Canine Ambassador Programby Heidi MacKenzie
Excited giggles and little voices loudly hushing each other indicate the aura of excitement in the classroom. Almost two dozen children and their teacher sit semi-circle, arranging themselves to be in a good position to see the big dog who has been invited into their class to share some concepts of responsible dog ownership with them. Baloo smiles and wags enthusiastically and almost forgets he is in a sit/stay. One little boy can't help but reach out to touch a flew, setting it swinging, and recoils with a squeal, announcing his hand is now all wet.
When everyone settles down a bit, I launch into our introduction and the reason for our visit. The children always listen intently, but not quietly. After all, it isn't every day a Mastiff comes to school.
I began doing the Canine Ambassador program to make up for my lack of cooking and organizational abilities or other things moms do to contribute to their children's school experience. Now I am addicted to the program completely, and Baloo and I provide all classes at school with the program, Kindergarten through sixth grade. Here is what it's all about.
AKC sponsors the Program by providing support and materials for dog owners interested in teaching young children about responsible dog ownership. A videotape called Taking Care of Corey is also provided by AKC to aid in the presentation of ideas such as basic training and care in a way that young children are able to understand. Handouts which can be photocopied and distributed can be requested as well, and help to solidify the ideas presented to the kids by giving them a hands-on visual follow-up. I ask the teacher of the smaller children to have them watch the tape before our visit, to give some background. For the bigger kids, I ask the teacher to have each child bring in a question for me as a homework assignment the night before our visit. I try to have them get input from their parents.
When we visit, we begin by introducing ourselves and explaining why we have come to the class. From there, we cover such things as daily care (food, fresh water, love, etc.), training, vet care and the reasons for each item. In our fairly rural area, teaching reasons for proper restraint is a big issue. An alarming percentage of families allow their dogs to run loose, feeling that "it's the country and that's what is healthy for a dog". Teaching the adults otherwise is difficult, but showing their children why loose dogs present a problem to themselves and others is a snap. For those of you with children, you know how persuasive our kids can be.
I begin with asking how many children in the class have younger brothers and sisters. Most raise their hands. I then ask something like, "Why don't you let your little brother or sister run around loose in the neighborhood?" We make a list of the reasons, such as; someone might take them; they could get hit by a car; they could get hurt otherwise; they could get lost; they could get into trouble, etc. You will be amazed at how thoughtful these kids are, and most of them, even the youngest ones, begin to see the correlation between siblings and dogs I am drawing before I say the words, "All these things can happen to your dog, too." If ever there were light bulbs overhead, there are then! That's when Baloo and I hear a lot of porcupine stories. The children are always bursting to tell their own story and contribute to the dialogue, and it is tough on them to keep it inside until after the presentation. I explain at this point how important it is to provide a fenced area for their dogs, just as their younger siblings used to be in a playpen.
We move on to vet care, spaying and neutering (in general terms, of course, but with an eye to putting them in mind of the health issues of their dog specifically and pet overpopulation in general). We talk about how their dog needs vaccinations and annual checkups, just like they do, and sometimes might need an emergency appointment. Usually at this point we get more porcupine stories combined with hit-by-car stories. Again we stress how important a good fence is for the health of their furry family member, and leads for walking together with him/her. With the focus in schools these days on recycling and conserving the planet's resources, the kids can relate to the pet overpopulation issue surprisingly well. They really are concerned junior citizens and the schools are wonderful at motivating them to help by doing their part. It isn't hard to add our cause of awareness of reckless and random dog breeding to the other valid issues they have learned.
From there we usually go on to training. We stress that training is really just learning to communicate with one another, and I give an example. It is usually something like, "Imagine you come home from school every day and get a snack from the fridge. Every day, for months, you come home and get a snack and it is OK with Mom and Dad. One day you come home and find something good to eat and instead of being OK, your Mom was saving that snack for dinner guests that evening. How would you feel when you got scolded?" This illustrates to the kids how a lack of communication can make everyone unhappy, though it isn't really anyone's fault. It would have been better for Mom to have said something like, "Don't touch anything in the blue Tupperware container, I use that for dinner party appetizers." Training their dog is the same thing, letting the dog know what is OK and what is not. It makes the dog happy and comfortable with the family, because the dog knows right from wrong. It is easy from here to explain how important consistency is in training. From there we explain the importance of proper socialization, again in terms the kids can understand. ("Imagine you had never seen another child before when you first came to school. How hard would it be to make a friend?")
This is where Baloo goes through some of his obedience routine. We do a little heeling pattern as space allows, he stays, downs, and recalls. He does a goofy trick or two. The kids often want to tell about their own dogs' tricks at this point. I usually hear several and then ask them to save the rest for the end.
Now we teach what I feel is the most important lesson we give the kids. If they come away with nothing else, I want them to learn when it is OK and when it is not OK to approach a dog they don't know very well. First, we talk about strays. We talk about not being sure about whether a dog is a stray or not, and being careful instead of taking a chance. We touch lightly on Rabies. Usually, I don't even bring it up, they do. We talk about dogs' body language (growling, wagging, stiff legs, ears back, staring, head up or down, etc.) and how to listen to a dog's body language because it the only way they can talk to us.
Then I give them the three ingredients for approaching a strange dog. They are, collar, leash, person (attached to the leash). We go over this so many times at the end of the presentation, that even months after doing the program, many of the kids who have seen it recognize me when I pick my daughters up from school and shout, "Hi, Mrs. MacKenzie! Collar, leash, person! When is Baloo coming back to school?" We stress that if those three ingredients are there, ALL of them, and not just one or two, then it might be all right to approach a strange dog who is giving friendly body language, and do the most important thing... ASK permission to pat the dog. We talk about good people having bad days and being grouchy when we are sick or we're too hot or too cold and how that can happen with dogs also. We talk about how sometime kids are better at reading body language than grownups and even if the person holding the lead says it is OK to pat the dog, it might not be a good idea. Then we talk about how to approach a strange dog. I show them how to be a dot, not a cave. A dot is a person sitting on his/her heels, so that an over-friendly or unfriendly dog will just bump a dot over and safely out of the way. A cave is a person standing and bending over the dog, acting dominant by putting the dog in a pocket from underneath. (We learn about the word dominant here, and the teachers often use it as a spelling and vocabulary word to help reinforce its meaning. Even the Kindergartners are able to grasp this concept, and they love to go home with such a big word to tell Mom and Dad. Heaven knows what it sounds like by the time it gets home in their little minds, but they are proud regardless.) I show them by being a cave over Baloo, how if he got too friendly he could give me a fat lip by bumping me with his head. I usually don't go into human aggression at all, the point is made without it. From their viewpoint, the children can see how a dog jumping up will end up in your face by making the pocket around the dog.
I show the how different the dot looks, and then we let them come up one after another, and they each say, "Collar, lead, person. May I pat your dog?" and they become dots and get slobbered. While each takes his or her turn, I answer questions and listen to stories from the waiting kids.
That is how I handle the program. You are encouraged by AKC to adopt your version of the Canine Ambassador Program to suit your dog, the age group of your classroom, and your geographical area. Obviously people in New York City won't be hearing the kind of porcupine stories I hear, but you'll have your own issues specific to the area. If you would like some advice, here it is:
If you have questions about the program, call AKC Public Education @ 212-696-8231.