When I was a little boy growing up in Mexico, I always hung out with the dogs, listening to them and learning from them like my grandfather had taught me. But there was no honor in my own country — other kids called me “el perrero.” It means “dog boy,” but the insult is a lot stronger in Spanish than it sounds in English.
In many countries today, there are children who are not honored by their peers. The problem has affected not only the US, but countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well. Studies have shown that children who are bullied are far more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide and, according to a Yale University report, the bullies are, as well.
In 2009, I decided to have my Foundation do something about it, to use dogs to help teach children to have empathy. We teamed up with North Shore Animal League and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century to support their Mutt-i-grees program, which began in September of that year.
To date, the program has reached nearly 100,000 students in 2,000 schools, and is about to expand, as planned, into high schools. Using children’s natural affinity for animals, the curriculum helps build social and emotional skills — empathy, self-esteem, team-building — to help the kids better care for themselves, the people around them, and animals.
The goal of the program is prevention, not intervention, by giving children the skills and confidence to avoid becoming bullies or victims. The dogs involved in the program are not the students; they are the teachers. A child who learns how to calm down an anxious or excited dog will have that life skill as an adult, greatly enhancing her connection with other people in the long run.
At the heart of the Mutt-i-grees program is the importance of listening to and following our instincts instead of our intellect. Children are not naturally bullies. This behavior is learned and is based on arbitrary judgments.
It may be the child who is shorter and smaller who gets bullied, or it may be the one whose parents can’t afford very expensive shoes of the “right” brand. It might be the child born with a physical difference from the majority — whether race, hair color, or ability. It can be the child who does not learn as quickly as the others, or the child who learns too fast. In all cases, though, it is not natural for children to identify and attack each other for these trivial exterior differences. These behaviors are learned, not instinctual.
What is instinctual is empathy — the ability to understand how other people are feeling and to take their feelings into consideration when dealing with them. However, fear is the enemy of empathy, and it is exactly when we need our children to most develop their empathy that we toss them into this big scary thing called “school,” then expect them to learn all of the surface social rules on their own.
The children who are made most insecure by this process are the ones most likely to become the biggest bullies, in misplaced self-defense. Remember: a fearful dog bites; a secure dog doesn’t need to. Lashing out is one of the instinctual reactions to fear, after all — the other one being retreat. There’s nothing wrong with the instinct. It’s fear that should not be part of the equation.
I’m very proud to be a part of bringing the Mutt-i-grees curriculum to schools all across the country, in partnership with North Shore Animal League, Pet Savers Foundation, and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century. With this program, I hope that we can teach children empathy and respect and prevent bullying and its tragic consequences before they can ever happen. We are also teaching everyone the value of shelter dogs as companions and teachers.
Our schools are one of the most important resources on the planet, because they create our future parents and leaders. With Mutt-i-grees, however, I hope that we can teach the most important aspect of leadership. Before you can be a leader, you must learn to follow, and you must learn to follow the right thing.
The right thing would be your instincts, and the best teachers are dogs. I learned that when I was called el perrero as a child. As an adult, I am proud to be able to teach it now.