Students Can Earn Their Mutt-i-Gress in New York City Schools

Lori Ennis
by Lori Ennis
A new approach to education, schools in New York City are bringing in dogs to actively engage students and promote social and emotional competence.

When Carmen Fariña came out of retirement in 2014, she did so to become the New York City Schools Chancellor, and to tackle the job of cultivating leaders from today’s educational institutions. Fariña is the feisty teacher and principal who is currently the Head of New York City’s Department of Education, and she believes that empowerment and leadership can begin at any age–the earlier, the better.

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So it’s no surprise that when she met with a fifth-grade student council in Queens last year, she listened when they told her that what their school needed was dogs. Lots of dogs.

Fariña thought that interesting, as she told a group at a NY Law school function last week, and listened as one young man told her that dogs could really make a difference in how children’s days at school went. Fariña said that she was so compelled by his argument, she took the info right back to her team, who essentially thought she was not quite right.

But then, they at least granted her the courtesy of looking into the idea and found a way to bring dogs into school under a comfort dog program. Using the dogs to help give children lessons in empathy and resilience under Mutt-i-grees, a program created by a Yale University researcher, dogs entered schools to help in several different ways. With autistic children, dogs can help in the special-education program, and in other situations, the children can find instant calm and relatability.

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At the schools in which dogs participate, staff members home the dogs and bring them to school with them each day. Students find them calming and like counselors, only in dog form, and Fariña says that by this September, there will be over 60 dogs in her schools.

Fariña says the feedback from the students has been overwhelming, not only because of what the dogs bring to the children but their sense of accomplishment in the fruition of their idea, and she believes that the success of the program shows that leaders of tomorrow have to be allowed to use their voices today. Bark, Bark! We agree!

Lori Ennis
Lori Ennis

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