FEATURE

Puppy Love

Animal care helps Los Angeles middle schoolers practice patience and cooperation.

In one corner of the classroom, three girls practice a cheer: "Our dogs are rrrrrrrrred hot!" Across the room, classmates plan the lineup for tomorrow's special ceremony: Butch will sit; Max will heel; Snowflake will roll over; and -- if all goes well -- Cody will moonwalk!

Ten students at Hawthorne (Calif.) Intermediate School and their canine companions are preparing to "graduate" from a three-week training program called TLC (Teaching Love and Compassion). The voluntary program is offered quarterly during interim breaks at the year-round school.

From all appearances, TLC is designed to teach dogs how to behave. But, in the process, the student trainers learn important lessons as well -- about patience, respect and cooperation among their peers. The Los Angeles chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA/LA) developed the program four years ago in response to studies showing links between children's cruelty to animals and cruelty to other people.

"Given our concerns for both animal and human well-being," explains SPCA/LA Humane Education Director Joan Melrod, "we wanted to take some decisive action to break this cycle of violence. We felt that if kids -- particularly those who were experiencing difficulty in school, either academically or behaviorally -- were encouraged to channel their energies into bonding with needy shelter dogs, they would learn to respect animals, grow as individuals and find it easier to get along with others."

But translating the skills of caring and compassion from pooches to people wasn't an automatic process, as Melrod and her colleagues discovered. "I'd see a child being wonderful to a dog one minute, then getting into a fight with another TLC student the next."

After some brainstorming, the sponsors decided to express the goals of the program more explicitly in its content. In addition to teaching the importance of being kind to animals, they would also incorporate lessons and activities on conflict resolution, anger management and team-building. With these "human" additions, Melrod reports, the program clicked.

During daily classroom sessions that precede visits to the animal shelter, SPCA/LA and Hawthorne Intermediate staff encourage the TLC kids to consider how people, like animals, need love, care and praise. The techniques of dog care and training provide direct links to basic communication and social skills. Patience and positive reinforcement, for example, are approaches that participants practice with each other as well as with their animals. Through group discussion and activities, students learn how to appraise interpersonal conflicts and develop constructive responses.

"Sometimes when I would get really mad I would just hit someone," explains Stilman Joseph, a TLC graduate. "But in TLC they taught us not to do that. So if someone tells me to shut up or bugs me, now I just walk away."

Journal-writing plays a big part in the program's activities. "Every morning the kids write about the previous day, their thoughts, feelings, concerns and anticipations," notes Hawthorne teacher Germaine Paredes. "I can see them becoming more sensitive to each other and more open about their feelings as the days go on. Now they trust each other."

Teachers and students alike attest that the TLC program at Hawthorne has helped create a feeling of community among the participants.

"I get feedback from many Hawthorne teachers that TLC students hang out together on the playground," says Melrod. "The teachers are delighted to see boys and girls from all ethnic backgrounds laughing, playing and just generally being comfortable with each other."

The family feeling TLC fosters is reinforced by the Peer Leadership program that follows the initial three-week session. In this elective activity, TLC graduates meet once a week to continue training shelter dogs or to teach local elementary children about the basics of dog obedience and prevention of violence toward animals. Hawthorne and SPCA/LA staff select from these participants a Peer Leader to serve as student advisor to the next group of TLC "greenhorns."

The graduation ceremony draws Peer Leaders and other TLC alumni back to cheer the newest graduates on. Dusty Baker, now at Leuzinger High School, says he puts what he learned in TLC into action whenever necessary.

"If I see people fighting, I tell them to talk it out," he explains. "One kid asked me how I learned to calm people down. I said I'd been in TLC."

Excitement mounts as, two by two, the young trainers and their dogs demonstrate their skills for the crowd. In Joan Melrod's view, pet tricks are only part of the story. The successes displayed here today, TLC helpers believe, are steps toward a more humane society.

For more information about the TLC program, contact:

Joan Melrod
SPCA/LA
5026 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
(213) 730-5300
Fax (213) 733-3141