It’s no secret that most children love dogs, and caring for a pet can help a child foster positive social and emotional skills such as empathy, compassion and responsibility for another living being.
One program is building on children’s natural affinity for animals to help develop young minds while helping animals in shelters at the same time.
The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum was developed by the Pet Savers Foundation — an affiliate of the North Shore Animal League America — in collaboration with Yale University School of the 21st Century, and funded by The Cesar Millan Foundation.
The pre-K though grade 12 curriculum uses shelter animals, or “Mutt-i-grees,” to teach social and emotional skills to children of all ages, and is “unique in its bridging of humane education and the emerging field of social and emotional learning.”
Christina Capatides, the content and editorial manager for the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, explains that the program is now present in more than 3,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada, in nearly 550 libraries, and has also just developed a shelter guide to get the program into shelters across the United States.
Originally tested out in primary grade levels, the curriculum quickly became popular at every grade level in schools. “High school students were thrilled to work with and learn about the dogs, so we expanded the curriculum accordingly,” Capatides explains.
And the person responsible for creating the curriculum, Dr. Matia Finn-Stevenson of Yale University, says that this program has gotten the most enthusiastic response of any program she’s ever developed.
Thanks to a lot of research, the multi-faceted units of study that make up the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum are adapted to different ages and levels, and are designed to “harness the benefits of human-animal interactions.” Those benefits include the secretion of oxytocin in the brain (the “bonding chemical”), which leads to feelings of calm, happiness and decreased stress levels.
“The curriculum promotes responsibility, self-confidence, and resiliency by tapping into the children’s natural affinity for dogs. It actually incorporates [the children], and is the ‘whole child approach’ to education; not just an academic intervention, but an emotional one, too,” says Capatides.
She goes on to explain that many schools have adopted a dog from a local shelter, who is then trained and certified as a therapy animal before working with the children during the day and going home with one of the educators at night. Other schools take class trips to community’s animal shelters to teach kids about the plight of shelter animals — meaning these children will be more likely to adopt a dog or cat from a shelter when they grow up — and several elementary and middle schools have started internships at their local shelters for interested students with faculty supervision, according to Capatides.
And while it’s not always possible for a shelter pet to be physically present in a classroom, Capatides notes that even just studying shelter dogs through lessons and activities produces amazing effects in the children.
“Children naturally develop self-esteem, self-confidence, and respect,” she says. “Then, they’re better able to empathize with others and less likely to exhibit problematic behaviors like bullying and class disruption. Cognitively, positive relationships with animals also increase academic skills, concentration and mental acuity. So, learning about shelter pets actually makes kids better students.”
Every lesson in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum was designed with both the child and shelter dog in mind. Capatides talks about one lesson plan that encourages discussion around strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, and how physical activity and play can help alleviate symptoms of stress. The lesson explains how lack of exercise in dogs can lead to anxiety and destructive behavior, such as chewing, and the students learn not only that physical exercise is important for dogs to be happy, but also how it can relate back to themselves.
Similarly, a lesson plan called “Who Is There For Me” in the grade-school curriculum focuses on resiliency, coping mechanisms, and the ability to ask for help, something many children have difficulty with.
“It includes a worksheet that asks the students to think about who they can contact if they need help,” Capatides explains. “The companion worksheet is ‘Who Is There For Mutt-i-gree,’ and the students have to think about who is there for a dog when the dog needs help. It might be a veterinarian or a shelter worker, or even the student himself. Lessons like this simultaneously promote both resiliency and an understanding of shelter animals.”
Jeter is one of the animals who is helping make the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum such a success.
The school counselor at Fenton Charter Public Schools in California adopted this Mutt-i-gree through the North Shore Animal League, and brings the dog to school every day. Jeter has become somewhat of a local celebrity and even has his photo on a banner on Santa Monica Blvd. Community Charter School’s campus.
Capatides says that the students read to the dog in the library and write to him for advice on problems they are having in their lives. “[He] even has his own advice column, called ‘Jeter’s Tail Wagging Tips,’ and he replies to all of the student letters he receives.”
Students who might be too embarrassed or scared to speak to an adult about their problems open up more easily to Jeter and end up getting help that way. Jeter’s owner, Toni Frear, also notes that Jeter has been able to calm a disruptive child simply by being present in the classroom. The boy, who had been acting out in class, immediately calmed down when he noticed Jeter at the back of the room and starting asking questions about the dog. Frear says that the situation was diffused without incident, and that “like children with autism, this defiant little boy could make safe, calm contact with a gentle animal, could look him in the eyes without fear or judgment or rejection, and could regain control of his emotions and settle into a quiet conversation with the human on the other end of the leash.”
In addition to the inspiring work the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is doing in classrooms, libraries and shelters all over North America, Capatides is excited to talk about a new project she’s working on with kids and Mutt-i-grees in mind.
She is writing an educational children’s book called Muttigree with illustrator Ryan Bauer Walsh and hopes that it will be published and available for purchase in time for the holidays.
“[The book] will teach kids about the plight of shelter animals, how special they are, and it will hopefully encourage a new generation to come of age believing pet adoption is a viable option. And all of the proceeds will go to the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, so that we can change the lives of more children and more shelter pets.”
Capatides urges anyone who is interested in what the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has to offer to spread the word to their local schools, PTAs, libraries, after-school programs, special ed programs and animal shelters. More information and updates can be found on the program’s website as well as its Facebook page.
And for educators who might be interested in implementing the program at their schools or libraries, a complimentary copy of the curriculum can be ordered on the website or by contacting [email protected]. Professional development and curriculum presentations are also available upon request.
All photos courtesy of Christina Capatides or via the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum Facebook page.
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About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix and a Sphynx cat diva. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found as @PinchMom over on Twitter.