UPPER WEST SIDE — These dogs make a difference.
A local organization is pairing therapy dogs with at-risk youth to help lift kids' spirits and show them that they matter, its founder said.
"Dogs make it safe for the kids to figure out who they are and who they want to be," said Audrey Hendler, founder of the Upper West Side-based A Fair Shake for Youth. "[Dogs] live in the moment, they’re non-judgmental."
Hendler noticed that while there were programs that brought dogs into prisons, hospitals and senior homes, there were not programs aimed at harnessing the power of dogs to shape positive development in kids.
"Why are we waiting until kids are all grown up to bring them the amazing impact of dogs?" Hendler wondered.
A Fair Shake for Youth, founded in late 2010, has now reached 400 New York City kids by working in a handful schools and youth programs, she said. About 35 dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds, half of which were rescued from shelters, head into classrooms and youth programs across the city to interact with kids. Two to three dogs at a time are led by their owners to meet with small groups of 15 or so students. They are certified as "therapy dogs," meaning they are friendly and good with people.
Focused on serving middle-schoolers living in poverty, A Fair Shake's curriculum is split into hour-and-a-half sessions spread over 10 weeks. It starts with kids interacting and training dogs, followed by talking about care for dogs, shelters, different breeds and other topics related to humane treatment.
Kids teach the dogs everything from going through tunnels or over a jump to sitting, staying and rolling over.
"It becomes a non-threatening way to learn lessons about empathy, about compassion, about trust," Hendler said.
"We find that kids that aren’t interested in working with each other, when it’s about the dog going through the tunnel, it’s a whole different ball game," she said.
The program is now in its fourth year at SoHo's Broome Street Academy charter school, where staff said it lets kids be themselves.
"It's hard to be a kid in 2013," said director of admissions Sarah Kornhauser, of the ninth-graders who select the program as a school activity. "This really lifts them up."
The time spent with the dogs relaxes students who are sometimes surrounded by chaos and stress, she said.
"A lot of them are really on edge a lot of the time. They have a tendency to fight and be unkind to each other," Kornhauser said.
After bonding with a dog week after week, she explained, "they’re a little more open to what other people have to say and constructive criticism."
The reliability of the dog and its owner showing up every week teaches kids that they're cared for, Hendler added. When they see the progress of the dog's training, they get a self-esteem boost, she said.
Many of the kids lack adults in their lives who are present and able to show the child that he or she matters and that their actions matter, Hendler explained.
"Some kids are surprised that the dogs like them," she said.
Volunteer Barbara Johnson said that her dog — a mix between German Shepherd and the Australian breed Blue Heeler — is extremely gentle with the kids.
Cousin Sam, or Sam for short, is about 4 years old and has worked with the kids for two years, the owner said.
"She looks like a wolf that could be in the wild," said Johnson of Sam, adding that her rugged appearance often appeals to boys.
When the kids succeed in teaching Sam to jump over a hurdle, they get a flow of positive reinforcement from the dog, in turn boosting their self-esteem and lessening the chances they'll bully other kids, Johnson said.
"These dogs know they’re doing something," she said, noting that Sam loves the attention and socializing.
The dog also seems to make an effort with the more hesitant kids in the group, Johnson said, and everybody leaves feeling good.
"For a kid to see that they have possibilities," Hendler said, "they have to be happy."