Offering emotional therapy through shelter dogs

Purina ONE is committed to helping the relationship between dogs and people continuously grow healthier, stronger and smarter. That's why we're proud partners of Mutt-i-grees — a groundbreaking organization that pairs shelter dogs with children and adults who are in need of emotional therapy. In tandem with the NY Times, we brought a handful of stories to life that truly demonstrate how these animals help people rediscover their best selves.

Canine Companions:
How shelter dogs help humans grow at every age.

Irene Villegas wanted to help her seven-year-old son Allen Chirino, but she didn't know how. He kept getting suspended from school and he refused to talk about it.

"He has a big heart and he loves making friends, but he wasn't able to keep them," she says. Lashing out at others became his way of handling emotions. "The teacher told me, 'I let him do whatever he wants, just so he'll let me teach the class.'"

Exasperated, Villegas moved Allen to a new school, Fenton Primary Center in Pacoima, Calif. Much of the help he received there came from an unlikely source — the school’s therapy dog, Jeter. Allen made fast friends with the rescued Schipperke/Shepherd mix, whose interactions with him, even for just a few minutes a day, changed Allen's whole attitude.

"Dogs are really in tune to our emotions," says Dr. Matia Finn-Stevenson, a research scientist at Yale University's Child Study Center and director of the School of the 21st Century. She's spent her career studying the emotional impact of dogs, especially in children. "Dogs sense who needs them and they go straight to that child. The child immediately becomes calm petting the dog. It's amazing. It's not just training, it's instinct."

Finn-Stevenson recently wrote in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychology and Adolescent Psychiatry1 that interactions with dogs release the hormone oxytocin in humans, which promotes feelings of contentment and trust. The benefits range from lower stress and loneliness to an increased level of social interactions and mindfulness.

In 2008, Finn-Stevenson began to help develop the Mutt-i-grees curriculum2 based on these ideas. Named for the shelter dogs it aims to raise awareness of, the curriculum focuses on animals to teach social learning and emotional intelligence. With funding from the Cesar Millan Foundation, it was created through the partnership of The Pet Savers Foundation, Yale University School of the 21st Century and North Shore Animal League America (NSALA), in Long Island N.Y. It was during a visit to NSALA to learn about Mutt-i-grees that guidance counselor Toni Frear adopted Jeter and took him to his forever home at Fenton.

Jeter is now a campus celebrity. Students write him fan letters and read to him. Frear's colleagues stop by her office just to pet him between classes. But in the time since Jeter arrived at Fenton — one of Mutt-i-grees first test schools — 3,000 schools across the U.S. and Canada are using the curriculum. Its success proves not only the tremendous benefits animals have in fostering emotional learning, but also the value shelter dogs have in enriching lives at all ages.

Learning Empathy: Elementary Mutt-i-grees

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Mutt-i-grees began by running test programs in 35 schools for students in kindergarten through third grade. It was almost an immediate success, with some schools expanding the program to older students even before Finn-Stevenson could write accompanying lesson plans.

"Our interest was to enhance resiliency and social and emotional competence for children, as well as increase awareness of the desirability of shelter pets," says Finn-Stevenson.

A 2011 study found that the emotional benefits of pets can be equal to those of human friendship3. Studies have shown that pets have an especially large impact on the social development of kids and that growing up with animals is associated with lower child anxiety4.

"There's a natural affinity and interest in animals that young children have," she says. "There was a lot of excitement about Mutt-i-grees, not only from the kids, but from the teachers."

Children Allen's age can be particularly vulnerable, and that means they often have the most to gain from lessons that focus on developing empathy. For example, lessons are called "Can you guess how I feel?" or "How might a Mutt-i-gree feel?"

"Mutt-i-grees teaches a kid to not just recognize emotions but to manage them," says Frear, who saw Jeter "as really special" even before he was trained as a therapy dog.

Villegas says that most of all, Mutt-i-grees, with the help of Jeter, has taught Allen that it's OK to accept help.

"He shows when he needs to be cared for so now I can actually hug him," she says. "Before I couldn't get near him."

Allen lights up when he talks about Jeter, who he calls "an angel" in his letters to him.

"You learn how to treat other dogs and animals, and you learn from Jeter how to treat people," he says when asked about Mutt-i-grees. "Now I can make friends and keep them."

Continuing to Build: Middle-School Mutt-i-grees

Those lessons, such as making and keeping friends, are developed further as the curriculum continues through school. On a recent spring day, for example, New York City's Columbus Circle was abuzz with activity. Tourist season had just begun, but it's not the out-of-towners that caused the frenzy. Around 80 middle school students from the nearby Stephen Gaynor School, which specializes in teaching children with learning differences, are here on a field trip to support NSALA. They race from one passerby to another, asking for donations to aid shelter dogs.

The students are members of the school’s Y.A.P. club (Youth Animal Protectors) and some have been working with Mutt-i-grees for more than three years. They are living proof of the impact the program has. Not only passionate about helping shelter dogs, they’re passionate about finding the means to do it — no small feat for an age group typically known to be aloof.

"Middle-school children are usually resistant to any kind of a programming that you present them with," says Finn-Stevenson. "From the beginning, we noticed middle-schoolers were engaged and wanted to let people know about local animal shelters."

"They're learning about the importance of being an activist and a voice for the people and animals who need them," says Dr. Kim Spanjol, a behavioral consultant who founded Y.A.P., implementing lessons from Mutt-i-grees.

The kids — many whose families have adopted their own shelter dogs as a result of the program — are eager to tell anyone who will listen about each facet of Mutt-i-grees. Mateo Levin, 12, boasts that a recent popcorn fundraiser pulled in around $2,000 to aid shelter dogs, while Jack Hillyer, 13, has noticed kids seem more confident after joining Y.A.P.

"It's really a great honor for me and other people to help animals," says Lili Kolton-Shaffer, 12. "You feel like a hero sometimes and it's really nice to see the animals get into their own homes and be happy. My family adopted a pitbull. She's really sweet."

New Challenges: High School Mutt-i-grees

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Adolescence is perhaps when it is most important to maintain social and emotional balance, despite the powderkeg of impulses that influences teenagers otherwise. Dogs can help high-school and college-age students through many of the same techniques Mutt-i-grees students are exposed to from the beginning.

"At Yale, they developed the Mutt-i-grees curriculum in steps to be grade-level appropriate," says Jayne Vitale, Mutt-i-grees outreach and program development director at NSALA. "The vocabulary gets more advanced to communicate the differences between angry or frustrated, the nuances. In high school, the service-learning component is also much stronger."

Take 16-year-old Christian Vasquez. After arriving at Mercy First, a house for children in need between the ages of 12 and 20, Vasquez has begun to thrive. Thanks to the Mutt-i-grees curriculum, he even interns at NSALA, grooming and caring for dogs.

"This kind of responsibility feels amazing," he says. "I learned that being with animals can really help you express yourself and show who you are."

The Walk of Life: Adult Mutt-i-grees

It's not just kids who benefit from the values instilled by Mutt-i-grees. In a very real sense, the program aids adults as much as it does children.

"When they have a Mutt-i-grees lesson, kids can't stop talking about it, and they're really excited. That excites the teachers and the parents, too," Finn-Stevenson says. "Teachers get inspired to come up with various other activities based on the curriculum themselves."

Mutt-i-grees' founding partnership is in the process of developing an extension of the curriculum designed to engage families beyond the classroom. There's a universality to the connection between dogs and humans that goes beyond the program itself.

"Dogs demand trust, loyalty and respect. And those are the three basics of any healthy human relationship," says Vitale at NSALA. "So we can learn from them at any age."

Lori Ratchelous of Chesire, Conn., and her dog, Nutmeg, know that firsthand. In 2013, Ratchelous adopted Nutmeg after applying to be one of two social workers matched with a fully trained therapy dog in order to provide aid following the Sandy Hook tragedy. Trained by Freedom Service Dogs, which specializes in transforming shelter dogs into service and therapy dogs, Nutmeg was originally deemed "untrainable" at the shelter she was rescued from.

That initial judgment couldn't have been further off. Today, Nutmeg has several jobs: She's a first responder to the scene of accidents, an oncology therapy dog and a therapy dog for kids, particularly those suffering from trauma or a disability. Nutmeg has a way of opening people up and making them comfortable enough to talk about a problem they’re facing.

"They think, 'I can trust you more because you're a woman with a dog as opposed to a scary social worker,' and so the kids will open up," she says.

Perhaps most poignant, however, is Nutmeg's work as a first responder, helping EMTs and other emergency workers process particularly trying events. Ratchelous says no matter what job she’s doing, sometimes Nutmeg's presence alone makes the difference: "She has this amazing ability to be present with anyone she's helping. She will just sit there and just look soulfully into their eyes. That right there provides so much for people who are in need. She's an awesome partner."

In fact, studies have shown that making eye contact with a dog is one of the primary ways human-canine interactions releases the bonding hormone oxytocin5 in humans.

Nutmeg's work can be taxing, however, and as such, Ratchelous takes her nutrition seriously, ensuring her dog has the energy to do her job happily. It's a key part of the human-canine bond vital to the team's success. During Nutmeg's training at Freedom Service Dogs, her nutrition was provided by Purina ONE SmartBlend, which donates food to sustain the organization.

"We want to make sure the dogs are eating food that’s nutritionally balanced," says Erin Conley at Freedom Service Dogs. "Keeping the coat healthy and bones strong is really important so the dogs can work for their people later."

Looking Up: The Future of Mutt-i-grees

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Mutt-i-grees and similar organizations like Freedom Service Dogs demonstrate that shelter dogs help humans in countless ways, whether it's adjusting to a new school, understanding empathy or overcoming emotional hardship, even trauma. Despite these vital jobs, dogs ask for very little in return: a loving home and a daily meal.

Studies have shown that making eye contact with a dog is one of the primary ways human-canine interactions release the bonding hormone oxytocin in humans.

"It's the fuel that makes all the amazing work these dogs do possible," says Vitale. Purina ONE has provided food for NSALA for at least 15 years, now giving shelter dogs the nutrition they need to help kids learn. "We're happy to have Purina ONE as a sponsor because [Mutt-i-grees] cares about making an impact on children in the community and their education."

With that support and the help of Mutt-i-grees participants across the country, Vitale says she hopes to expand the work that dogs are doing nationwide, helping kids and adults gain confidence and happiness while at the same time placing more shelter dogs in forever homes.

"It's changing the dogs' lives, and it's changing people's lives," she says.

Purina ONE is proud to support Mutt-i-grees and other pet shelter programs nationwide.

This story was originally produced by The New York Time’s T Brand Studio.

[1] http://www.jaacap.com/article/S0890-8567%2816%2930098-3/abstract

[2] http://www.education.muttigrees.org/

[3] http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2015/15_0204.htm

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22866043