Not only do we get to visit and interact with the kids therapeutically (of course I'm not sure who gets the most therapeutic benefit -- Maddie, the kids, or me), I get to teach kids about dogs. Both last Wednesday and today my teaching centered on positive reinforcement dog training, and educating them on what puppy mills are. This is a dream opportunity, to be able to incorporate humane education topics along with my therapy dog work with Maddie ... to introduce love, respect, and positive treatment of dogs/animals to a group of high risk teens and hopefully make a difference both for the kids and animals they have contact with in the future. What an honor!
When I defined positive reinforcement training and gave some examples, one of the teens asked, "But how does positive reinforcement/rewarding good behavior work with juveniles -- don't you have to use other ways, too?"
I can see these folks are going to keep me on my toes! "Positive reinforcement doesn't mean there aren't consequences," I explained. I gave an example of a less than charming behavior of Maddie's when we first adopted her, where she grabbed anything that contained a tennis ball, whether it was a human hand or a flinger. One day at the dog park an innocent man was standing and talking to another person. His ball flinger rested on his left arm while he held it with his right hand. Maddie suddenly launched through the air and attached her mouth to the ball end of the flinger. After apologizing profusely to the man, I removed Maddie from the dog park.
"So the consequence was simply that Maddie didn't get to do something she enjoyed doing. There is no actual punishment, or telling her she's a bad dog," I said. The boy nodded and smiled. I sensed he really got it.
I later explained how in puppy mills dogs are stacked in cages, often with chicken wire floors that they never stepped out of. I shared that these dogs often never saw the light of day, were bred repeatedly, usually did not receive needed health care, and were disposed of when no longer needed. With the exception a couple of the teens who had an idea what a puppy mill was, the others were clearly surprised when I described the conditions and how the dogs are treated.
"So when you buy a dog from a pet store, the cute puppy in the window, you're actually supporting puppy mills," I told them.
Some of the kids looked a bit stunned, so I let that register for a moment. Then I made the distinction between puppy mills and responsible, reputable breeders. We talked about dog adoption, and how you can get just about any purebred dog from a breed rescue group.
"But what about the cute puppy in the pet store?" asked one of the boys. "It's not their fault they came from a puppy mill, and they need rescued too."
"That's a good point," I responded. I just want you to know that if you buy that puppy in the window that your money is supporting puppy mills. And often those pups from the mills end up with health problems."
And doesn't he make an excellent point? What is the answer to that one? It isn't the pup's fault, and they do need rescued! I think the answer lies in prevention and getting those pet stores to either close or adopt out rescued dogs instead, so the puppy doesn't end up there in the first place. Then puppy mills will have fewer outlets to sell puppies to.
"Why are puppy mills legal? I mean, how can they be?" asked another of the boys.
How do you explain that one? "Great question," I tell them. "Animal advocates are working to legislate changes, like reducing the number of dogs a facility can have, but the needed changes are slow."
"Why is something like dog fighting illegal but being locked in a cage 24/7 not illegal? They're both hurting the dog," comments another.
"Great point," I tell him. "I wish I could answer that one." I like these kids. So does Maddie. After each one tossed her toy for her, I gave them a verbal post-quiz for what we had covered. Their positive reinforcement for right answers? Jolly Rancher candies. Although I was a bit embarrassed by how many times I reached into Maddie's treat bag to give them a treat rather than the candy bag! Whoops!
I was moved by their attention and interest in our humane education topics. I thought these kids raised some great questions. What do you think? If you have responses to some of their questions I'd love to hear them.
Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life A Story of Love