Dog Program Teaches School Kids New Tricks

Montecito Union School students were in for a doggone good time. And they learned something too.

With the help of the American Kennel Club, a handful of first grade students learned all about how to be kind to canine citizens in Montecito Union’s after-school program, Compassion for Critters.

The program, part of the school’s after-school enrichment agenda, recently welcomed Canine Ambassadors, a volunteer organization consisting of participants and their four-legged friends from the Channel City Kennel Club.

The ambassadors and their four-legged friends taught students how to safely approach dogs, care for their own dog and they allowed students to become comfortable with and pet the presentation dogs.

“Let him sniff your hand and then you can pet him,” said Tom Freeman, the club’s founder, as two Montecito Union boys cautiously approached his Golden Retriever and gently stroked the animal.

The dogs of Canine Ambassadors are all well-trained show animals that can also perform a few tricks for the crowd. The dogs danced, counted, fetched and one even skateboarded, much to the delight of the children, who clapped and laughed.

“It’s important to share the message of compassion towards animals to kids,” says Karen Lee Stevens, the creator of Compassion for Critters and Montecito Journal “Adopt a Pet” columnist. ”If kids can get that message, they’re going to grow up to be more compassionate not only to animals, but they’re going to be kinder to people in general.”

In addition to helping educate owners on how to show and care for their dog and conducting AKC dog shows and obedience trials, the club also holds AKC Good Citizenship Tests, an evaluation that proves the dog can walk quietly on a leash, sit and heel on command and tolerate brushing and loud noises.

Once they pass the test, the Channel City dogs can visit schools like Montecito Union and “teach children to appreciate, love and respect dogs,” says Freeman, who is a coordinator for Canine Ambassadors.

Stevens, who has been teaching Compassion for Critters for a year now, also runs a non-profit organization called All for Animals. She runs a website, www.allforanimals.com, and used to be KEYT’s “Pet of the Week” host. Through her column in the Journal and in other publications she tries to incorporate her message of kindness to animals.

Compassion for Critters will also visit with rabbits, birds, reptiles and a paralyzed pug named Molly, who has her own wheelchair. Stevens says Molly’s owner will “talk to the kids about what it’s like to be different and how it doesn’t really matter if you can walk or what you can do.”

Stevens wants to add a variety of animals in the fold to inspire students to develop respect for all kinds of different animals, not just the cute, furry ones. So far, the program seems to be working.

“I have one little girl in my class who…is here every week and she’s in the front row telling me she wants to be a veterinarian,” Stevens says. “That’s who I’m speaking to.”