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Cultivating Kindness Toward Animals

Humane Society Program Sends Dogs to Schools

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page DZ10

Jennifer Alfonso walked down the hallway at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights, creating a small stir as she went.

"It's a dog!" one teacher exclaimed, leaning out the doorway of his classroom to watch. "No, two dogs!"

Shakespeare, a Labrador retriever mix, watches instruction in the Sharing Positive Experiences -- Animals & Kids program along with students in a fourth-grade class at Harriet Tubman Elementary. At left, Jonathan Gonzalez, 9, walks with Jennifer Alfonso, a Humane Society volunteer, and her dogs. The dog program "has taught our kids so much about kindness," said Tubman Elementary's principal, Sadia White. "That's something you learn, and it stays with you." (Photos Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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"Look at the doggies," a child murmured as Alfonso and her Labrador retrievers passed by.

Alfonso, 35, and her animals barely turned their heads. Spencer, a 12-year-old yellow Lab, and Shakespeare, a 2-year-old black Lab mix, kept their cool because they are regular visitors in elementary school classrooms. Alfonso is a volunteer in a Washington Humane Society program that educates children about animals and attempts to instill a sense of caring about them.

The four-year-old program operates in three D.C. schools: Tubman, Ross Elementary School and Prospect Learning Center. It serves children in mixed-income neighborhoods where many people do not have pets and where many of the dogs they see are fiercely barking guard dogs.

The program is intended to encourage selflessness and give children a sustained chance to bond with animals. But first, many have to get over their fear of them.

"A lot of them are scared," Alfonso said, "and it does take some time for them to build their confidence. It makes them feel better about themselves, as well as increase their empathy toward animals."

The twice-a-month program, called Sharing Positive Experiences -- Animals & Kids (SPEAK, for short), recently won an award from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"It has taught our kids so much about kindness," said Tubman principal Sadia White, whose school offers an abbreviated version of the program in its two other fourth-grade classrooms. "That's something you learn, and it stays with you."

The children spend the first semester learning about dogs. They calculate the cost of feeding a dog, so they learn that caring for a free animal is not free. They add up how many puppies a dog can have, a lesson in overpopulation intended to emphasize the need to spay or neuter. They are urged to telephone the Humane Society if they see an abused animal.

The children don't meet their classroom dog until January. Mindful of the recent controversy in which parents at Eaton Elementary School complained that they had not been notified that a cat sterilization clinic would be held in the building, Humane Society education director Debbie Duel said, the society asks children whether they are allergic to dogs.

A sign above the door in Cory Chimka's fourth-grade classroom at Tubman explains the four rules for the children during the dogs' visits: Raise your hand if you want to pet the dog. Talk softly, one at a time. Check the floor, and make sure everything is put away. Show respect for the dogs and their owner.

Chimka was named this month by the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education as the KIND (Kids in Nature's Defense) teacher of the year, an award that has been given for 24 years. The group is affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States.

Alfonso surprised the students by bringing Shakespeare for his first visit March 15. They had met Spencer and another of Alfonso's dogs, Citron, a 10-year-old Labrador retriever. Citron died unexpectedly in February, and Shakespeare was pressed into service. Alfonso told the students that she planned to scatter Citron's ashes and showed them a mold she had made of the dog's paw print. She promised to show them X-rays so they could see the dog's brain and heart."Remember how you were worried about Spencer, that he would be so sad?" she asked them. "He's much better now."

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