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Teaching Kids About Shelter Dogs Makes Them Better Students

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Pet owners all over the world know the benefits of spending time with dogs. They give us unconditional love. They calm us when we’re angry. They even brighten our moods when it seems nothing else can.

But did you know that studying shelter dogs in school can improve children’s behavior, confidence and academic performance? A new program, called the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, is finding just that and more.

The Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum is a collaboration between the Yale University School of the 21st Century and North Shore Animal League Animal (the world’s largest no-kill rescue organization). It uses stories and activities about shelter dogs to teach children about diversity, social awareness and compassion; combining the tenets of Humane Education with those of Social Emotional Learning (or SEL).

Okay… so that all sounds good, but what does it mean?


Humane Education is defined as a body of knowledge and set of strategies for teaching kids about animal protection, human rights, environmental stewardship and cultural issues. It views each of these elements as essential to the creation of a healthy and just society. Interestingly enough, many states have already passed laws mandating the inclusion of Humane Education in the curriculum. North Dakota law, for example, states that, “Oral instruction in the humane treatment of animals must be given in each public school.” Likewise, the California education code calls for all educators to impress upon their students, “kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures.” It’s just that few public schools actually follow these mandates due to confusion about what Humane Education actually entails and the unavailability of curriculum materials. Well, educators need look no further because the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum provides teachers with scripted lesson plans and activities and ways to engage families in the school community. Mutt-i-grees® also offers complimentary curriculum kits for all interested Pre-K through 12th grade teachers.


The other element of the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum is Social Emotional Learning. SEL is widely considered the cutting edge of education. It takes into account the social and emotional skills that are required for a human being to become a good student, citizen and worker. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines it as “the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions… Many risky behaviors (e.g., drug use, violence, bullying and dropping out) can be prevented or reduced when multiyear, integrated efforts are used to develop students’ social and emotional skills.” So Mutt-i-grees® is based on the belief that the best learning happens when students feel supported by those around them and are engaged in positive activities in and out of the classroom.There are many SEL programs out there right now.

What makes Mutt-i-grees® special is that it utilizes shelter dogs to teach kids the social and emotional skills they need to succeed. The Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum uses lesson plans about dogs to reinforce critical skills that are the foundation of academic success, including empathy, compassion and ethical decision-making. These skills help students care about themselves, the people around them, animals, and the environment. In some cases, animals from local shelters even visit the classroom to reinforce the concepts. In others, teachers use Mutt-i-grees® puppets to bring a canine presence into the classroom and engage their students.

Through the curriculum, children learn how to identify and label dogs’ emotions and, in the process, develop the ability to better identify and label their own; a skill inextricably linked to self-awareness and children’s capacity to manage their emotions in a social setting. By being around animals and and/or hearing animal stories, children naturally learn empathy, develop self-esteem, self-confidence, respect and responsibility. These interactions also improve cooperation and social skills, while decreasing problematic behaviors like bullying and class disruption. Cognitively, positive relationships with animals increase academic skills, concentration, mental acuity, focus and balance.


And the benefits of the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum aren’t limited to the classroom. It’s proving a groundbreaking treatment for autism because children who find it difficult to recognize social and emotional cues in humans are finding that they can pick up social and emotional cues in animals. In fact, the Mutt-i-grees® team at Yale is hard at work on a set of supplemental lessons for children with autism and other special education needs. Schools are also finding that the program drastically reduces incidences of bullying and improves overall school climate. And last but not least, it’s serving to rid the next gereration of any stigma surrounding shelter pets by teaching kids that muttigrees (or shelter pets) have just as many desirable characteristics as pedigrees.

What else is there to say? It’s good for kids, good for dogs and good for our society as a whole. So when you look at it like that, it’s really win-win-win.

The program is available in many forms: lesson plans for schools and libraries, a shelter guide, materials to implement in the home, a virtual internship, supplemental lessons for special ed students, and more! Lesson plans align with the National Health Education Standards and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and include vocabulary, hands-on activities and reading resources. It is being used by teachers and counselors in thousands of schools in over 40 states

If you’re an educator and you’re interested in implementing Mutt-i-grees® at your school, you can order a complimentary copy of the curriculum by visiting our website (www.education.muttigrees.org) or contacting us at [email protected]. Professional development and curriculum presentations are also available upon request.

If you’re not an educator but you want to help bring Mutt-i-grees® to your community, contact your local schools, PTAs, guidance counselors and animal shelters. You can also spread the word at special ed, character education and after school programs in your area. And be sure to follow Mutt-i-grees® on Facebook and Twitter for updates. You won’t regret it!

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