Since the beginning of the school year of 2021, the Mutt-i-grees team has been traveling to the Bronx, New York every Wednesday to Mt. Eden Children’s Academy. Each week, the team would work with the shelter to select a rescue pup who would make the journey to Mt. Eden with them for some lessons in social emotional learning and humane education. “[…] I think that it has brought a big level of excitement for the students. They have something to look forward to. For some students it really has been an opportunity for them to express themselves, where it would be harder to do that in a classroom setting” says Mt. Eden Children’s Academy’s guidance counselor Amara Olavarria. “It just brings a lot of really exciting ambiance to our school building. We look forward to seeing the puppies every week.”
The students engaging with the rescue puppies has been beneficial to both the kids and the dogs, as the dogs get to play and socialize, getting them ready for their forever home, and the students get a moment to be seen as a trusted caretaker. “For some children it helps them calm down” says Olavarria. “I think in general it helps calm the students down. I think it also creates a certain comradery with the kids who are all in [the Mutt-i-grees program.] Together they kind of create their own unique group and they are also able to bond within that group.” She continues, “We can target kids who don’t usually have the mandated counseling, where they are more at risk. Using it as a supplementation for social emotional learning and support.”
Principal Jaqueline Randoslovic is the one who discovered the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum for her students, feeling it would be a great addition to the school’s counseling program. “I think there is just such an excitement on the days [the Mutt-i-grees team] comes […] This program works with our highest risk students and has given them something to look forward to during their week” says Randoslovic. She continues “some of the students […] it’s hard pressed to see them smile all week but as soon as that puppy walks over to them they have a huge smile on their face. You can see that they decompress immediately.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan of animals. As soon as I became principal it’s something I wanted for the kids. I know the benefit of having animals in my own life and what it’s done for me and I wanted to bring it to my kids” says Randoslovic. “The students that generally interact with the Mutt-i-grees program are students that would be in situations where they would have to be deescalated. Mutt-i-grees has kept us from having to use serious deescalation tactics in a long time because it’s really about creating that safe space so kids who feel they are having a hard time are able to get the help they need before they go into a crisis.”
However, it isn’t just the presence of the rescue pup that is helping these students. Implementing social emotional learning and humane education through the curriculum has been benefiting the kids as well. “In terms of the curriculum piece of it, it’s so great having the dog, but what the curriculum does is it gives students the opportunity to take a moment to think about what’s going on in their own life,” says Principal Randoslovic, “they connect it to the dog and sometimes its really easy to identify a dog is feeling nervous when maybe they can’t do that for themselves”
Randoslovic also pointed out how the exercises help the students access their feelings. “When we did the activity with the poetry and the rhymes, first they did the poem as it applied to the dog, then they were so quickly to change the lens to themselves. What we got from that activity is the rawness that you don’t get when you have the conversation about how you feel.”
As the school year goes on, the Mutt-i-grees team plans to continue implementing the curriculum with the students of Mt. Eden Children’s Academy. Hoping to help them further access their feelings with social emotional learning techniques and visits from rescue puppies. Recently, Mt. Eden Children’s Academy selected a group of students to become Mutt-i-grees National Ambassadors, which will empower the students and allow them to become trusted caretakers and animal advocates. In giving the students this new responsibility combined with weekly Mutt-i-grees lessons and rescue pup visits, we hope they can further access their feelings and express themselves.