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All Bark, No Bite: Connecticut Schools Use Shelter Dogs to Teach Empathy, Resiliency

WNPR/David DesRoches
Desiree Rilley, a kindergarten teacher at Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, reads to her class a book about a badger that bullies a raccoon.

At Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Desiree Riley's kindergarten class read a book about a badger that bullies a raccoon. There was a moment in the book where the raccoon had to make a choice about how to handle the bully.

"So you think Raccoon is going to ask badger to be friends with him, because he recognizes he feels lonely. Is that a good or bad decision," Riley asked the kids, all seated on a colorful rug.

"Good!" they shout back. 

"Why is it a good or bad decision? We talked about that em... empa... thy, I know it's a tricky word."

In her hand, Riley held Murphy the Muttigree -- a puppy puppet, part of the Muttigrees curriculum. It uses shelter animals, or Muttigrees, to teach kids skills like empathy and resiliency.

Researchers at Yale developed the program with the North Shore Animal League, which is one of the largest no-kill shelters in the country. The program has two main goals, said Yale's Matia Finn-Stevenson.

"Enhance awareness of Muttigrees, shelter pets, and to prevent mental health problems among children, to enhance their ability to overcome problems and so forth," she said.

Dogs occasionally visit the classes, but it mostly involves lessons around a shelter dog's experience.

For example, kids are asked to fill out a worksheet showing the people in their life who are there for them. Then they're asked to show who's there for a Muttigree.

"Children identify -- well, okay, here's a Muttigree, lives in a shelter, who is there for Muttigrees, who is there to help Muttigrees, so they have to think not only about themselves but also about Muttigrees," Finn-Stevenson said. "So, you know, thinking about other people, that gets into empathy."

In addition to empathy, the curriculum also works on building resiliency, according to Muttigrees' program manager Kay Hammerson.

"There's really no greater example of resiliency than a shelter pet," Hammerson said.

Some kids come to class without having breakfast, or with no parental support. Some might even also live in a shelter.

"The curriculum kind of helps provide skills to build resiliency in kids, so even kids who come from circumstances that might not be as easy can still grow," Hammerson said.

Social and emotional skills are often cited as key indicators for how well students do later in life.

A Columbia University study found that for every dollar invested in social and emotional learning programs, there is a return of over $11.00. That’s because students who are able to understand what they’re feeling, and express it in a healthy way, turn out to be more productive as adults.

The Muttigrees program has been around for about six years. They're currently collecting data to see how effective it's been. 

But there's another benefit outside the classroom that's happening.

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR
Ice, a Husky, lives at the Meriden Humane Society.

The Meriden Humane Society isn't too far from Hanover Elementary. The no-kill shelter house scores of cats and dogs, and even the occasional reptile or farm animal.

One recent day, there were several empty cages, a few more than in past years. The shelter's director, Marlena DiBianco, said the Muttigrees program has led to more adoptions of shelter animals. 

"I think the more awareness you give to people the more they're apt to come on in," she said. 

At Hanover Elementary School, teacher Desiree Riley said she's already seen an improvement in the way kids self-regulate.

"I'm noticing that they're a little bit more understanding. You know, it's funny, because kindergartners are very nosey, and I've noticed a big change in that this year," Riley said.

Dogs can also be used to teach kids about stereotypes and being different. So-called bully breeds, like pit bulls and rottweilers, are sometimes brought to class, and kids are also taught how to read body language by watching the dogs.

Meriden is considering expanding the program to other grades. Yale researchers said it will be considered a success when all shelter animals have a home, and all kids have the social and emotional skills they need to take their next steps. To learn more, visit muttigrees.org.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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