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A Little TLC for Kids and Canines

Humane education program gives training lessons to dogs and life lessons to preteens

Humane education program gives training lessons to dogs and life lessons to preteens

What It Is

© Katina Antoniades

“My son has always had problems in school for various reasons,” the letter reads. “Last year I took him out of school and he was tutored at home. Still this was not successful for him.”

The boy’s mother goes on to describe the changes her son has undergone since he began coming to the SPCA Serving Erie County: “He has passed all but one of his classes. ... He has become calmer at home and has showed more patience with himself and his siblings. I know that a lot of this is attributed to the TLC program! ... This is a wonderful program and has worked miracles with my son.”

This doesn’t sound like the typical note an animal shelter would find in the mail. But TLC isn’t the typical humane education program.

Short for “Teaching Love and Compassion,” TLC provides life lessons in humane behavior and good character to students in need. Modeled after an initiative of the spcaLA in Los Angeles, the program also teaches kids about the inner workings of an animal shelter and allows them to train homeless dogs who need extra attention.

That’s the part that’s especially inviting to participants like Shekia Brown, who sums up the general sentiment of the preteen set at the Tonawanda, New York, shelter: “It’s fun. You get to work with dogs, and they teach you a lot about animals.”

For over four years, children have been coming to the SPCA from Northtowns Academy, an alternative school run by the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and Lincoln Academy, a Buffalo public school.

The obstacles these kids face every day are foreign to most of us, says SPCA executive director Barbara Carr. Lincoln Academy is “an innercity school and [its students are] 100 percent at risk of dropping out due to economics and violence,” whereas Northtowns Academy is “basically the last stop before [students are] totally thrown out of the education system,” says Carr. “[TLC has] been an incredibly successful program with these kids who everybody’s given up on.”

“TLC is a constant reminder of how middle-income America is totally blind to the problems that low-income families face—and what we take for granted ... just things like having books in our homes or parents that aren’t in jail, or parents,” she says. “We have a whole huge percentage of our population ... who have zero advantage, and all of us have responsibilities to these kids.”

Many of these children are the pet owners of the future, says Carr, so changing their behavior now can only help animals later.

“You take at-risk children and at-risk dogs and put them together,” says SPCA humane education director Stephanie Hall, “and it’s just a wonderful outcome. The children finally have the ability to do something for someone else.”

For many kids in TLC, models of kindness—toward either people or animals—can be tough to come by. Some have even witnessed dogfights. “There’s a lot of animals that I know that are in danger,” says Jacquelin Allen, a former TLC student. “I hate seeing animals being in danger or hurt. And I hate when I’m walking down the street and see a stray animal begging for food and stuff.”

By the end of the four weeks, kids know just what to do if they see an animal in trouble: “Call the SPCA!”

How it Works

At a TLC class last fall, several students arrived after school to enjoy a snack of cookies and juice. Encouraged by Hall to share one recent good thing in their lives, they spoke of block parties and baptisms. During a lesson on decision-making, most struggled to pay attention.

Sitting still can be torture to a middle school student, says Hall, especially after a long day at school. To make topics like conflict resolution, goal-setting, and pet overpopulation as interesting as possible, she’s been trying to use more hands-on learning exercises. Students can play educational games—“Jeopardy is just a huge thing with them,” Hall says—or take part in teambuilding activities.

TLC teachers stress the importance of school, keeping tabs on kids’ academic performance and reminding the children that their participation hinges on completion of schoolwork. That’s good enough incentive for students like Yassmine Carter.

“I really enjoy coming here because all the things that they teach us right now, I never knew them before,” says Carter. “Like overpopulation, and how you have to call the SPCA if you see any stray dogs outside, or cats.”

When team activities don’t go as well as anticipated, kids learn about the importance of teamwork, says Hall. “We talk about reality—[that] when you get older and you’re out of school and you have a job, you have to work together as a team. And that everyone brings all these wonderful qualities and thoughts [to the table].”

Crowd-control measures that prevent the kids from becoming even more boisterous include saving the best activity for last. During the final part of each session, pairs of kids help teach dogs how to sit on command and walk on a leash. Lynn Broderick, supervisor of animal behavior and training, assists, as do the SPCA’s board president and other dedicated volunteers.

Students also get a chance to observe a sterilization surgery. “Our infirmary staff is wonderful,” says Hall. “They talk them through the whole thing and why it’s so important. [The kids] enjoy that one.”

The SPCA has made significant changes to the program since its inception. When Hall was hired, each session was six weeks long, and each child worked with a certain dog for the duration. “They became so attached, and it was just so heartbreaking,” Hall says. Now, students work with multiple dogs during a shorter, four-week session, and when a dog is adopted, she can go home before the program ends.

Lincoln Academy students participate in sessions that are offered after school four times a year, while the monthlong sessions for Northtowns Academy students are offered twice a year during the school day. Northtowns students organize school fundraisers, such as bake sales, to benefit the SPCA.

As ideal as this program sounds, it has presented several challenges. Working with middle school children sometimes can be a tall order in itself. And although Hall says the ideal number of kids each session would be 12, kids’ time constraints and school suspensions sometimes reduce the graduating class to about 8.

“Absenteeism makes me crazy,” Carr says. To encourage kids to attend every class, Carr often promises them gift cards from Burger King, Blockbuster, or other fun places of their choice. A little straight talk also helps. “We talk to them a lot about their responsibilities,” says Carr. “I actually was thinking the other night that I might have a more serious conversation with them, treat them a little more like adults and tell them exactly what we’re investing in them. And [that] the reason is they’re special and that we expect them to step up to the plate.”

The SPCA navigates logistical barriers before the kids even arrive at the shelter: school bureaucracies, funding limitations, and transportation headaches. Hall stresses the importance of having support from all parties, including shelter administrators and the principal and teachers at participating schools.

How It Helps Kids

Any problems that arise seem to pale in comparison to the huge difference the program makes for kids. “We had a student once whose mother died, and I didn’t even know it,” Carr says. “She never missed a class. She had perfect attendance; that’s how important it was to her. ... Every single one of them loves being there.”

The SPCA presents alternatives to the mistreatment of animals that students often see in their neighborhoods. “They get to come here and they see how everyone here cares about animals, how everyone here cares about them, and then you start watching how they ... start being a positive member of their community and doing positive things for animals and other people,” says Hall.

The SPCA’s lessons can seem alien to kids at first. One student who completed the program last year didn’t quite agree with a lesson on decision making. The kids had been given a hypothetical scenario in which they found a wallet belonging to a friend who had been saving up for a bicycle. One girl was adamant that she should keep the money.

“For a good half an hour, we discussed this,” Carr says, “and there was no way we could move her off ‘That’s my money; I found it.’ ” When Carr asked her how she would feel if it had been her money that was lost, she replied, “Anybody’d be a fool to give it back to me.”

But TLC made a difference for the girl. “I think we moved her along. ... She was the only kid with perfect attendance,” says Carr. “That always tells me a lot because the kids who need us most are the kids who actually come every day.”

The girl was also deathly afraid of dogs, screaming when any came near her at the beginning of the four-week session. Eventually, though, she was hand-feeding dogs treats to reward them. Most kids start out fearful but gain confidence by the end of the program, says Carr.

That confidence extends beyond animal relationships. In addition to working with SPCA staff and volunteers and meeting visitors, students interact with adopters of TLC dogs, who attend a program session before taking the dogs home. The kids are happy to dispense advice. “Here’s this inner-city kid, and somebody from the suburbs, [and the kid says], ‘Mrs. Jones, that’s not exactly the way to do this; let me show you again,’ ” says Carr.

Former TLC participant Brittany Jones is so comfortable with her newfound knowledge that she feels like she could give advice to people she sees on the street who are walking their dogs incorrectly. “If they’re holding the leash wrong, we could show them the way to hold it,” she says.

The lessons taught by SPCA volunteers and staff reach beyond the classroom. Several families can claim all their children as TLC graduates. “And so when those kids come in,” Carr says, “we can see that the older brother or sister has taught them stuff. It’s interesting that they know what the word ‘empathy’ means because somebody had taught them that, so they’ve been thinking about empathy for a while.”

At the end of each session, the students are recognized with a ceremony at their school. Following graduation, they may be selected to return to TLC as mentors if they excelled in the program or would benefit from some more time with SPCA staff, volunteers, and animals. Mentors help with lessons and offer their seasoned advice on training.

In the future, Hall would like to have mentors teach lessons, too. “Peer education is far more powerful than an adult standing up there talking to them,” she says.

How It Helps Dogs

Of course, the kids aren’t the only ones to reap the benefits of TLC. Almost all of the canine “students” in the program are pit bulls or pit mixes who get help polishing their doggie manners before being adopted. “I think we give a whole new face to pit bulls in the community,” says Carr.

The dogs don’t just become more adoptable; they enjoy some needed activity and, well, TLC. “They get out of their kennels, and just the mental stimulation and bonding with a human being is wonderful,” says Hall.

Many kids need a little time to get used to the unavoidable doggie-drool encounters—“you get all slobbery and stuff,” observes past student Shekia Brown. But in four short weeks, TLC participants become little dog trainers in their own right, teaching most of the dogs to sit, stay, come when called, walk calmly on a leash, understand “leave it,” and do a few tricks, an accomplishment that impresses Carr the most.

“It’s amazing—I have yet in my entire life been able to teach a dog to roll over,” she says.

Teaching these young dogs new tricks can be a challenge, Carr says. The dogs often choose to do whatever they feel like doing, without regard for what they’re “supposed to” do—much like the TLC kids, who frequently have trouble paying attention to the humane education lessons taught by Hall or others.

“The kids and the dogs have a great deal in common,” Carr says, “and it’s very interesting to me that the kids [understand] their own behavior by seeing the dogs. And they don’t blame the dogs. They’re all of a sudden given a dog with no impulse control, no training, and they make the connection that that’s them. And they choose a different way of working with that dog than human beings have chosen in dealing with them.”

TLC graduate Jacquelin Allen explained her own interpretation of the golden rule. You can’t blame someone, canine or human, for something they simply don’t know, she says. “Sometimes [training the dogs is] frustrating, but you can’t get mad. Because if I was in pre-K and I didn’t know how to write a letter, I wouldn’t like somebody to be mad at me.”

It’s these kinds of revelations that set TLC apart from humane education programs where one-on-one interaction and attention are impossible. “I think that most shelters believe humane education is going to 10,000 kids for half an hour a year,” says Carr. “I don’t think there’s any data that that’s effective. I’d much prefer a shelter to develop a program that only affects 40 kids, and do it right.”

Shelters that have questions about starting their own TLC programs can call the SPCA’s humane education department at 716-875-7360.


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