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The Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum: Teaching Kids to Care

This innovative educational program uses shelter dogs to help students of all ages learn the three “Rs”—respect, responsibility and resiliency.

Do your kids jump out of bed every weekday, excited and eager to get to school?

That unusual scenario is commonplace at more than 2,000 schools across the nation. The reason: Students love taking part in The Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, an innovative educational approach that builds on children’s natural connection with animals—in particular, shelter dogs, or Mutt-i-grees, the wonderful dogs and cats from shelters.

“Reading, writing and arithmetic are fundamental to a child’s development, but a true education goes beyond that,” says Dr. Matia Finn-Stevenson, director of Yale’s School of the 21st Century and creator of the Mutt-i-grees program. “The Curriculum helps youngsters build skills that will help them be calm, confident and caring in their interactions with both people and animals.” She added that studies have shown a direct link between teaching social and emotional skills and academic achievement.

The Curriculum—developed through a collaboration of Yale’s School of the 21st Century, North Shore Animal League America and the Millan Foundation—will be implemented next fall in several Queens schools, including Robert H. Goddard Middle School 202 in Ozone Park. Stacy Mizrahi, assistant principal at PS 202, says, “The Curriculum is a unique program because it uses animals to demonstrate compassion by building a sense of humanity and community and helping students explore critical life skills.”

PS 20 guidance counselor Bonnie Littman took part in a two-day training session in April that featured workshops on implementing the program’s multi-faceted lessons and activities, as well as a presentation by Cesar Millan.

Littman is hoping her principal’s trained therapy dog will be allowed to come to the Flushing school (although the Curriculum can be implemented without the presence of a therapy dog). But either way, Littman is confident the Curriculum will be a huge benefit to her students.

“It’s a great way for kids in a multicultural community to connect,” she says. When Curriculum experts from the Animal League came to PS 20 with dogs and presented an assembly to 500 fifth graders, the students were completely engaged, she notes. “Dogs really attract children’s attention. That special relationship offers a great learning opportunity.”

Littman also likes that The Curriculum teaches kindness in a way that doesn’t emphasize the negative. “So many programs designed to address issues like bullying focus on the bad behavior—what you shouldn’t do,” she says. “The Curriculum focuses on the positive, and that’s a much better way to learn.”

Another school planning to implement the Curriculum is P256Q at MercyFirst, a residential treatment center in Syosset, NY. “The program is a great fit for our population because they can relate to the dogs who have been neglected, abused and abandoned,” says Yuka Dawson, Project C.A.R.E. Coordinator at MercyFirst. “Many of our students struggle with social and coping skills. The Curriculum includes activities that our students can actively participate in to give back to the community.”

Indeed, community service is an important facet of the Curriculum. Mutt-i-grees schools often work directly with local animal shelters or rescue organizations in their community, participating in fundraising projects, internships, or service learning and volunteer opportunities.

To find out more about becoming a Mutt-i-grees® school, visit www.education.muttigrees.org, or call (516) 883-1461.