Audrey Hendler wasn’t always a non-profit executive. In fact, a few years ago, she ran her own successful marketing consultancy and held key positions at Citibank. But after spending some time as an instructor for Puppies Behind Bars – a program that trains inmates to raise service dogs – she had something of an epiphany: Why are we waiting for these people to land in prison before we try to help them in this way? Why aren’t we intervening at an age when it could be most beneficial?
As A Fair Shake For Youth’s website states:
Kids growing up today face many challenges and temptations that can derail them. For the 31% of New York City kids growing up in poverty, the challenges are often even greater… abuse, neglect, inadequate healthcare, poor schools and housing, a parent in prison. Kids may miss the foundations for empathy – unconditional love, having one’s physical and emotional needs met, and feeling safe. These kids may never see themselves as worthy or lovable. They may not be able to envision a life beyond their own neighborhood.
That’s why Hendler founded A Fair Shake For Youth in 2010. In the five years since, she’s built over 25 affiliations with schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the South Bronx.
BarkPost had the good fortune of visiting one one of A Fair Shake For Youth’s sessions at a Brooklyn school back in December. The three therapy dogs that regularly visit the class include Lady (an English Bulldog), Niko (a Doberman Pinscher), and Phoebe (a Labradoodle).
Lady the English Bulldog
Niko the Doberman Pinscher
Phoebe the Labradoodle
Naturally, the kids loved the dogs, from Lady’s silly, lovable disposition to Niko’s size and affection to Phoebe’s sweet, calm demeanor.
When I visited, it was at the end of December, so Audrey Hendler wanted to finish out the semester with a fun, engaging activity: agility. In this instance, she brought an agility tunnel with her for the dogs to run through with the help of the kids.
Children were assigned different roles in facilitating the dogs’ movements. One was given the leadership role – he or she would lead the dog to the tunnel. Several kids sat on either side of the tunnel walls, holding the tunnel in place as the dog ran through. And finally, another child sat at the opposite side of the tunnel, trying to coax the dog to run (with treats, “Come!” commands, etc.) to him or her. It should be noted that each kid got a chance to try out every role.
Some dogs were better at passing through the tunnel than others (it took Lady a couple tries), but that’s okay – squeezing through a weird, snake-like tube can be an unsettling experience for anybody. And of course, agility is not something a therapy dog has to master in the first place.
The kids risked getting in trouble for having phones to take pictures of the dogs
The point of this exercise seems rather obvious when you think about it. Not only are the kids just having good, healthy fun, they’re also working with each other and learning new skills with regard to interacting with dogs. It’s a win/win/win/win situation.
When I visited A Fair Shake For Youth, there wasn’t enough time to do much besides the agility – the kids were just having too much fun – but typically, sessions would involve both an activity and a lesson. What kind of lessons? According to Hendler:
We talk about breed discrimination, we talk about shelter and rescue, we talk about puppy mills, we talk about dog body language [and] human body language. That’s all about communication. We talk about working dogs. You know, we talk about breed discrimination, but the next lesson after that is about pre-judging [and how it relates to people].
[…] Then we have all kinds of things that are hands-on. The kids start by learning how to give the dogs commands, and that’s all about praising the dogs, which is a really good low-concept. The hardest thing all semester is getting the kids to give praise. They have to remember, [rewarding] is not just about giving treats, it’s also about using praise. And that’s certainly something that relates to the kids’ life experiences, way too much. The kids don’t know how to give praise and aren’t comfortable giving praise because they don’t get it enough.
These lessons serve two functions, as you can probably tell: 1) they promote general positivity about dogs for these kids and 2) they teach human lessons through the (very entertaining) lens of dogs. Of course, it’s all done in the service of bettering these kids’ lives and helping them with whatever issues they have to deal with on a daily basis.
During my visit, I was told that children who didn’t often go to school were more likely to attend if the dogs were expected to be there (one child in particular made it a point to be there for every Fair Shake session; the other days of the week, not so much). Children who were shy and closed off became more open and outspoken over the course of the semester. Kids who had trouble socializing in September had friends by December. Grades even improved for some.
At this point, the Fair Shake program has been so successful that they’ve got a waiting list for schools who want to work with them. What they need is more dogs – more therapy dogs to get the program and its message out there. But not just any old dog can be a therapy dog. Therapy dogs need to be hygienic, healthy, good around other dogs, good around all kinds of people (especially kids, in this case), physically calm, and psychologically sound and non-reactive.
Does that sound like your dog? If the answer is yes – and if you live in the New York area – he or she could become a therapy dog and work with A Fair Shake For Youth. All you need to do is properly register him or her through Good Dog Foundation, Pet Partners, or another officially recognized therapy dog registration program.
But dogs aren’t the only thing A Fair Shake needs. Because it’s a non-profit, it exists primarily because of the individual contributions of its donors. Donations go toward supporting staff and trainers, books, equipment, transportation, field trips, and treats and toys for the dogs.
In an effort to bring its mission to the many NY schools on the aforementioned waiting list, Fair Shake has launched a fundraising campaign with BarkGive. Audrey and co. need $10,000 to reach their goal and have so far only raised $251. If you’re able, please considering donating to the cause. At the $50 level, you get a gift certificate for one month’s worth of BarkBox (and also that wonderful feeling when you know you’ve done good in the world).