15 June 2011

Who will teach them?

We all stand against the inhumane treatment of animals. That's easy—it doesn't take much more than a drop of compassion to understand what's wrong with deliberate animal cruelty. 

We also lament the inadequate care provided by those who may be battling mental health issues or who simply may not know any better. This is a harder conversation, I think. For as much as we do stand against what happens to animals in these situations, the perpetrators may not be able to do a better job than they are doing. In the case of hoarders, the law must intervene when mental health affects the lives of animals who cannot help themselves. But what about those who don't know any better? What about the people who don't look at a bucket full of dirty rain water and think, "I wouldn't drink that; neither should my dog." Or the people who think, "Well, dogs come from wolves and wolves can take care of themselves, so I'm sure my dog who got out of my yard in Chicago is doing just fine. If he doesn't come home, I'll just get another one." Or the people whose approach is, "My dog is being bad on purpose. She chewed my shoes to get back at me, so I'll give her a beating so she'll know she was bad." If these are the lessons that parents teach their children by example or by direct conversation, then where will these children learn otherwise? And what will happen to the animals they bring home when they become adults themselves?

I was fortunate enough to volunteer as part of a program aimed at teaching sixth graders about humane animal treatment, most specifically that dog fighting is not only inhumane, it is also a felony in all 50 states. We had interactive learning games that centered around the damage that dog fighting does not just to the animals, but to the families and communities involved. This is where I learned that it is possible to have pets, to love your pets and to still have to be taught that your pets have feelings: love, fear, concern, happiness, anger, joy. No one had taught these children that their pets had feelings, so the wagging tails, lolling tongues, play bows, curled lips and so on meant nothing beyond the actions. Once we got across the lesson that animals have feelings, the other conversations seemed to mean more to the students—and hopefully made a lasting impression.

This year I was asked to put together an ad hoc program for freshman in a Chicago public high school. The sessions, maybe four or five of them, would be voluntary after school events that would last about an hour. I assumed that the conversations would have a heavy dog fighting focus, given the demographic and age of the students. I made a rough outline, planning to start with animal cruelty facts and figures; move on to dog fighting; bring Téa in to demonstrate a what a well behaved pit bull is like and use that session to talk about dog care. After that, the students were to put together a project, which I thought maybe they would present back to me as a wrap-up so I could figure out which points I made well and which I should pound a little more if we decided to do the program again.

So the first day I went in my stats:
  • 6-8 million animals go into animal shelters each year just in the US. Of these, half are placed in homes and the other half are killed.
  • We do not use the word euthanized...can anyone give me a definition for euthanasia? We do not use the word euthanized in this case because we are not talking about the animals that are sick, suffering or have been abused to the point that they are miserable. We're talking about 3-4 million animals that could have lived a happy life in a home, if only there were enough homes for them.
  • Over 70 percent of people who abuse animals also abuse people in their lives, usually women, children and the elderly. What does this tell you about people who abuse animals?
  • All 50 states have laws against dog fighting and 46 states have felony provisions against animal cruelty in general. In Illinois specifically, it is a felony simply to watch a dog fight...even if you're trying hard not to watch because it makes you uncomfortable. If you're there, you're responsible.
I could have gone on for hours (possibly days) along these lines. There are plenty of shocking facts out there just waiting to be shared. Luckily, I do sometimes remember to check in with my audience to ensure they're still along for the ride. So the teacher for the class collected questions for me after I left that day. Here is what I learned (and should have known already): Just because no one has taught you what is right, doesn't mean that you don't wish you knew what the right thing is.

I didn't get questions about dog fighting, or laws, or punishments and fines. I got a lot of questions about animal welfare and what constitutes animal cruelty:
  • How many dogs have been abused in the past year? I think a lot of people would like to know the answer to this question. The truth is, it’s impossible to know. So many animals live and die each day in horrible, inhumane conditions that we never even know about. This can be because no one knows the animal is there. It could be because the people around the animal don’t understand that what’s happening to the animal is abuse. It could be that someone knows the animal is abused, but doesn’t know what to do about it or is afraid to get involved. So we just don't know.
  • Why do people have dogs if they do cruel things to them? That’s a very good question. Sometimes people don’t know any better. Sometimes people don’t have a good handle on their anger or maybe they’re just plain lazy. I think often it is because people don’t understand dogs. They don’t think about it as a living creature that has thoughts and needs and feelings. When we can empathize with an animal, it becomes very easy to do the right things for it.
  • Who are the most common people to hurt a dog? Anyone can be cruel to a dog. Anyone at all.
  • How often are dogs abused? Dogs are abused every single day. And dogs that are abused are probably abused every single day. That is no way to go through life.
But I got even more questions about animal care and training:
  • Is it unhealthy to give dogs food that we would eat during the day? Can dogs eat all human food? 
  • What should you feed dogs? What food should you give the dogs? What food should we avoid giving them?
  • If you give your dog a beer, is that animal cruelty?
  • How can you take care of a dog? (Of course, how does a person even begin to answer a question like that in such a small amount of time? I tried to keep it simple and memorable: There are only four things that our dogs need from us: 1) Proper food and shelter, including shelter from the elements and from having to take care of themselves; 2) Discipline;  3) Exercise; 4) Affection.)
  • How do I adopt a dog?
  • How do I teach a dog to stop being hyper? 
  • Why might a dog turn on a person?
  • How do I teach my dog tricks?
  • Why is my dog afraid of storms?
  • What do I do if my dog gets lost?
  • How much water does a dog need?
And on and on and on. Two students in particular will stay with me for a long time. The first, Vincent, was a huge, tall, quiet boy. His grandmother had a small dog who hated everyone, but seemed to taking a shine to Vincent. His grandmother told him that if he learned to work with the dog, he could have it. I brought him pages and pages of handouts and stayed late nearly every week to talk to him about how to help the dog feel more comfortable and find out how he was doing with the dog. We also talked about his neighbor's dog who had a broken leg that was never set—he wanted to know what to tell him neighbor to do so the dog would be more comfortable. The second boy waited patiently each week until I had finished with Vincent. He would inch over as I was packing up my papers talk to me about how to handle his dog when his dog showed aggression on walks (this was a new issue for him, as his dog had previously been well behaved on walks). We talked about leash aggression and I brought handouts for him as well. I learned that his father was the only other family member who cared about the dog or was comfortable around it, so we talked about how he and his father could work together with the dog to properly socialize, train and manage the dog and its issues. These boys loved the dogs in their lives, they just had no idea how to go about caring for or interacting with the dogs. And no one in their world had the resources to help them.

I have a lot of ideas for next year's program. We'll still start with animal cruelty and neglect facts as I did this year, but from there I think we'll focus on the fun side of the animal issue: how to care for our dogs, how to understand our dogs, how to give our dogs what they need, how to allow our dogs to be our friends and our family rather than our pets. It's time to give these kids the information they need to change the cycle.

This photo has nothing to do with this story. It's just gratuitous pit bull cuteness.


  1. I am so impressed by this program, your dedication and the fact that these kids voluntarily gave up their time to take part it it. thank you for doing this...


  2. I teach PreK in a Title I school in Illinois, which means that at 70% of the kids I work with live at or below the poverty level. My teaching partner and I both bring our dogs in at times. Many of the kids have never met a friendly dog, or one they weren't afraid of. When the dogs are in, it's always a teachable moment. Our kids have a lot of the same questions. I think your program sounds really great and I'm glad you had such success with it!

  3. That's amazing. Just really really amazing. I love that you're doing this. I thinks it's so so wonderful. It's also incredible to see how much those students are eager to learn and ask questions and seek help when they have someone in front of them who it knowledgeable, respectful, and available to them. You are an incredible person and that school is very lucky to have you come speak to those students. I have no doubt that you've helped them by being there, especially those two boys you worked so closely with.

  4. What a great story. In 99% of cases education is the best way forward. Way to go for empowering those students with the information on how to take better care of the dogs in their lives :)

  5. you are such a hero. it's amazing, isn't it? how simple it can be to change minds and pave a better path for the future.
    kudos to you for all you do. and i know that amy was so excited to be working together.

  6. Gratuitous pit bull cuteness - one of my favoritest things!

    You are doing a WONDERFUL thing here.

  7. You have an award waiting for you on our Monday morning blog!

  8. Well done for the success you have had in education. So important.

    I came over after reading about your blog at Arwen's Pack. Really happy to be following you now.

    Love and licks, Winnie

  9. You are amazing. It starts early with compassion. You rock!

  10. Even though I'm not a religious person, I think you're doing God's work. Seriously. Thank you for working to make the world a better place.

  11. Two Pitties sent us over here. One day while standing outside a Dunking Donuts with Havi (our rescued pit love of our life mix) a woman asked if her son could pet Havi. She said where they live in NYC, pitbulls are used for fighting, so her children are terrified of them. When her son petted Havi (who miraculously sat patiently) he was smiling and so happy. I am going to look into bringin a similar program by us!