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Learning the ROPs

At Burbank Animal Shelter, kids learn to care, clean, and prepare for a possible animal career

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2014

After spending the morning scrubbing feral cat crates, Janna So socializes Coco during on-the-job training at Burbank Animal Shelter. Emilia Escobedo practices the “heel” command—aka “follow the leader”—with Jet at Burbank Animal Shelter. After residing at the shelter for a year, Jet was adopted into a new home. To help Jet (a Lab/Jindo mix) stay fit, ROP student Susanna Karnoff exercises the 1-year-old dog in the Burbank Animal Shelter’s play yard. The author, animal care instructor Denise Fleck, takes an energetic black Labrador out of his run to the play yard at Burbank Animal Shelter. ROP students socialize and train dogs, and help them experience some fun while they’re at the shelter.

Brenda Castaneda credits a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) class she took in high school for spurring her on her career path. The class taught Castaneda—now superintendent at Burbank Animal Shelter (BAS) in California—to perform basic jobs around her local animal shelter, and got her interested in doing something with animals later on. In 2007, she looked into offering such a class at her own shelter, and much to her surprise, the school district quickly green-lighted her request.

“I was ecstatic about offering the same opportunity that I received in high school. I couldn’t believe I was now teaching students what I had learned as a young, avid animal lover. I felt I was giving back not only to the youth of our community, but to the animals as well," she says.

The Los Angeles County ROP offers students more than 16 courses that integrate hands-on training with academics to help them develop workplace and career management skills. It’s the largest program of its kind in California and makes a variety of classes available to almost 40,000 students in 23 school districts. The Animal Care program, however, is run by BAS exclusively for students in the Burbank Unified School District.In 2011, Castaneda, busy with shelter duties and the pursuit of a master’s degree, needed another animal professional to take over what she had started, and I came on board to help. I started my career as a movie studio publicist, but a decade in, I changed direction, wanting to do something that could make a difference. My own yellow Labrador retriever, Sunny, (adopted from BAS) had suffered a back injury that led me to learn, and then go on to teach, pet first aid and CPR. In the years that followed, I took every class available, and used my skills volunteering at animal shelters. I shared lifesaving techniques in books and magazines, on radio and television (CBS-TV’s The Doctors and Animal Planet’s Pit Boss).

A New Direction

Until 2011, I had taught mostly adults. With ROP, I shifted my focus to high school students and went back to school, myself, for my Career Technical Education (CTE) credential. The courses taught me to effectively manage a classroom full of texting teenagers without barking commands or muzzling the students. Personally, I think my teachers had it easier with no cell phones, iPods, or cut-and-paste essays done on computers to contend with, but I know they had their own challenges! That said, I have met some amazing teenagers who give me great hope for the future.

At ROP Animal Care, kids can meet new friends and learn while exploring the possibility of a career that involves animals. The class meets five hours weekly for 20 weeks. Kids learn how to choose the right pet for their family, a pet’s basic needs, diseases that affect different species and how to prevent them, and characteristics of various dog and cat breeds and how to describe their color patterns and markings. We also cover care for other species of pet, and talk about highly charged topics such as puppy mills, spay/neuter, trap-neuter-release (TNR), animal rights compared to animal welfare, and breed-specific legislation. Guest speakers help students explore career options in various animal fields by sharing what they do. And of course … there are field trips. We’ve taken the group to the Los Angeles Zoo to learn about reptiles and amphibians, and the advanced class travels to Farm Sanctuary in nearby Acton, Calif., to get up close and personal with livestock.

“You learn to think about your lifestyle and understand an animal’s needs beforeyou make that decision to adopt,” explains ROP graduate Hayley O’Brien. “Do you have time to brush a longhaired cat every day? Is your fence high enough that a big dog can’t jump it? Do you have other pets who may be consumed by your new pet?” A question I always ask students is, “Where will you be 10-15 years from now, and will the pet you adopt today be able to live, however many years he has, by your side?"

In ROP, Animal Care students learn the importance of good pet nutrition—including how to read pet food labels—as well as the need for their pet to get annual veterinary checkups in between the head-to-tail ones they are taught to do at home. I may have irked a parent or two when their kids have made them buy a higher-quality food for the family pet, but it is wonderful to see that parents do listen!

The class learns to be safe around animals, how to read an animal’s body language, and how to teach dogs manners so that they will become well-behaved members of the family. Dog and cat breeds are covered, and students learn about what diseases they can and cannot get from their pets. Students and parents sign risk-agreement waivers prior to the second class meeting and are thoroughly instructed on what to do should a scratch or bite occur.

Early Sunday mornings, they don rubber gloves and perform the duties of a kennel attendant’s assistant, gaining work experience for their résumés (which they also learn to write in class). “The practice we got doing job interviews in ROP really helped when I had to talk with college admissions officers,” says O’Brien, who participated in ROP in 2011-’12.

“OJT [on-the-job training] is hard work,” laments Steven E., who claims to have never done a single load of laundry at home but has scores under his belt at the animal shelter.The mantra “Work enthusiastically, show initiative, and take pride in a job well done” keeps everyone on track as they hose down dog runs, clean out litter boxes, sanitize pet carriers, clean the play yard, and wash, dry, and fold the hundreds of towels and blankets the animals go through each week.

Students also feed, socialize, and exercise the animals. “It is important students understand they are being trusted with the lives and health of these animals and that they take the class seriously,” says senior animal control officer Stacie Levin. “Kids will be kids, but this is a place for them to be mature.”

A Place to Grow Up

For many, ROP is the first time they have had to act as adults, so it provides a prime opportunity to instill responsibility in the kids. Levin believes that letting students socialize puppies, walk dogs, or just sit with a cat shows them that the organization feels they can be trusted. It’s amazing to see a student who may not excel on a written assignment work magic teaching a dog to heel. Students discover their strengths and address their weaknesses, which helps them focus on future goals.

Carlos Rivas, who’s been a BAS kennel attendant for three years, says he never would have gotten the job if not for the class. “Since I was a kid, I wanted to work with animals. ROP was my first opportunity to do so,” he says. “The most important thing I got out of OJT was building my work ethic.”

Upon signing up, Rivas says, some students think, “OMG! I’m going to be playing with puppies all day!” But ROP gave him insight into what pursuing a career with animals would be all about—both the hard work and the fun.

“Students help us big time,” says kennel attendant Marissa O’Brien. “They make sure the cats and kittens are fed and cleaned early in the day. They give the rabbits frozen water bottles in the summer to keep cool, and are on poop patrol all day long with the dogs.”

Although the extra hands are generally a huge help, sometimes the day is momentarily sidetracked for the most basic of learning experiences. “One student placed the stopper in the sink upside down, so it took several people many attempts to get it out to drain the ice-cold water and refill with hot soapy water so that bowls could be washed,” O’Brien laughs. There have been moments where a renegade cat or dog has escaped from his student handler, but thanks to the buddy system (students are paired with a classmate to work with animals) and the ever-watchful eyes of the instructor and two kennel attendants, catastrophes have been averted.

The students also get to discuss issues our animal friends face. To help animals, students need to learn where progress has been made and where there is still work to be done. We cover everything from euthanasia to “Black Dog Syndrome” and caring for senior pets.

I try hard not to voice my own views during classroom lecture and discussion time, which takes place in the shelter’s multipurpose room—a medium-sized space also used to record the local-access adoption show, photograph animals for the website, and hold staff and volunteer meetings. I feel the students need to find their own voice, but if asked, I will gladly share my point of view on dilemmas faced by our furry, feathered, finned, and scaled friends. This information takes time to process, but I am impressed by the passion the students show once it sinks in.

Changing Minds

Viewing the 2008 episode of Oprah uncovering puppy mills is a semester staple. Students write essays explaining what puppy mills are and what they can do about them. They tend to get fired up and want to change the world. When one student shared her newly acquired knowledge with another teacher, he explained to her that some people want specific types of dogs that only puppy mills can provide. The student countered with a fact learned in class (more than 25 percent of shelter dogs are purebreds) and asked him to look at the video. This 16-year-old changed that teacher’s mind enough that he went to City Hall and lent his voice to pass an ordinance restricting pet stores from selling puppy mill dogs!

“I remember seeing in the video a dog who had never walked on grass because she was kept in a wire cage her whole life. I get tears in my eyes thinking of this,” wrote another student, who then asked the cashier at her pet store if they got their dogs from puppy mills. When she was told “yes,” she was very surprised that the cashier so readily admitted it. After more discussion, the student realized the cashier thought a puppy mill was a grassy green farm where puppies were raised, so she took it on herself to educate the cashier by sharing a snippet of the Oprah episode on her phone. It changed the cashier’s life: The student returned a few weeks later to learn the cashier had quit because her manager wouldn’t stop selling dogs from mills.

Class legacy projects provide students with a way to channel their learning. They are given six weeks to develop a concept, delegate tasks, and see it to completion. Classes have devised everything from a Facebook page promoting responsible pit bull ownership to a game that will help future classes review for their final exam. Still another group made a PowerPoint presentation that now serves as a public relations tool for the program.

After seeing how much the students want to continue after graduation, BAS community outreach director Karen Wilcox created a volunteer program called BASA (Burbank Animal Shelter Ambassadors) to give them an opportunity to continue at the shelter. Those still in high school can earn community service hours, and those who have graduated continue gaining on-the-job experience and feel good about what they are accomplishing for the animals. “As this new organization grows, we hope to expand opportunities training ROP grads to be adoption counselors and help in the medical office,” Wilcox explains.

“I honestly believe Animal Care ROP got me into the pre-vet program at Cal Poly Pomona,” says Tatum Lincoln, a graduate of Burbank High School. “Between the basic and advanced classes, I acquired 120-plus hours of hands-on experience, and I am positive this helped me stand out from the other applicants!”“Having been an animal enthusiast all my life … I expected this class would be an easy ‘A,’ but it was like nothing I had expected. It was better!” says former student Allison Voehringer, who now volunteers at BAS. “I talked to a K-9 officer, dog trainer, veterinarian, equine officers. I learned the ins and outs of an animal shelter, made new friends and learned things I never knew I didn’t know. The only downside is now I want to do it all.”

Castaneda was inspired by memories of her own high school experience to bring an ROP program to her shelter. She passed the torch to me, an eager volunteer, and I studied, learned, and obtained my teaching credentials so that I could develop a curriculum (based on the state’s predetermined standards) and give it wings. I hope to actually collaborate with the district in the future to write an upbeat up-to-date textbook.

If you’re considering developing such a program, the website of the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs ( is a great resource. But no matter your state, once your local shelter is on board with starting a program, present it to your school district’s career and technical education division. They’ll need to provide financing and ensure teacher certification and credentialing. It could take a long time, but you may be pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm.

I take great satisfaction in our results: One student recently shared with me that he now wants to save an animal’s life rather than fighting dogs like his friends. That kind of feedback is priceless. As the proud instructor, I can’t wait to see what the young people in my class do with what they’ve learned. Sure, I hope one of my students will cure a debilitating canine disease or end animal homelessness—the euthanasia rate is 10 percent of what it was when I was their age, and if they take the torch they can continue to effect change. However, if each student adopts a shelter pet, shares with friends the need for spay/neuter, or never judges a dog by his breed alone, I’ll still wag my tail.

About the Author

Denise Fleck was raised by a Great Dane and has spent her life loving animals. Although she teaches high school animal care, her specialty is pet first aid and CPR. She presents workshops on how to be a better pet parent and pet disaster preparedness, and has written a children’s book on animal welfare issues. Denise and her husband Paul share their lives with two rescued Japanese Akitas. Learn more at