NEW HAVEN – Mutts are gaining new respect at two Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Hartford, where a curriculum that draws upon children’s love of animals is helping students build confidence, learn responsible decision-making and develop social and emotional skills.
Called the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the project was developed by the Pet Savers Foundation of North Shore Animal League America (NSALA) in collaboration with Yale University’s School of the 21st Century.
The innovative program uses the rescue and adoption of shelter dogs as a way to introduce students to the concepts of compassion and social responsibility. The goal is to teach children empathy while developing social awareness, relationship skills and problem-solving abilities.
"It’s lessened bullying and helped students become less disruptive and more engaged in school," said Jim Messina, a former teacher at one of the schools, St. Martin de Porres Academy, who now works as an educational programming manager for Mutt-i-grees.
Funded by the Cesar Millan Foundation (of "Dog Whisperer" fame), the program bridges the characteristics and attraction of "Mutt-i-gree"s (or nonpedigree, shelter pets) with humane education and the emerging field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
The curriculum, which has been approved by the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, is also being piloted at St. Augustine School in Hartford.
"I’m very happy with the program," said Cynthia Niedbala, St. Augustine’s principal. Last month, her daughter Megan brought her adopted shelter dog, Harrison, to the school, and "everyone had a great day," she said.
While eighth graders discussed what it was like to work in an animal shelter and serve as a volunteer, first graders all took turns reading to Harrison.
"They really enjoyed having the dog in their classroom," said Mrs. Niedbala. "The whole atmosphere changed to a calm, quiet classroom. It was phenomenal."
The multifaceted Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is integrated into academic lessons that support vocabulary, discussion, reading, role playing and family and community involvement activities.
Children learn critical skills to help them manage their emotions, get along with others and develop empathy, compassion, self-esteem, respect and teamwork – all of which will help them interact with people and animals.
Already, more than 900 schools in 40 states are using the curriculum, which incorporates a series of 20 lessons. In addition, it has led to the adoption of more than 1,000 animals from local shelters throughout the country.
Reaction from students at St. Martin de Porres since the program started in 2010 has been overwhelmingly positive, said principal Allison Rivera, also a longtime animal rights activist, who calls it a "transformative experience" for students.
"It has sparked research ideas and debates among the students," said Ms. Rivera. "It’s great to see the kids come alive, and it sparks all of the things teachers want to see – debates, looking at a deeper level, partnering together, voicing opinions, taking a stand and supporting ideas with facts."
Jay Bowes, the academy’s director of development, said, "It’s something that students can relate to, it empowers them, it makes them see that they are capable of creating change." And, since the program is supported by the organizing foundations, the first curriculum kit is free.
When his school first initiated the program, students spent a hands-on week during the summer at the Long Island shelter learning about the shelter world, from rescuing, grooming and volunteering to marketing, writing public service announcements and adopting.
In fact, Pet Savers estimates that animal shelters care for six to eight million dogs and cats every year in the United States, about half of which are euthanized. Noting that three out of every four shelter dogs are mixed-breed, the group promotes the idea that adopting a mixed-breed dog from a shelter can help save a life.
The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is used in a variety of ways, from mainstream and special education classrooms to after-school programs, service learning, health education, character education and parent education programs; as well as in preschool, child-care and Head Start programs.
The prekindergarten to grade 12 program differs among four grade groupings. Lessons can be offered once or twice a week; and with 20 core lessons, the curriculum can be implemented in two to four months through activities ranging from speaking and listening, to language, writing and reading.
Mr. Messina said he also incorporated the curriculum into his religion classes for fifth through eighth graders. He said it offers a good fit when talking about social justice, kindness, fairness and emotions.
"We talk about God entrusting the earth to us and our responsibility to take care of the creatures he has given us," he said.
While the curriculum does not involve the presence of a dog in the classroom, he said that studies show that the human-animal bond increases the level of the bonding hormone oxytocin in the brain, which lowers heart rate, blood pressure and stress in humans. Another benefit, he noted, is that pets have long been used for therapeutic purposes.
For example, children struggling with literacy issues have overcome the problem by reading to dogs, and developmentally disabled children benefit from and are drawn to dogs because they promote positive emotions, laughter, conversation and excitement.
Mr. Messina also noted that with today’s proliferation of computers, cell phones, iPads and other devices, Mutt-i-grees is helping to reeducate children about the simple skills of social interaction.
Added Ms. Rivera, with a note of certainty as her school completes its third year with the curriculum, "It’s a great program. We believe in it."