Fifth Graders Get Their ‘Mutt-i-grees’

Marsha Rabe Photo On a recent Monday morning, Channelle Fuentes, a fifth-grader at St. Martin de Porres Academy, was afraid of dogs—“actually petrified,” said her school’s president, Allison Rivera. The following Friday afternoon, standing in a sunny parking lot in Southbury, she was calmly, even nonchalantly, stroking the head of a small black dog named Zipper.

“I learned not to be afraid,” said Channelle (at right in the picture above). “Sometimes dogs are scared because they were abused. Most dogs are really nice.”

What changed Channelle from a dog-fearing 10-year-old into a self-confident canine cuddler is an innovative program called the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, a collaborative project developed by the Pet Savers Foundation of North Shore Animal League America (NSALA) and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century.

Funded by the Cesar Millan Foundation, Mutt-i-grees is a multi-faceted program that comprises two separate but related initiatives: The web-based American Mutt-i-grees Club is designed to encourage shelter adoptions by educating the public about the charm and value of mixed-breed shelter dogs. (You can even register your mutt, as the American Kennel Club registers purebred dogs, at www.muttigrees.org)

The Mutt-i-grees motto is simple: “Love needs no pedigree.”

Then there is the educational component — the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum — an ambitious instructional model that incorporates humane education and social and emotional learning to teach children how to experience and recognize their connection to other species, especially companion animals. The goal is to foster empathy while developing the youngsters’ social awareness, relationship skills and problem-solving abilities.

The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum also features an intensive language arts component that requires students to internalize and process their experiences by writing about them. Select elementary schools from Arkansas to California have been using the curriculum for more than a year. But thanks in part to a humane education grant from The Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter’s Buddy Fund, the middle-school students and faculty at St. Martin de Porres are Mutt-i-grees pioneers, piloting the program’s newly developed curriculum for fifth-graders. Eventually, what happens in New Haven will go national.

If all this sounds a little esoteric, it isn’t. It’s really just Animal Shelter 101, which is exactly what the energetic students from St. Martin de Porres learned during an intensive five-day internship at one of the largest and oldest no-kill shelters in the country, North Shore Animal League America, in Port Washington, N.Y. As participants in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the young interns made a daily commute to Long Island.

Once at North Shore, they explored every aspect of the shelter world, from rescue, grooming and veterinary care to marketing and adoption. They also saw for themselves the importance of spaying and neutering as the only effective means of addressing the nation’s heart-breaking pet overpopulation problem. They designed advertising schemes and posters to generate adoptions. They learned how to evaluate canine behavior and recognize dangerous situations.

And in the process, they met a cat and her newborn kittens, a beagle mix named Penny who didn’t have enough milk for her pups (they went into foster care), and the dedicated North Shore staff. Throughout the day, their teacher asked them, “Who is the hero in this situation?” This resonant question became the basis for their essays, which for many students redefined heroism in terms of empathy, compassion and responsibility.

For their final day as shelter newbies, the interns traveled to Petland Discounts in a Southbury shopping mall. They were met there by two North Shore mobile adoption units, one filled with dogs and cats from Long Island and the other with dogs from The Robin I. Kroogman New Haven Animal Shelter, where Zipper is currently awaiting his new home. It was time for the fledgling animal rescuers to observe the off-site adoption process and to see firsthand the combination of magic and good judgment that goes into making a great match.

Rivera, a lifelong animal rights advocate, called the entire week “thrilling,” combining her passion for teaching with her commitment to animals.

“One thing I love about this experience is that it will have a lasting influence on the kids,” she said. “Some want to volunteer as soon as they’re old enough. And it’s great that there’s a really good volunteer group in New Haven. It’s important for these students to see how they can integrate what they’ve learned into their lives and community.”

Lionel Louis (on the left in the above photo), a thoughtful 10-year-old, says he’s always liked dogs and cats, but what he especially liked about his week on Long Island was learning the truth about pit bulls.

“They are really very good dogs, but people train them to be aggressive,” he said. “This week gave me a different point of view on animals, and I really like learning about other species.”

The upshot, for Lionel, is that he now thinks he’d like to be a veterinarian someday. “My parents want me to be a doctor anyway, so this would be perfect.”

For 11-year-old Paige Penn, the internship taught her that “even big dogs can be sweet” — and that saving lives takes dedication, compassion, and cold hard cash. After receiving her Mutt-i-grees diploma along with the other interns, Paige and several classmates spent their afternoon in Southbury educating shoppers about the importance of adopting from a shelter. While they were at it, they decided to put into practice something they’d heard about at North Shore: fundraising.

“Look,” said Paige, waving a handful of bills in the air. “I just got a 20, a five, and two ones.”

After depositing the cash in the donation jar for The Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, she looked around at the dogs lolling in the sun and, justifiably pleased with herself, sat down to pet a lively little fuzzball named Max.

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posted by: Joy on March 22, 2011  12:12pm

What a wonderful article about a very worthwhile program.  Kudos to the students of St. Martin de Porres Academy and their teacher Allison Rivera.

posted by: Sarah on March 22, 2011  6:01pm

What a lovely story, it’s so great that these kids were willing to open their hearts to shelter animals - and interested in learning more about the dogs and cats. As always, The New Haven Shelter is doing amazing work.

posted by: saintmartinacademy on March 22, 2011  7:06pm

Thank you to Marsha for the great article!  We invite everyone to visit us in person at 208 Columbus Ave, New Haven or on the web http://www.saintmartinacademy.org!

posted by: Leslie Blatteau on March 22, 2011  8:11pm

My dog Izzy and I loved that story.  As a New Haven resident, I observe and sometimes worry about kids’ fear of dogs in the city.  When a culture of fear exists, it can lead to mistreatment or accidents, impacting the dogs and kids even more. 

What an amazing experience for the young people to experience this kind of authentic work.  It’s much harder to develop empathy for other species sitting in a classroom all day.  And this coming from a teacher who is in a classroom most days.  Schools must learn from St. Martin’s lead on this one.  Young people need purposeful opportunities; developing a sense of compassion while learning real-world job skills is purposeful indeed!   

Thanks NHI for sharing this story.

posted by: Jocelyn FUentes on March 23, 2011  9:13am

Excellent JOB

posted by: New Haven Jude on March 23, 2011  11:58am

HOW ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL!!!  Thank you for covering this story!  We need to hear more stories like this to counteract all the greed, hate & violence.  This is very heartening & a breath of fresh air.