Dogs and kids — many believe they go together like peanut butter and jelly, like salt and pepper, like bread and butter. Most students may read about animals during the school day but only get to dream about interacting with them at school. But in a high school in Florida, some students not only get to interact with and train dogs, but the school residents include a cow, chickens, a few goats, and other farm animals.
At this high school outside of Miami, the students aren’t just learning, they are also doing some of the teaching. Around 100 students each year at the Felix Varela Senior High School get to participate in training and caring for dogs from Miami Dade Animal Services, a large, open-intake shelter.
They don’t have to visit the shelter to do this. Yleana Escobar, the teacher who started this life-saving program, with the whole team (including trainers, a veterinarian, and the students), helps pick the lucky dogs from the shelter who will be residents at the high school — albeit temporarily — from the hundreds of dogs there. “There are certain things we look for,” Escobar explained. “The dogs must get along with other dogs.” The MVCPUPE Program & Felix Varela SPOTS Dog Training Program overview states, “The dogs will be chosen for various traits that make good family pets, including the ability to enjoy playgroups together at the school.”
The students love the program. And while most students might love the chance to walk and cuddle with dogs during school time, it’s not all fun and games. “Dogs need to be walked daily, not just on days school is in session,” Escobar said. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
Not only do the students work with rotating trainers on Saturdays, they take “their” dogs to agility training on Tuesday nights. So these dedicated students (and their committed parents who must drive them) return to school on weekends to train, clean kennels, feed dogs, and walk dogs every day, seven days a week. That’s dedication.
Susan Claire, a certified trainer who is also a member of the Professional Pet Guild, an organization dedicated to force-free training (no shocks, no pain, no choking, no fear, no physical force), explained that the program is really about treating each dog like an individual. The students learn that dogs are individuals. And the students?
Claire told Shelter Me, “They just come out of their shell; they truly understand how to be patient. The students learn that dogs are going to learn at their own pace, not the pace they want. Some kids are natural; some need more help. They learn that all dogs are individuals, and we can’t force them to learn, we have to help them at their own pace, and they all learn with different learning styles.
For example, Sam was more difficult. He has a short attention span. He got an awesome home. Buddha was gentle and shy. They had to treat those dogs differently. We help the kids pick the right home for the dogs. We teach the kids how to interview people. The kids have the power to say “no” to prospective adopters. We want them to feel really empowered to train the dogs, but also to make sure the dog ends up in the right home. These kids know their dogs.
Students work with the dogs daily, and by the end of their stay at the high school, most of the dogs have completed their Canine Good Citizen test and received their certificate. The next job is finding each dog the right home. A forever home. The students prepare a video telling about each special dog. Notice in the video that many of the students touch and stroke the dogs, some call the dogs “my dog,” and the love they feel for the dogs they’ve saved is obvious.
The training is done with positive reinforcement. There is an experienced dog trainer who works with the students. Before the dogs even arrive, the students listen to the trainers explain what to expect, why positive reinforcement works, and what they will need to do with the dogs.
The students are the ones changing the lives of these shelter dogs. By taking an unwanted dog from the local shelter, caring for it and training it, and then helping find it a loving home, students are empowered. They have made a difference in the lives of others — both canine and human.
One dog in particular, Sam, was especially lucky to be included in the program. He had already been adopted out from the Miami Dade shelter and returned. He is a very high energy dog who plays rough — which might be why he was returned to the shelter. His progress was slow, but steady. So in spite of his “special needs,” no one could think about sending him back to the shelter where he might be adopted and returned again and again because of his energy and lack of training.
Karen Ashby, a veterinarian who is the director and founder of the Miami Veterinary Coalition to Prevent Unwanted Pet Euthanasia (MVC PUP E) posted on Facebook about Sam,
“I never saw a dog beg so much to get out of there…and be so thankful when the door was open. As cute as he is, I feel pretty certain he would be returned several times more…if not for joining our program. That this boy can even stay still for a massage, can sit patiently with his student handlers for long periods of time during training sessions…is simply a testament to the work of our trainers, Susan Claire, Sandra Machado, Heather Chris Hertrich- Septer, Christine Geschwill & Jen Lie, our student Team Leaders & supervisor(s) & mentor, & Ms. Yleana Escobar….AND HIS 2 STUDENT HANDLERS…shown here giving him massages, who were specially chosen for their abilities to work with this boy. We made some behavior adjustments in addition to the training (harness only for walks, where his cage was positioned to decrease reactivity, etc.).
So while they are learning and studying, they are not just getting an education, they are changing lives. “We adopted all of the dogs before Christmas! Everyone has adjusted to their new homes! Picking new group on the 28th,” exclaimed Escobar.
Next Wednesday, just in time for the new year, the group is going to the shelter with a slightly different mission. “We are going on Wednesday to pick puppies,” explained Claire. We are going to do a quick – puppy socialization group – adopt them and then get new group of adult dogs.”
(All video and photos taken by Adam Hernandez; courtesy of Yleana Escobar)