From surfing to sniffing out cancer, what can't dogs do? Now, USA Today reports that a number of school programs across the country are using dogs to teach kids empathy and compassion in an effort to help curb school bullying. Here, a brief guide:
How are dogs fighting bullying?
Kansas City schools have a program called No More Bullies, in which program volunteers, accompanied by trained dogs, teach kids about fairness, compassion, and integrity for one hour a day over five days. "The animals are the glue that helps the children stay focused and understand the message," says Jo Dean Hearn, an ex-teacher who developed the program. "Children can easily identify with an animal. And it's easy for them to transition when we ask them to consider how an animal feels (if ill treated) to how the kid sitting near them feels (if poorly treated)."
Are there similar programs in other parts of the country?
You bet. Last year, the Yale University School of the 21st Century and the Pet Savers Foundation of North Shore Animal League America launched a program called Mutt-i-grees to help children learn how to be more kind — toward people and animals. The program, which typically employs a dog-shaped handpuppet instead of an actual dog, is now used in 900 elementary schools in 28 states, and it's being expanded to junior high and high schools. Also, the Healing Species program, founded a decade ago in South Carolina, uses rescue dogs to help children and teens recover from abuse and learn self-esteem, empathy, and other core values.
Do these programs really work?
They seem to. The No More Bullies program is so popular that there's a long waiting list for next year. While it's still too early to evaluate the Mutt-i-grees program, most of the teachers who participated said their students' social, emotional, and problem-solving skills improved. A study published in 2008 found that suspensions for violent behavior declined by 55 percent among students who participated in the Healing Species program, and general aggression and retaliation went down by 62 percent. Teachers and guidance counselors also reported improved grades and a more than 80 percent increase in their students' ability to walk away from conflicts.