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As animal welfare leaders continue to push the sheltering and rescue field into the future, finding new strategies to tackle the roots of animal homelessness and cruelty, it pays to keep in mind that kindness has roots as well.
Reaching children at early ages with messages of gentleness, empathy and compassion—for humans and other animals alike—is one of the critical means of watering those roots, shaping not only kinder citizens, but engaging future generations in the cause that’s central to so many of us. In this section, we profile some people who may be inspiring the animal advocates of the future, and hear a passionate argument for prioritizing humane education.
After she learned that many shelter dogs are overlooked by adopters because of the animals’ lack of training, Virginia Hamilton reached out to her administration at Indialantic Elementary School in Florida with an idea to help.
Canine Commandos began in 2003, transporting sixth-graders to local shelters to help train shelter dogs, under the guidance of professional trainers. The students learn about canine behavior and help the trainers work with the dogs to master basic obedience skills, increasing the dogs’ adoptability. The program has since expanded to include students from 18 classes working in three different shelters.
Many of the dogs trained through the program “were adopted due to the fact that kids worked with them,” notes Hamilton. “Families with kids love that kids trained them.”
The benefits for students are equally tangible. Hamilton, who teaches a gifted program for grades K-6, uses the shelter visits to bring math, art, reading and writing lessons to life. Typical assignments include calculating costs of caring for a pet and generating statistics based on shelters’ intake/outcome numbers. Students create scrapbooks and write personal essays related to their experiences. “When you get kids to write more often because they’re reflecting on what they’re doing, their writing becomes better,” she says.
A lifelong animal lover, Hamilton has never been shy about promoting a humane ethos to young generations. Hanging in her classroom is a banner that reads C.H.E.C.K. (an acronym for Compassion, Humanity, Empathy, Caring and Kindness). “I stand at the door when my students enter to ask if they are still CHECKed in,” she says, “and as they leave, I remind them to not CHECK out.”
Of course, humane education can sometimes generate sticky situations. One student came to her, upset because her dad wanted to breed pit bulls. “He says to her, ‘I don’t care what your teachers said; this is what I’m going to do.’” Hamilton’s advice to the girl was: “You’re the next generation. We can’t necessarily change the way adults are, but you can show your dad with the influx of dogs that we didn’t need any more puppies.”
Hamilton has seen that same young girl gently move a caterpillar from the sidewalk to a tree to prevent the insect from being stepped on. Experiences like this let her know that her lessons are taking root.
Heidi Colonna, a certified humane education specialist, is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. She is a former manager of education and training projects at The HSUS.