Chester by Madison 400x252The single most important thing that dogs bring to the education roundtable is emotional integrity. By nature dogs are loving, curious, eager to please, and incapable of dishonesty. Their love is not based on how we look, what we know, or how we perform. In short, they are doorways to what we instinctively know is a genuine way of being in the world. This makes them great touchstones and mentors for kids – a way to introduce and allow them to practice emotional intelligence along with intellectual skills.

Here at CritterKin, we have been using the dogs’ stories and related themes as a springboard for project based learning – a way to give kids the chance to make what they learn in the classroom relevant to their daily lives. To give you an idea of what’s possible let me share my experiences with the 4th 5th and 6th graders at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, NC.

The CritterKin packed of mixed breed dogs is composed of 8 fun-loving pups and their slightly goofy leader, Ms. Jenaia. Like each of us, each dog is exploring certain issues and themes. Doxie is a compulsive digger who hasn’t found a way to channel his exuberance; Lance is a misunderstood pit bull who must cope with prejudice and bullying; and Mariah is a grump whose negative outlook on life causes her all kinds of problems. You get the idea.

The theme we chose to explore with the kids was “kindness.” The CritterKin dog associated with this theme is Ricky Bobby, a tiny seven-pound dachshund rescued from a puppy mill. The neglect Ricky suffered in that facility left his back legs paralyzed. However, thanks to the efforts of his rescuers, veterinarians, and the woman who adopted him, Ricky now has both a loving home and a custom built cart to get around in. His story is a perfect way to illustrate the power of kindness.

At Endeavor, I read Ricky’s story from “Meet the Mutts” aloud and encouraged the kids to repeat the sounds the dogs made. Since each class had 57 students, the walls of the room shook when the kids cheerfully repeated, “Wow, Wow, Wow!” “Not Good, Not Good, Not Good!” and “Yes, Yes, Yes!”

So loud did we become at one point that another teacher poked his head in to ask, “Everything okay here?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” we replied with gleeful abandon. The teacher grinned and closed the door.

Next on the agenda was a discussion of what happened in the story and its underlying messages. Kindness is not always easy for kids to understand. They’ve been told by adults to be nice, don’t talk back to your parents, don’t hit your baby brother, etc. but can rarely give practical examples of what it means to be kind. The trick to helping them understand was to use a story that was both concrete and translated readily to their lives. Ricky Bobby’s life in the puppy mill, where he felt lonely and misunderstood, was something the kids could relate to. “How many of you have ever felt sad and lonely?” I asked. Every hand was in the air.

“Was it kind not to take Ricky Bobby to the vet?” I asked the kids.

“Noooooo!” they replied in unison.

“So are your parents being kind when they take you to the doctor for a shot?”

“Yes….” They grudgingly admit.

“Do you think Ricky Bobby’s new person is kind to him?”


“How do you know? What does a dog need to be happy and healthy?” I asked. It was time to make the lesson practical as well as personal. I went to the white board and started a list.  Hands flew into the air and our list grew quickly.

Next, I handed out sheets of paper with pictures of  real dogs at the top. “These are real dogs waiting for their homes in the local animal shelter,” I told them. “Let’s learn how to draw them.”

Simple instructions on “how to draw a dog” followed. You can see the instructions:

Finally, I asked, “Why do you think I told the story from Ricky Bobby’s point of view?”  The kids got it right away.

“Because you wanted us to understand what he felt,” said one boy.

“He knows his story better than you,” said a 4th grader dressed in reindeer antlers.

“That’s right!” I agree. “So now I’d like you to tell me your dog’s story.” I read them a very simple example from a profile I wrote about an elderly beagle looking for a home: “Hello there, my name is Claire and I am the very best beagle ever. Do you know why? I am well trained, beautiful, and a full grown adult. That means I won’t chew your shoes or pee on your carpet. If you take me home, I promise to love you for the rest of my life.”

The kids got to work, and by the time the period ended they had two pieces of art – a drawing and a story – to share with their friends, families and all of us. The kids sent me off with hugs. Ten minutes later I signed out at the front desk, loaded my drawing materials into my trunk and sat grinning behind the wheel of my car. I’d just caught a glimpse of what kids can do if both their emotional and intellectual intelligence are nurtured simultaneously. And that, my friends is a good thing.                        ~ Jena Ball

To see a complete lesson plan, go to
I hope you will give it a try and write to me with your thoughts and suggestions at