Collingwood program connects students and shelter animals — with amazing results

More than 1300 young people from Collingwood, The Blue Mountains and Wasaga Beach have been given the chance to get to know shelter animals through a program designed to improve achievement and engagement.

The Humane Education program has been renewed to run for another three years

Enzo is just one of many shelter animals soaking up love and attention from students participating in the Humane Education program. (Karen Marsh/Humane Education)

A pilot program in the Collingwood area that connects young people and shelter animals has been renewed to keep running for another three years. 

Called Humane Education and run by the Georgian Triangle Humane Society, it has already included 1300 students from Collingwood, The Blue Mountains and the Wasaga Beach area. 

Karen Marsh, a former secondary school teacher who runs the program, said it has improved student achievement and helped to keep kids in school.

"We saw an overall increase in their social emotional skills of 18 per cent," she explained to Wei Chen, host of CBC's Ontario Morning

Marsh said the program runs in three different variations.

For students in Grades 6, 7, and 8, shelter animals are brought into the classroom. High school students at risk of dropping out are brought into the shelter for weekly visits. And, as part of an after-school program, the Humane Society offers pet sitting courses and a junior animal welfare program. 

In all variations, students spend time with the animals, learning to take care of them and learning about animal emotional intelligence, animal cruelty, pet behaviour, and how animals communicate.

Animal participants aren't limited to dogs and cats. Petunia the pig, pictured here, is also part of the program. (Karen Marsh/Humane Education)

Marsh said prior to the program, about half of the students in the classrooms displayed an inability to self-reflect and express frustration and anger effectively. She said during and following the program many of the students experienced personal growth.

"More of them were able to adopt positions of leadership. They showed increased willingness to participate in all of their classes. They showed an increased ability to follow direction and they demonstrated more self confidence when they worked in a group."

She said that 75 per cent of the students also said that they were more capable of persevering through difficult tasks and showing confidence while working independently.

Feedback from teachers has also been positive.

"Teachers report that the program provides a portal for teachers to talk about pain and abuse in the student's lives and that results in a heightened sense of empathy for others who are listening," noted Marsh.   

A kitten gets a snuggle from a student participating in Humane Education. The program runs for students from Grades 6 to 12. (Karen Marsh/Humane Education)

She described students as having a lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills beyond their immediate personal needs before participating in the program. She said they had little or no ability to recognize or provide empathy and were emotionally distant. Interacting with the animals resulted in increased levels of comfort and attention as well as elevated levels of compassion and empathy.

Marsh, who was a teacher in the Peel Region for 22 years and taught online courses for another two years, said she has never seen this level of student engagement before. 

"They begin to understand and connect that if these animals can trust humans and can very quickly show so much love and affection, then they start to make that connection themselves. The students begin to see themselves as those loving and caring animals," she said.