What is Mutt-i-grees?
Matia Finn-Stevenson, Research Scientist and Director, Yale School of the 21st Century
The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum was developed as a collaboration between a world-renowned animal welfare organization, North Shore Animal League America and Yale University School of the 21st Century, part of the Yale Child Study Center. Mutt-i-grees strives to create a humane world and provide opportunities for children to grow up learning to be confident and caring – about themselves, other people and animals.
Inspired by the research on the benefits of human-animal interactions, in particular, dogs’ ability to help people become calm and socially connected, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum was developed to teach children Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills using canine-assisted activities and interactions. The program is a unique combination of humane education and social and emotional learning.
Social and emotional learning is an important part of education and academic achievement. Children face stresses in school and home and need to be equipped with effective skills and resources if they are to deal with the challenges of school life and beyond. To be socially and emotionally competent, children need self-awareness and understanding of the social world around them. In the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, we leverage children’s interest in pets as well as the benefits associated with pets, especially dogs, to promote children’s social and emotional competence, improve behavior and social interactions and enhance their awareness of shelter pets.
The opportunity to interact with pets, or simply routinely think about pets, can provide social support and increased health and wellbeing. The research also suggests that pets can increase sense of community and social interaction. Pets provide opportunities for important social and emotional growth, yet not every child has access to a companion animal.
The Mutt-i-grees curriculum builds on children's natural love of pets and provides a real-life context within which to teach social and emotional skills. Children and are supported to be caring and confident people who can make a difference to their school and wider community.
A series of lessons are designed to help children become resilient, identify their strengths, skills and talents and areas in which they can improve. The lessons are presented in five units: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Cooperation, and Dealing with Decisions. Activities and readings focus on dogs, and some schools choose to establish partnerships with their local animal shelter to give the children first hand experience of subject matter and bring the lessons to life.
Integrated throughout the curriculum are feature lessons based on dog whisperer Cesar Millan's principles. These features were developed to teach children about the instincts and behavior of dogs so they can better interact with and care for dogs. This also provides an interesting opportunity to explore social and emotional learning, as children can use the unique characteristics and behaviors of dogs to discuss differences in human personality, for example. It is also a chance to demonstrate to children the value of empathy and compassion.
Children have opportunities to explore how to encourage themselves, challenge self-doubt and negative thinking patterns and learn when to seek help. Self and social awareness is generated to enable children and their teachers to engage in positive relationships and make decisions based on ethics and responsibility, whilst avoiding negative behaviors. Using shelter dogs, traditionally vulnerable and misunderstood, provides a perfect talking point for these issues so that children can engage in complex topics without realizing they are doing so.
The program is a whole child approach to education, intended to extend beyond the weekly lessons and become part of the school culture.
The lessons have been field-tested with each grade level in classrooms across the USA, in schools of all sizes and in rural and urban areas.