Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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April 28, 2014

YMCA teaches empathy through animals

ASHLAND — The YMCA is deep into a new after-school program that teaches children how to have empathy for others through the treatment of animals.

The program began four months ago and incorporates activities to help children learn to treat others equally, especially those who are different than them.

Jennifer Layne, a teacher for a class of kindergarten through fifth-grade students, said it is easier to teach children the behavioral concept by using animals.

“(For instance,) kids will be mean to a kid who’s different, but if you bring in a three-legged dog, they’ll be nice to a dog,” she said.

Layne hopes to translate the idea of equal treatment with a variety of exercises taken from a Yale University program called Mutt-i-grees.

Layne said YMCA board member Norma Meek suggested the Yale program, which has ultimately been successful.

“Children realize that all pets come in different shapes, sizes and colors. All pets have strengths and feelings...There are Pedigrees and Muttidgrees, some are mixed breeds, but they’re all wonderful—just like people,” Meek said.

Mutt-i-grees curriculum sets out to teach children to be calm, confident and caring. Most activities are dog-related and will teach children interpersonal skills that can be used at home, in school and later in the workplace.

The program’s website said there are also “feature lessons” on dog behavior developed with expert Cesar Million, the dog whisperer, from the National Geographic Wild Channel.

Layne said the Mutt-i-grees lesson plans provide her with a year’s worth of daily lessons and can be adapted to best suit her classroom demographic.

She said since her classroom ages range from 6 to 11, she has to plan activities that are easy for everyone to understand.

For instance, one of the activities focused on personal acceptance of themselves and others.

“We did a paper where the kids drew a picture of themselves and wrote down their favorite things without putting their name on it. Then we hung them all up and they had to guess who was who. ... Then I had them write something they didn’t like about themselves,” she explained. “It turned out really well because some kids would argue and say they felt like those aspects were great about their friends.”

She said she has been lucky enough to teach children who were already respectful of others and has not dealt with many ill-behaved children.

“I have had kids with special needs in my classroom and, in general, the other kids are more caring for them,” she said.

But she said these lessons are important for teaching children to continue this type of behavior as they get older.

“It’s important for my big kids to understand the little kids are always watching and it’s important for my little kids to always watch and look toward good role models,” she said.

Mutt-i-grees curriculum was developed by the North Shore Animal League America/The Pet Savers Foundation in collaboration with the Yale University’s School of the 21st Century; it’s funded by the Millan Foundation.

The program is also seeking donations for the Ashland Animal Rescue Fund, a no-kill animal shelter, which will be used for general operations.

For more information, call (606) 324-6191.

LANA BELLAMY can be reached at lbellamy@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2653.

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