In 2013, the EPIC Coalition, a nonprofit in Port Girardeau, Mo., wanted to develop a program using the power of the human-animal bond to help kids develop the skills to resist the pitfalls of drug and substance abuse. That’s when the Coalition discovered the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum…and EPIC Pals was born.
A Success of “Epic” Proportions
With the Curriculum providing structure and substance, EPIC (Early Prevention Impacts Community) applied for a grant to create a drug abuse prevention program combining social-emotional learning with positive-reinforcement dog training classes. The result is EPIC Pals, six-week dog training courses that match at-risk dogs with at-risk kids to teach both species patience, self-esteem, self-confidence, and resilience — crucial life-skills for dogs and kids alike.
The dogs come from rescue groups or families that recently adopted them. While they’re in the program, those from shelters live with foster families. The kids, who are drawn from several agencies that serve at-risk youth, learn and discuss Mutt-i-grees® lessons throughout the course, focusing on empathy, dedication to service, and how to connect to their canine partners. Each pair also has an adult volunteer who serves as an extra set of eyes and hands and a positive role model.
When they complete the program, says Stacy Wood, Project Coordinator and certified dog trainer, the kids are more likely to make healthy decisions and avoid risky behaviors. And the dogs? So far, all 30 well-trained canines have been adopted into responsible, loving homes.
Each series of classes ends with a graduation where participants talk about what they’ve learned and show off their dog’s new manners. “It’s wonderful to see kids and dogs go from anxious at the beginning to self-confident at graduation time,” says Stacy. “The kids know that what they’re doing will help the dogs find good homes, and that matters so much.”
Stacy remembers a dog named Honey, an adult English Bulldog mill survivor who, though adopted, was very fearful. “She had no teeth and was so afraid,” says Stacy. “One Friday, I told her young trainer that maybe it wouldn’t work out for Honey and him because Honey was anxious and he seemed scared, too. I said we’d work with Honey and find him another dog. On Monday, they both suddenly seemed more comfortable and began working together well. The boy told me he’d prayed all weekend that Honey could stay and work with him, and by the end of the six weeks they were the graduation stars.”
See EPIC Pals in action here.