Parkway Merritt Island, Fla.
Objective: Training dogs in shelters in order to improve their chances of being adopted, while helping youth become comfortable around animals and interested in working with them.
In a Nutshell: Fifth- and sixth-graders from Tropical Elementary School are bused to shelters to spend a day training dogs in obedience. Half of the youth work outside, teaching dogs five basic commands: “watch me,” “sit,” “down,” “stay” and “come.” The rest of the “commandos” use clickers to train dogs to stop barking and jumping.
When and Where: The program began during the 2003-04 school year at the South Animal Care and Adoption Center in Melbourne, Fla. It has expanded to the Central Brevard Humane Society in Cocoa, Fla. Each grade level visits its respective shelter once a month.
Who Runs It: Teacher and founder Virginia Hamilton got the idea while watching a show on the Animal Planet cable channel, which said that while many dogs in shelters are overlooked for adoption because of their excitement at seeing people, they could be quickly trained. Parent volunteers work with the youth commandos, while staff at one shelter help with the training. Obstacles: “The major obstacle was commandos not being able to hold on to dogs trying to get at other dogs,” says Hamilton. One such incident threatened the program’s survival.
How They Overcame It: The school purchased eight-foot heavy chains with hooks on both ends that are now attached to the fence with one hook and to the dog’s leash with the other. “Now, if the commando cannot hold onto the leash, the dog cannot run,” Hamilton says.
Cost: Less than $700 a year. Initial startup costs included leashes, collars, chains and hooks, clickers and treats (Cheerios) for training.
Who Pays: The program began with a small grant from the Brevard School Foundation. The Merritt Island Breakfast Rotary Club has contributed each year.
Youth Served: 50 youth from Tropical Elementary’s gifted/academically talented program.
Youth Turn-On: “All children love animals,” said Hamilton. “This was a no-brainer.”
Youth Turn-Off: Fear of dogs, which is addressed by starting some new kids with small dogs. Also, clicker training is far more mundane than command training, so Hamilton has to make sure to rotate kids regularly.
Research Shows: Because the program is new, no research is available, other than positive feedback from the shelters. Many programs have reported seeing positive changes in troubled kids who train animals, but there is very little research to measure the results. (See “Youth Work’s Greatest Tails,” June 2004.)
What Still Gets in the Way: “Visiting the shelters once a month is not enough,” says Hamilton. “The more schools that become involved, the better the chances of successfully training all the dogs.”