When we get a dog, we naturally start thinking about what he can do for us – fetch the paper, find our slippers, carry a load, guide us through life, or even detect our sugar levels. In this haste to teach our dogs what we want them to know, we sometimes forget how much they can teach us.
There are groups, however, that are using dogs to do just that – teach. Here are just a few stellar programs that showcase just how much we can learn from our canine companions.
Working Therapy Dogs
One group, the Pet Prescription Team (PPT) located in La Habra, Calif., works a special team of therapy dogs at Help for Brain Injured Children, Inc. (HBIC), a non-profit school for children and young adults with moderate/severe multiple disabilities.
During their sessions, certain exercises are performed, each with a different goal:
- walking the dog develops motor skills
- working a dog on an agility course develops the ability to perform a task
- dog sitting politely while student pets teaches the proper way to touch
- identifying ears, nose, etc. on the dog develops word association
- acceptance of a dog helps to build confidence.
One of the program’s highlights is participating in the California State University, Fullerton’s Special Olympics.
“[The dogs] brought a new level of athlete interaction, as well as a calming effect to the kids,” said Krystal Emery, PPT founder and director. “The comfortable and tactile communication that existed between the therapy dogs and the athletes was easy to see. It took away, for a short time, the pain and the problems that have been poured, unfairly, on these lovely children.”
Research done by a Minnesota pilot project called PAWSitive Readers, found that trained therapy dogs helped 10 of 14 grade-school participants improve their reading skills by one grade level. Additionally, a University of California study showed that children who read to the family dog improved their ability by an average of 12 percent.
“Dogs not only help children learn to read, they help children learn to love reading,” says Michael Amiri, coauthor with his wife, Linda, of the children’s book, Shellie, the Magical dog. “And that’s true for children with and without learning disabilities.”
Amiri believes that the reason dogs helps kids learn to read is because they boost confidence and eliminates embarrassment (dogs don’t laugh at mispronounced words), polite listeners (no interrupting), and it’s just plain fun for them to be around a dog.
A Fair Shake for Youth, a non-profit organization in New York City, takes advantage of a dog’s natural compassion to help at-risk youth develop empathy, self-esteem and other positive skills and behaviors that are critical to becoming contributing, successful members of their community.
The program, which is primarily offered to middle and high school youth, teaches kids to train dogs and about positive reinforcement — too frequently a new concept. They also learn about communication, body language, love, and success. The curriculum includes guests and demonstrations, field trips to visit shelters and they learn about pet overpopulation, puppy mills, and breed discrimination.
“28% of New York City kids live in poverty. With that poverty comes challenges, including poor schools, violent neighborhoods, domestic abuse, broken homes, etc. Kids who learn empathy are more resilient, have a better chance,” said Audrey Hendler, Founder and Executive Director of A Fair Shake for Youth.
Participants in the program seem to be proving Hendler’s point.
“I used to think dogs were like machines, but now I see that they have families and feelings,” said an elementary school participant in Hendler’s 2011 summer program.
“I convinced my friend to stop beating his dog,” said a middle school aged youth, also from Hendler’s program.
For more information how to get involved, visit, www.afairshakeforyouth.org.
Many county and state prisons and even military brigs, have started adopting programs were inmates get a dog to train, either a rescue dog that need to be rehabilitated, or a dog being trained for a service such as seeing-eye or hearing. The inmates learn something too.
While inmates train the dogs, the dogs teach the inmates responsibility and caring. It gives them something to work and focus on, other than themselves.
At the Naval Consolidated Brig aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, prisoners train dogs to work as service animals for wounded veterans. The dogs, on the other hand, touch the prisoners’ lives in a positive way, oftentimes when people have failed to reach an inmate, the dogs succeed.
“I had anger issues when I first came here, but the dogs have helped me,” said a prisoner. “They’re a nice break, and it feels good doing something selfless.”
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of canine programs that are teaching us how to be better people. Regardless of our own experiences in life, we could all learn a little about unconditional love and compassion for our dogs.
That’s right, even your household pet (you know, the one that drools on your pillow and steals food off the table?) can teach you and your family some very important life lessons.
Unconditional love. Your dog loves you and your family regardless of age, weight, ethnicity, political views, etc. Everyone on this Earth needs to learn this lesson.
Responsibility. Dogs are a great teacher of responsibility for your kids (with supervision!). They teach your child how to love, respect, and take care of something that depends on them. Rather than just using them for their own purposes.
Carpe Diem. I think we can all agree that dogs teach us how to love life and embrace the day. They can chase away depression and show us the good things in life, regardless of how bad things seem at the time.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.
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