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Cultivating Kindness Toward Animals

Chimka's students sat around a large rug emblazoned with a world map, leaning in to be close to the dogs. They crowded around to pet them but kept their voices low.

Under Alfonso's direction, the children learned how to train Shakespeare to stay still. Ronald Broadus, 10, went first. He held his palm in front of the dog's face and told him to stay. "Speak in a firm, nice voice, like a gym teacher," Alfonso said. "Not mean, but firm and nice."

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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Then Ronald strolled off, to test Shakespeare's discipline. "Look at him watching you," Alfonso said. "He knows you are in charge."

Shakespeare's reward was a treat, given by Ronald. Three more students repeated the lesson. Later, they all got a chance to feed him, giggling as they did. "He got slobber on my hand!" Ronald said. "It tickles!" said Gabriela Martinez, 9.

Shakespeare, like Alfonso's other animals, was rescued from a bad situation, she told the students. He was kept outside and named Fang in hopes that he would become a vicious guard dog. But he turned out to be a gentle soul, she told them, and now lives indoors as part of her family. She wanted to name him for a writer because she likes to read and considered Walt Whitman and Mark Twain before settling on Shakespeare because "he is shaky all over the place."

Spencer, who had closely observed Shakespeare getting all the attention, then got some of his own. There was a group petting, with children saying "ah!" as they stroked his soft fur. A few touched the wobbly area around his jaw. "It feels like Jell-O," said Bashir Sesay, 9.

Bashir told a story about being chased at a playground by a tiny dog, and Alfonso seized the opportunity for a lesson.

"If a dog chases you, do you run?" she asked. "No," several students replied. She instructed them to stand still, cross their arms and perhaps turn their head away. The dog probably will think "boring!" and go away, she said.

Duel offered up another reminder: to "be on the lookout" for animals in trouble. "Remember the sixth-graders who helped the duck?" she asked.

She was referring to four Tubman students, graduates of the dog program, who called the Washington Humane Society last year to report an injured duck. The Humane Society gave them an award this year.

"We had some sixth-graders who helped a pigeon last night," Chimka reported. The injured bird did not survive, but school officials applauded their efforts.

The program's supporters say that encouraging children to advocate for animals reinforces their commitment to doing the right thing in other situations. They cite research showing a link between childhood cruelty to animals and later violence against people, saying it underscores the importance of intervening early to stop animal abuse.

"The kids always want to help," Chimka said. "Like all kids, it's one of their highest priorities. This gives them a proactive way they can help animals and people in their community. It turns them into little activists, and they look for other ways they can help in their community, as well."

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