Los Angeles pet lovers.
Melissa was in the 4th grade. When she first walked into class, I was struck how drawn and colorless her face was. She walked with a kind of vacant stare, always looking out of the corner of her dark eyes and never looking you in the face. She didn't smile. If you approached her or reached out to touch her arm, she would quickly withdraw and back away. The teachers hoped our animal-assisted therapy program, Nonviolence Works might allow her to reach out to the world a little more.
The first day of class was held without dogs, except for my Portuguese Water Dog, Molly. Molly has been my trustworthy partner for 8 years and has probably been petted by 5000 children. She helps children learn how to approach and pet a dog and demonstrates "dog-speak," the body language dogs use to communicate. Molly is God's gift to children, the world, and especially me.
On the second day of class, Melissa was introduced to her dog, a five-month-old Whippet named Devo. At first she didn't know what to make of the jumping, barking little dog but with a lot of gentle encouragement, she hesitantly reached out and began to pet him. Just like the training process with dogs, we let Melissa proceed at her own comfortable speed and by the end of the next day Melissa was sitting on the ground allowing Devo to jump onto her lap and off again. The tightness in her face began to soften and I noticed the faint glimmer of a smile.
All through week two, most of the children in class progressed rapidly. Two decided they weren't really interested in the responsibilities of feeding and cleaning up the poop and by week three, they were gone. But Melissa never missed a class. The children had the dogs sitting and lying down, staying in place and going to their beds. They learned they could get their dogs to do all of these things without having to hit, kick, shock, shake, or jerk them on a leash.
They trained and groomed their dogs with kindness and affection. They listened to their dog's heartbeat through a stethoscope when a guest veterinarian visited to talk about health and give each dog a vaccination. The high point of each class however was the daily walk. The children were taught how to hold the leash, have their dog sit before crossing the street (it was a low traffic cul-du-sac), and while walking, occasionally ask their dog to come when called. But children being children and dogs being dogs, every walk inevitably turned into a run.
Seeing ears flapping, tails wagging and children joyously yelling while running down the hill after their dogs, summed up the Nonviolence Works program perfectly. For some of these children, Nonviolence Works provides rare opportunities for them to actually be children. They can have fun in a safe environment. They know they are protected and we see the joy in their beaming faces and feel their happiness and trust.
At the end of the third week, Melissa's mother showed up for class. Parents, guardians, and teachers are always invited to watch the classes. But Melissa lived with her aunt and grandmother. While I was instructing another student, the mother walked straight up to Melissa, who was seated on the ground with Devo. I couldn't hear what she said but Melissa started to cry and my assistant instructor, Stacy, put her arms around the sobbing little girl and held her. Stacy gave me a sign and the two of them left class for a walk. A few minutes later they returned and Melissa went back to petting little Devo. Stacy signaled everything was OK and class continued.
After class, I made a point to praise Melissa for her courage and bravery, and she allowed me to give her a little hug. When the children had all left, Stacy related what had happened. Melissa's mother never said hello or acknowledged her. And who knows how long it had been since they had seen each other. She had walked up to this sweet little girl and said, " I think your dog is ugly." Then she left. Poor little Melissa was heartbroken. I asked Stacy what she said to console her. She said, "I didn't really know what to say. So I asked her if she thought Devo was beautiful. She nodded her head yes. Then I asked her if she loved Devo. She managed to whisper a yes. So I said it really doesn't matter what other people think sometimes. All that's important is that you think Devo is beautiful and that you love him. And Devo loves you."
My heart was in my throat and I smiled and thanked Stacy profusely. She was perfect. From that day on, Melissa began to smile more and she volunteered to clean up after class and to walk the dogs to the cars. At graduation, this shy, wonderful little girl got up in front of forty people and showed them what she had learned in class. Devo sat, laid down, and stayed in position as Melissa walked around him. She knelt down to pet him and give him a treat. And the smile never left her face. Everyone applauded as she received her diploma. We instructors all had tears in our eyes.
It is for children like Melissa the Nonviolence Works program was created. One-by-one, with the help of animals, each child learns that there are other ways to get along with family, friends, and the environment -- ways that can replace fear, anger, and frustration. Children learn the value of practicing kindness, respect, compassion, and responsibility. In short, they learn, nonviolence works.
(Paul Owens, with Norma Eckroate, is the author of The Dog Whisperer; A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training, and is the founder/director of Raise with Praise, Inc., a nonprofit educational organization. He is a member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers APDT).
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