A New Role for Dogs: As Teachers, Co-Counselors, and Behavior Specialists

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Thousands of students in more than 1,500 schools around the country are getting to know Mutt-i-grees (a new word for shelter pets). At the same time, they are learning critical social and emotional skills that will help them in school, at home, and, later on, in the workplace. The students are participating in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, developed by Yale School of the 21st Century (Yale 21C) in collaboration with the Pet Savers Foundation, the program development arm of North Shore Animal League America, with funding from the Cesar Millan Foundation.

The Mutt-i-gees Curriculum, for students in Pre-K through Grade 12, is a unique approach to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) that promotes broad humane education principles and resilience. Within the context of the Curriculum, the Animal League and Yale21C have collaborated to increase awareness of shelter pets while teaching critical SEL skills. The Curriculum is grounded on the study of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI), an emerging area of research that examines the role of animals in treating and preventing developmental and behavioral problems.

The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is comprised of a series of lessons presented within five units: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Collaboration, and Dealing with Decisions. The lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  Each lesson includes various activities from which teachers may select, including role play, dance, art, and writing, that provide opportunities for self expression and collaboration. The activities, readings, and discussions focus on dogs and are designed to promote specific social and emotional skills.

Co-creator of the Curriculum, Matia Finn-Stevenson, noted that the presence of a dog is not required although therapy dogs regularly attend many of the schools and teachers arrange visits to animal shelters, providing children with a context within which to learn social and emotional skills. The focus on dogs in mainstream classrooms is the unique aspect of the Curriculum and the reason it engages students. As one teacher said, "The kids look forward every day to ‘Mutt-i-grees Time.’ They even love the name. It’s not some abstract title… It’s about dogs, something they can understand immediately and have fun saying.”

Research has shown that there are many positive effects of dog-human interactions, including laughter, conversation, and excitement. Even the vicarious presence of a dog (in the form of a puppet, for example) or simply thinking or reading about dogs has been shown to be effective in commanding attention, improving social interactions, and contributing to happiness. People in the presence of dogs are often perceived to be calmer, happier and less stressed.

A preliminary outcome evaluation conducted with more than 800 students in in a low-income school in Los-Angeles randomly assigned half the classrooms to receive the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum. Comparing students in classrooms using the Curriculum with students in non-Mutt-i-grees classrooms, there were significantly higher levels of pro-social behaviors among students in Mutt-i-grees Classrooms, as well as significantly higher rates of positive classroom climate and parent involvement. In other studies involving schools in rural and urban communities, principals responded to open-ended questions, reporting that the Curriculum reduced the incidence of bullying, improved relationships among teachers, and reduced overall conflict in the classroom.

Process evaluation studies have yielded insight into the varied uses of the Curriculum. In preschool and elementary schools it is used in mainstream classes and afterschool programs or in conjunction with character education.  In middle and high school, it is integrated into various academic subjects and used in conjunction with bullying prevention programs. Although developed as an approach to mental health prevention, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is also used with special needs students and is adapted by some teachers for use as an intervention with children with behavior problems and children with autism.

The need to address school violence and safety issues and promote a positive school climate contribute to the growing interest in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. In addition to the use of the Curriculum in the United States, implementation of the Curriculum is beginning in several provinces in Canada, as well as in England and Japan.

This Article was submitted by Emily E.H. Hau, on Tuesday, April 23, 2013.