Education

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Several years ago A Rotta Love Plus (ARLP) began a formal therapy dog program, pairing pit bulls and Rottweilers with youth in crisis to not only help youth, but to improve the image of our breeds within the community. We didn't know it at the time, but it seems we were part of a growing movement to utilize therapy dogs to change the reputation of certain breeds – pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. – and enhance local communities at the same time. Happily, there are now a handful of similar programs around the country, and we'll be highlighting them on our blog in the months to come. 

We're starting close to home today by interviewing our very own volunteer Education Director, Kellie French. Next week, we'll feature an interview with Lydia Zaidman of Love-A-Bull in Austin, Texas, about their all-pit therapy dog program. If you would like your Rott- or pit-centric therapy dog program to be included in this series, please e-mail Sara Nick. Enjoy!

Photos by Tara Engle Photography.

What was the inspiration for your program? Tell us how you got started.

As a social worker, I have seen a tremendous need for youth services, yet year after year so many great programs experience financial hardship and disappear. In 2008 after getting my first ARLP adopted pit bull registered as a therapy dog, I began to look for organizations that provided shelter and services to at-risk, traumatized youth to visit with my dogs. I had already been coordinating ARLP's Dog Safety Program (within schools, etc.) for a couple years and knew the healing power and positive energy dogs can bring into these environments, so I was anxious to get started with some of the most vulnerable kids. I  began by making twice-monthly visits to  a residential treatment center for youth.

Soon after, I started to connect with other Twin Cities community members who work with animals and children within a therapeutic setting. This  networking resulted in my being hired in 2009 to facilitate animal and art therapy groups to children residing within domestic violence shelters. I was amazed by the stories that the children would share about their experiences of violence, and it seemed like they were open to sharing these very difficult stories and feelings because the dogs created a safe environment. At this same time I teamed up with another dog handler to visit at a local youth shelter on an informal basis.

Kellie French and therapy dogs Cedric and Marri

Over time, I began to brainstorm a new program idea. Because I had access to other volunteers who had been part of ARLP’s Dog Safety Program for many years, I already had a pool of dog/handler teams. They were all excited about the possibility of this new program and, after many meetings and emails, we came up with a name, a mission, and a target audience. We knew we had a perfect fit, given the similarities between our marginalized dog breeds (pit bulls and Rottweilers) and marginalized youth, both groups commonly experiencing abuse, neglect, and judgment.

The program, now known as PRIORITY Paws – which stands for Pit bull and Rottweiler Interactive OutReach, Instruction, and Therapy for Youth – was officially underway in February 2010. We began our formal partnership with The Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis at that time. Later that same year, we began a formal partnership with St. Joseph's Home for Children,  also in Minneapolis.  This year, we formed a connection with Ain Dah Yung (a shelter providing services predominately to Native American youth) in St. Paul. Each of these locations provide housing and services to youth who are experiencing some type of family crisis.

Bettie, PRIORITY Paws dog

How many dog teams are currently participating with PRIORITY Paws? How often do you go on visits?

Currently, 16 pit bulls and Rottweilers and their humans volunteer with us. Each week we conduct three visits, with at least two dog/handler teams plus an extra person – a facilitator – attending each session.

What are the requirements for a dog/handler team if they want to join your program?

Pit bulls or Rottweilers who are registered therapy dogs are welcome to join our team. We very much encourage, but do not require, the dogs to be adopted from a shelter or rescue – as these dogs and their stories can make a powerful connection with the kids.

What human population(s) does your program serve?

PRIORITY Paws serves at-risk, traumatized youth who have experienced homelessness, abuse, and/or neglect.

Describe your program's curriculum.

PRIORITY Paws is an animal-assisted intervention program. We work with staff and therapists at our program locations to come up with weekly curricula that can best assist the youth in achieving overall wellness and help reunite families, which are the primary missions of all of our partner organizations. Each session deals with a topic of high relevance to youth (e.g., safety, support/trust, building positive relationships, and more); each topic is also discussed as it relates to dogs.


Rachel (ARLP President) with PRIORITY Paws dog Jana and the late great Jake

Have you faced any breed discrimination in trying to get the programs set up? If so, how did you overcome it?

Luckily, none of our partner organizations have turned us away based on the breeds that make our program possible. There has been some hesitation from certain individuals (e.g., a youth-org staff member here and there), but they often talk openly about their apprehension and make attempts to overcome their fears.

Share a memorable moment that has occurred during one of your therapy dog sessions.

I will never forget one 16-year old who, when talking about what he hoped for his future, summed up exactly what we are trying to accomplish with our programs: “I wish that I will find my own happy home. I relate to the dogs because everyone needs a place to belong.” I actually have this quote posted in my office!

How is your program changing minds about pit bulls and Rottweilers?

As an example, the new director of the Bridge for Youth met with the PRIORITY Paws team to learn more about our program. He admitted being a little timid around pit bulls, but he changed his mind when he saw our dogs rolling on their belly for the youth and showing off their tricks. He told us how much he loves the concept of how our dogs and youth share common life experiences, like being the target of prejudice and judgment.

Highlight a particular therapy dog from your program. What makes this dog special to PRIORITY Paws?

It would be impossible to share a story about just one dog; each and every dog who is part of PRIORITY Paws bring so much to the program and each dog has something different to offer the youth! We have at least two dog/handler teams present for each group, so I try to match a more excitable dog with one that is more laid back for each session. This allows a youth who is slightly fearful of dogs (or simply shy or introverted) to connect with the mellow dog, whereas the more outgoing and excitable dog is a great match for a youth with more energy. This means at any time, within any group, each dog can be a perfect match with a number of the youth present that day.

Why do you think pit bulls and Rottweilers make good therapy dogs?

I’ve been a part of a number of therapy dog groups with various breeds, and I convinced that pit bulls make the best therapy dogs for youth. (Yes, I am biased). Pit bulls seem to absolutely love interacting with youth! The high-energy nature of some of the dogs matches perfectly with that of the youth, their shorter hair leaves the spaces cleaner, and their medium size allows them to fit nicely in tighter spaces or rooms. Overall, a pit bull's temperament of being a complete people-pleaser and clown makes them a perfect match for youth who are experiencing tough time. As for Rottweilers, their size and gentle, regal presence always have a big effect on the kids. The kids love getting to witness the paradox of the large and tough-looking, but gentle and goofy Rotties!


Josie, PRIORITY Paws dog

What advice would you give to someone starting their own pit bull therapy dog program?

For the dogs: follow the rules of national therapy dog organizations. For the human volunteers: offer trainings or times to meet so everyone knows what is expected of them and what the organization, target population, and program are going to be like. For program development: after ‘selling’ your program to a facility, be sure that there is at least one person working there who is committed to championing your program and being your main contact.

Anything else we should know?

We are so excited to watch the partnerships between human-service and animal-welfare organizations grow and develop, bringing people who care about people and animals together in ways that they have not before. We are also happy to see the tremendous amount of joy from the youth, and look forward to developing ways to evaluate the positive outcomes that we experience every week. In gathering this information we hope to publish our results and show the world the important things that are achieved when dogs are conduits for change in struggling young people's lives. Not just any dogs, but pit bulls and Rottweilers, who – similar to the youth we serve – are often viewed as discarded, unwanted, forgotten, mean, or worthless. Ultimately, we are hoping to create a better future for pit bulls and Rottweilers and our community's youth.

Where can people get more info about PRIORITY Paws?

Shoot us an e-mail at education@arottalove.org (we are all volunteers so it may take a few days to get back to you!).

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There is one thing that new pit bull and Rottweiler owners have difficulty preparing for, and experienced owners find impossible to get used to: judgment, discrimination, and (often-willful) misunderstanding from those around us. However, we are far from being the only group that suffers from these hurts, and our annual participation in Pride is a powerful reminder that as we work to create a better world for pit bulls and Rottweilers, we are working toward creating a world where everyone is welcomed and embraced. 

For ARLP, being present at Pride is more than just another opportunity to increase community exposure to our breeds: It is a chance to show support for another group that has been “othered” by society – people in the LGBT community.

Some of the most salient similarities between our two communities are the egregious physical and legal barriers. We can’t take our dogs across certain state or national lines, board them at certain doggy daycare facilities, rent just any apartment, or purchase just any insurance. Likewise, “LGBT people face discriminatory insurance and tax measures as well as 500+ other legal inequalities,” ARLP volunteers Katie Louis and her partner Jada Hansen – pit bull owners who initiated ARLP’s participation in Pride seven years ago – point out. “Every year we go to the capital with our daughter to lobby for our equal rights. Right now we are working to stop a vote that will permit the majority to vote on the rights of the minority. The minority is our family.” In both the LGBT and the pit bull/Rottweiler community, “Misconceptions are working through the law to harm families… people must gather from the grassroots level and try to create change” and protect their families, Katie and Jada say.

Katie, Jada, and daughter Lili at her first Pride celebration

For many Rottweiler and pit bull owners, what can be even harder to accept than the rampant legal discrimination is the way we can be blissfully going about our lives, proudly talking about our dogs’ charming personalities or showing off their lovely manners, when suddenly we are stung by an ignorant comment about our dogs – and, by association, ourselves – that stems from misconceptions and closed minds. Every owner of a dog whose breed has a bad rap in the collective public mind has a story (and usually multiple stories) like these ones, gathered from ARLP volunteers:

  • Someone met Jazmin and said, But she’s so nice, are you sure she’s a pit bull?” - Jennifer K.
  • On a recent walk, I got permission for Tally to greet a small fuzzy white dog. Tally was waggy and jumpy and the white dog was fine, but the guy was kinda standing sideways, all uptight, and I said something about Tally being pushy with her friendliness. The guy replied, "Some people are uneasy because she's a ...." He seriously didn't finish his sentence. Like 'pit bull' is an expletive. - Ruth P.
  • Someone once told me that because Bettie was a pit bull, she should be put to sleep. - Lindsey W.
  • A lady at the dog park told me she saw a special on TV about the Rottweiler, and that they are “butchers of other dogs.” I explained that no, the documentary was explaining that Rotts were called The Butcher’s Dog, because they would help farmers get their herds to the butcher, and then escort the farmer home with his money...not because they were butchering other dogs! - Diane S.
  • Someone once quit a training class I was in because they didn't want to be in class with a pit bull. - Betsy C.

The hurt of these collective experiences weigh heavily on us, a feeling that many within the LGBT community can relate to. The LGBT community also faces the “belief that all individuals can be summed up in sweeping generalizations,” Katie and Jada point out.

Fortunately for us, the empathy that stems from LGBT individuals’ struggles can also make them outstanding pit bull and Rottweiler owners. As Katie and Jada put it, “the LGBT community (as a group) is more open to the possibility of adopting pit bulls, since we’re more sensitive to issues of discrimination. We know that popular negative opinion on a matter, especially when it comes to discrimination, generally needs to be confronted and fought against.”

So fight we do. Individually, we work hard every day to make sure we are ideal representatives of what pit bull and Rottweiler dog/handler teams should be.

Through education and advocacy, we endeavor to pave a path that will make it easier for future owners of misunderstood breeds.

In our daily lives, we strive to defend ALL Rottweilers and pit bulls, not just the ones asleep on our couches at home.

And, at Pride and elsewhere, we celebrate.

We celebrate the challenges that have made us resilient and the qualities that set us apart from the crowd.

We celebrate belonging to a community of open minds and hopeful hearts.

We stand up and celebrate ourselves and each other - not just pit bulls and Rottweilers and their owners, but all who have been made to feel that they do not belong.

Katie and Jada put it best when they said, “The LGBT community has gotten a long way by demonstrating that the most important thing you can do for yourself and your community is to be yourself. When you are confident and yourself, you are better able to give back to the community. We must teach people to embrace our unique differences.”

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What follows is the second post in a series featuring some of ARLP’s education and therapy activities.  All the dogs featured are ARLP alumni.

If your Twin City based community organization or school is interested in the activities highlighted on our blog, please contact our Education Director, Kellie Dillner.

Missy

Missy gives out some love during a recent visit to the Science Museum.  Photo by Kate.

Though school is out of session, it has been a busy and productive summer for A Rotta Love Plus’s education team.  One of our summer education activities takes place at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s summer camp class, “Get Set to be a Vet,” where ARLP teams offer their Dog Safety curriculum.  Through this activity alone, ARLP has reached nearly 200 kids this summer!

Rex

Rex shows off his relaxed body language. Photo by Kate.

ARLP’s Dog Safety program teaches children the basics about staying safe around both familiar and stray dogs.  Because of the interactive format of the program (i.e., kids are invited to ask and answer questions throughout the class) the curriculum often includes tidbits on empathy training, dog body language, animal rescue, responsible ownership, and even some training tips.

Cedric

Cedric plays teacher for the day. Photo by Harmony.

In the words of one Science Museum teacher, “The kids really enjoy seeing the dogs!  The questions that all of the presenters have been bringing are great.  They help to guide the discussion and the kids enjoy being able to get involved with the presentation by asking them the questions.  All of the dogs have been good, too.  The kids especially enjoy the dogs who know a lot of unique tricks.  I really appreciate A Rotta Love coming in and the kids seem to get a lot out of it.”

Jana

Jana nonchalantly passes by one of the "rocks." Photo by Paige.

Though our Summer 2010 Science Museum program wrapped up this week, you can quiz your kids on the basics of dog safety any time of the year.  Here are a few tips that will help to keep them safe: Q: What should you do if you are approached by a strange dog? A: Remain still and stand like a tree, with your arms to your sides.  Do not run from the dog or scream.  Be as boring as possible until the dog finds something more interesting to do! Q. What should you do if a dog knocks you to the ground? A. Curl up like a rock.  Remember to protect your head! Q. What are some reasons a dog might bite? A. A dog is more likely to bite if it is protecting puppies, food, or property, or if it feels cornered, so never approach a dog during those times and do not reach through a fence to pet a dog. Q. If you see a dog with its owner, what are the three things you should do if you would like to pet the dog? A. Ask the owner, allow the dog to sniff your hand, and then pet the dog in the shoulder area (not its head or ears).

Marri

Marri helps this group practice their "rock" skills. Photo by Curtis.

The ARLP Therapy and Education program is always on the lookout for more dog/handler teams.  If you do not have a CGC/therapy-certified dog but would still like to help, we would love to add to our list of facilitators!  To get involved, please contact Kellie Dillner.

Pearla

Pearla, one of the stars of the ARLP Education program. Pearla is available for adoption! Photo by Tara Engle.

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Blog post written by ARLP volunteer Laura M.

When I was in second grade, my parents decided I could get a pet of my very own. I don't know who chose a parakeet, but once we settled on a species, there was still a lot of work to be done. We bought books, researched on the internet, and spoke to breeders and owners. We carefully picked out an enormous cage, proper food and perches and a well-recommended vet, all before picking up my new buddy. Of course, once Fred came home with us, there was still more work to be done. I spent hours taming and training him with my parents' encouragement. His meager vet bills came out of my meager allowance. As a result, there were few surprises for us as new parakeet owners, and Fred turned into a lovely, sweet companion. Unfortunately, not every child has parents who go to such depths to ensure responsible pet ownership in their children. These children eventually grow up, sometimes they become pet owners, sometimes they become law makers, and always they are at least exposed to other people's pets. How they react to the animals around them depends largely on the experiences they've had. To put it in cliché terms, people fear what they do not understand. It's a mantra responsible pit bull and rottweiler owners have a personal stake in.

A large part of what A Rotta Love Plus does is education. Knowing first hand the value of such an education – and what happens when it isn't there – I became a volunteer for ARLP's education program. “What is this?” you ask (right after gosh, woman, don't you ever sleep?). The majority of ARLP's educational programs revolve around dog bite awareness and prevention. The CDC estimates that there are about 4.7 million dog bites per year. About half of the victims of dog bites are children, usually between the ages of five to nine years old. ARLP believes that the best way to prevent dog bites is through education, and in the spirit of learning, we have developed a program to teach children the “dos and don'ts of dog safety.” Included in the program is what to do if approached by a stray dog, how to greet a dog, and a little on proper dog care. As a bonus, the kids get to try out their new skills and knowledge on real live dogs! ARLP volunteers bring along their Canine Good Citizen certified dogs so that children can see these “dangerous breeds” up close and personal – and hopefully, they can come to love them as we do.

ARLP brings the dogs to a variety of locations for the dog bite prevention program. Usually we go into schools, but we'll go anywhere we're welcome. One of my most memorable events was at the Cottage Grove Safety Camp last year. Aimee, Jerry, and I (and Piper Ann and Missy) spent all morning teaching eight to eleven year old's the basics of dog safety. The camp location about two miles from my house and on the route I normally take for our daily walks. While walked the dogs the day after we presented, I was ambushed by a pack of about forty school-aged children! I'll tell you what, though – every single one of the kids remembered to ask if they could pet the dogs, where to pet them, and what Piper Ann's name was. It was incredible to have first-hand evidence of the impact we were making on the future.

One of the aspects I love about the program is it's versatility. When a group requests certain information, we try our hardest to deliver. This spring, ARLP will be finishing up a year-long program with Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary School, where we've cover topics from bite prevention to training to dog fighting to empathy and compassion. Over the winter, Lara, Rachel, and I (and Jana and Maus) spoke to the leadership at Chuck and Don's, a local pet supply store chain, on dog behavior and body language. And lets not forget the informational booth that ARLP sets up at events like the Pet Expo, Minnesota Renaissance Festival, and Gay Pride Festival.

Now, I love showing off my dogs, and I'm convinced of the importance of ARLP's education program, but I'm not a big fan of teaching. I just don't like being in front of all those people. But a few months ago, I was asked to teach the program to a group of developmentally disabled adults, and since I have a special place in my heart for people with these issues, I agreed. It was my single, most memorable, and favorite program to date. The group's buoyant enthusiasm and cheer was delightful, and we – teachers, handlers, students and dogs alike – were having a grand ol' time. I was wrapping things up, asking the group questions about what they had learned that night.

“What should you do if a strange dog comes up to you?” I asked.

A young woman in the front row raised her hand and waved violently. “I know, I know!”

I called on her.

“You scream and run away -” She stopped and her eyes got big as she thought about what she was saying. The room fell silent.

“You stand still like a TREEEE!!!!!!” She screamed in triumph, and the whole group, all thirty of us, broking into cheers, clapping wildly. Her grin was so bright it could have blinded jet pilots.

There's a saying that you never really learn something until you've taught it, and I'm afraid I've learned more in the ARLP education program than I have taught. Some of my new knowledge is practical. For example, I now know to always bring a drool rag and carpet cleaner when I take Piper Ann to events. I also know to watch pit bulls very carefully at the Science Museum because fossilized dinosaur bones look an awfully lot like the Best Dog Treat Ever, and they're really hard to sneak out the door with. I know that people can't be blamed for ignorance if there is no one willing to teach them. And I know that the moment of understanding, when the light of understanding comes into a person's eyes and their eyes have been opened to a new idea  - there is nothing quite as wonderful as that. It is the moment when all things are changed, and the future is made better for dogs and the people who love them.

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