a twoact Mutt-i-grees Musical Extravaganza: The Dog Days of Summer 2015. Numbers included such canine classics as “Hound Dog,” “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and even “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.”

“The curriculum is effective because it’s inspiring,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Both teachers and students are inspired to take the curriculum and make it their own. Really, Mutt-i-grees is much more than a school curriculum. It becomes part of the community and extends far beyond the schoolroom.”

Psychotherapist Deborah La Fond, LMFT, first encountered the curriculum in a school setting, where she directed a special education program for children with emotional disturbances. Today, she’s in private practice in San Jose, Calif., specializing in children and teens, and the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has traveled with her.

A self-described “dog person,” La Fond says that shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. “They identify,” she says. “They see innocent dogs in shelters being ‘punished’ for no reason. They recognize abuse, neglect and abandonment as things they’ve experienced—and they’re able to tap much more quickly and deeply into those emotions and talk about them. Shelter dogs can really lighten the emotional load for these kids, especially teens who get sucked into that edgy adolescent funk.”

She says that emotional resilience, which is at the heart of the curriculum, is crucial to helping everyone navigate life’s transitions and traumas. “There are times,” she says, “when we’re talking about shelter dogs and—bang!—the lights go on, and a child suddenly brings up the death of a pet or a grandparent. Connections get made. It’s amazing.”

Little Mikey in Kentucky would definitely agree: Finding and fixing broken feelings is undeniably amazing. And that, in essence, is the curriculum’s power: its ability to offer kids like Mikey a multitude of ways to become calm and resilient through skills they acquire simply because they love and relate to animals.

As for the Mutt-i-grees, it’s all good. Adoptions are up in communities where the curriculum is part of the culture, “… shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. They identify …” 90 Bark Winter 2015 and educators from Connecticut to California are discovering that shelter animals have a lot to teach all of us about empathy, dignity, connection and the possibility of a more humane future. That’s a lot for a school curriculum to carry. But if you consider who’s really in charge—the Mutt-i-grees—it’s not so surprising after all.

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.

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