Therapy dogs reaching kids in hardest hit NYC communities, including some in the Bronx

The dog Slick with a student
Courtesy of Daniel Krieger.

As children are home dealing with the stress of COVID-19, one nonprofit is using dogs to calm their nerves.

Founded on the prison dog model, A Fair Shake for Youth has reached over 3,000 middle school youth through partnerships with over 60 schools and community organizations since its founding in 2010.

It helps middle school students build social and emotional skills through a structured hands-on therapy dog program. Following a 10-week curriculum, kids learn dog-handling skills and discuss dog-related topics that often resonate with their own life experience including animal shelters, second chances and breed discrimination. As kids work with the dogs they learn about themselves and each other.

During COVID-19, A Fair Shake has pivoted from in-school programming to now completing seven weeks of online learning and engaging live sessions with therapy dogs. It works with many schools in the south Bronx including Bronx Latin at 800 Home St. The programs include activities and virtual sessions with registered therapy dogs, their volunteer handlers and experienced instructors.

“The experience has been so joyful for both the kids and the school staff,” said Taina Benjamin, English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the Bronx Latin School. “A lot of the kids have been anxious, but the dogs have really helped calm them and give them something to look forward to. To answer questions about dogs and interact with an animal gives them a different and fun way to interact with content so the kids don’t mind responding and participating. The dogs help us create momentum with the kids.”

As schools closed, the organization created a custom “school portal” in which teachers and social workers access lessons that relate to the dog and volunteer teams. Each of the first six lessons cover a social-emotional learning topic. The lessons are designed to be short, fun and flexible depending on need, technical capabilities and individual student needs.

Lessons include both a one-page teacher’s guide and a one-page student guide. All visitors to the website can visit the “Meet the Dogs” page to learn more about each dog in a social-emotional context.

Following the pivot to distance learning, A Fair Shake for Youth has engaged with nearly 100 students in the city’s hardest hit communities. As the academic year comes to a close, the organization is working with schools to provide enrichment programming to keep students engaged as caregivers and parents see summer camps and programs canceled.

It has worked with: Bronx School of Young Leaders, Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School, East Fordham Academy for the Arts, Mott Haven Academy Charter School, P.S. 306, South Bronx Early College Academy, WHEDco, New Directions Secondary School and Bronx School for New Media.

Audrey Hendler, founder and executive director of A Fair Shake for Youth, feels the transition to remote programming has gone smoothly. Being able to provide even a brief respite of relief for the kids during these challenging times is important, she said.

“We recognize that the need for our work is not only vital now as our kids continue to experience loss and ongoing trauma, but will be a necessity as we see the secondary effects of the unprecedented  stress and trauma they are experiencing set in,” Hendler said.

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