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Shelters Spotlight: How the Mutt-i-grees Movement Teaches Compassion and Self-Confidence Through Pets

This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

When was the last time you saw one word become the impetus for social change? In the late 1990s, animal shelter pioneer North Shore Animal League America created the term “Mutt-i-grees.” Their intention was to flip the negative connotation of the word “mutt” and convey the desirability of shelter animals as healthy pets that are smart, loyal and loving companions. The National Mutt-i-grees Registry was formed for pet owners with mixed breeds to register their pets online, and August 1 was declared as “World Mutt-i-grees Rescue Day,” to raise awareness about the value of shelter animals.

The Mutt-i-gree Movement encouraged more shelter adoptions through mobile adoption efforts and advertising campaigns. In collaboration with the Yale School of the 21st Century, and with a grant from the Cesar Millan Foundation, Animal League America also worked to ensure that the program would have long-term impact as an education and advocacy tool. By creating the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, now implemented in 2,000 schools across the United States and Canada, Yale and NSALA built upon children’s natural affinity for pets. Children learn from an early age to be responsible and humane with animals, as well as caring and compassionate to others.

Matia Finn-Stevenson, Research Scientist and Director of Yale School of 21st Century, says, “We were seeing a lot of stress and behavioral issues in schools and when NSALA approached us about creating a curriculum around Mutt-i-grees, we thought it would perfectly align with our goals to develop a social and emotional learning program.”

At the core of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum are 25 lessons broken into five units that teach students in Pre-K through 12th grade self-awareness, empathy, relationship building, decision-making, and self-confidence. Shelter dogs are brought into classrooms, or students visit local shelters. In either case, children learn firsthand the value of shelter pets and often become advocates for them. Devera Lynn, Senior Vice President of Communications and National Outreach for Mutti-grees, says, “Local shelters benefit immensely from the partnership with local schools, because students are more aware of shelters as resources for pets, and they raise awareness among their families and communities.”

Some schools, like the Pacoima Charter School in California, have school-based kennels on their campuses to house stray dogs from their neighborhoods. PCS works with their local animal control department to see if the strays are microchipped. If the animals don’t have owners, students often arrange animal adoption events and visits for community members, teachers, and parents. Through these interactions, the shelter animals learn to socialize and become comfortable around children. And, in turn, students learn to be responsible neighbors by caring for local strays, while the community realizes that shelter pets can instill a sense of compassion in youth.

Photo: Pacoima Charter School’s Kennel

Because the curriculum is flexible and adaptable for any classroom, many teachers exercise creative freedom when writing lesson plans. Kindergarten teacher Tammy Cole from School of the 21st Century in Paragould, Arkansas, had her students collaborate with a church group to make a quilt of fabric squares that the kindergartners painted with images of Mutt-i-grees. As a team, the church group members and students auctioned the quilt off for NSALA. Their effort raised awareness about the beauty of shelter pets not only in Cole’s school, but also across older generations.

Photo: The quilt Tammy Cole’s students made with their community church members

Most recently, NSALA announced three first place classroom grant winners of their yearly Public Service Announcement contest. Classrooms across the nation were given the chance to show how students’ perceptions of shelter pets changed by creating PSAs that motivated Americans to adopt from a shelter, using the word “Mutt-i-gree.” Through these PSAs, students not only exercised their creativity, but also became a part of a national awareness campaign.

From June 1 to June 15, you too can get involved in the Mutt-i-gree campaign by voting for the classrooms you think should win in the Second Chance PSA Contest. And, to show pride in an adoption you’ve made, become a part of the Mutt-i-grees Movement by registering your shelter pet in the National Mutt-i-grees Registry. As the registry grows, the visibility of shelter pets will increase, and more potential pet owners will recognize that shelter animals make great companions.

Photo: Elementary school volunteers work with Renée Felice Smith on a PSA for the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum

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