Middle school years can be a fragile period in a child’s life. With kids going through awkward stages, feeling hormonal and their self-esteem plummeting, this time isn’t exactly easy. And it seems like it is getting more difficult. Bullying, harassment and violence runs rampant in many schools, with some children growing up in an environment lacking empathy.
While some have the support and resources in their home life to overcome this trying time, others do not. One New York City nonprofit is looking to provide a helping hand to help these adolescents improve empathy and self-esteem with the assistance of dogs.
Founded in 2010, A Fair Shake for Youth offers middle schoolers an opportunity to work with trained and licensed therapy dogs through a social and emotional learning method. Partnered with various schools and community organizations in the New York City area, the program pairs hands-on learning with a relevant weekly topic to encourage kids to build relationships with animals and one another, teaching responsibility, compassion and accountability, while raising the confidence of participants in the process.
With these dogs, children enrolled in the 10-week program work in teams to teach basic obedience, agility, play cognition games and most importantly, work together to ensure that their specific dog is successful at whatever the task at hand happens to be.
“It’s all about making the dog successful,” says Audrey Hendler, founder of A Fair Shake for Youth. “The kids rally around making the dog successful, and in doing that, they feel successful.”
The idea for the program came during a volunteer experience that left a big impression on Hendler. Volunteering as an instructor with Puppies Behind Bars, an organization that trains imprisoned inmates to raise service dogs who go on to aid wounded war veterans, Hendler noticed the effect these dogs had on their human counterparts.
“The experience blew me away — just seeing the impact the dogs had on the inmates in terms of their self-esteem,” says Hendler. Able to measure this positive growth among adults, Hendler wondered if a more proactive approach might work as a preventative solution for children. By offering at-risk youths the opportunity to build a solid foundation, they may make better decisions throughout the course of their lives.
“Why are we waiting until people are grown up, have made mistakes and are serving time before making an impact?” Hendler recalls. “I decided then that this was something I wanted to bring to younger people.”
Aiming the services A Fair Shake for Youth has to offer toward a generally low-income and underserved population of New York City, Hendler settled on highly-impressionable middle schoolers. She believed this group was young enough to show interest in forming a relationship with both the dog and handler, yet old enough to discuss animal issues — making them the ideal choice to begin teaching valuable life lessons.
“Dealing with middle-school age, these kids are just deciding who they want to be. Do they want to be someone who’s responsible and feels good about themselves, or not?” says Hendler of her enrollees. “Because dogs aren’t judgmental, they make it safe for the kids to let their guard down and be who they are. I think that helps give them the confidence to be the good kid, to be a leader.”
The use of a variety of different dogs, representing various breeds, ages and personality types, was an important aspect in the design of the program. So, with volunteers spanning the spectrum from dobermans to labradoodles, children are encouraged to work with all dogs in the program, teaching the importance of the old adage “never judge a book by its cover.”
Hendler believes that by teaching compassion and respect for dogs, children are more likely to have compassion and respect for others. Plus, witnessing first hand the power of positive reinforcement, children learn to communicate effectively, building relationships based on respect and trust. “It really makes them feel valued and show that they have something to offer,” she says.
In addition to the work students participate in the classrooms, the program also introduces students to professionals working in animal-related services — from bomb sniffing dogs to field trips to the ASPCA.
A recent visit from a local veterinarian who grew up in the same housing projects many of the enrolled children currently call home offered students the opportunity to identify with an adult in a profound way, encouraging kids to dare to believe in their dreams — and themselves. “It’s about dogs, but it’s not just about dogs, it’s about life,” Hendler says.
With schools now on a waiting list for enrollment, the need for therapy dogs to volunteer their time in the classrooms is growing. “One of our biggest challenges is having enough dogs to meet the increase in demand for what we do,” says Hendler.
Along with a new partnership working with sixth- through 12th-grade students in the Liberty LEADS program at Bank Street College, an after-school program that helps prepare kids to succeed in the next phase of their education, be it high school or college, Hendler and company are excited to continue growing and are always looking to build relationships with new schools and volunteers.
“I think all the different kinds of work therapy dogs do is really amazing, but I think it’s great for our volunteers because they really get to see kids change,” says Hendler. “People know how much their dog contributes to their own life and this is an opportunity to really make a difference in the life of a kid.”