Care Without Cruelty

Natalie Keegan knew she wanted to use her background in dog training and violence prevention to teach children from high-poverty and vulnerable communities how to care for and treat dogs without relying on negative forms of discipline.

What she didn’t know was that by doing so, she’d also be teaching the young people how to care for and treat one another without resorting to negative behaviors.

“I wanted to blend my prevention research experience with my love for animals so that I could play an active role in animal cruelty prevention, especially here in Baltimore city,” Keegan says. “Then I saw that the benefit to young people was equally important. To borrow a great quote from Bradley Millar, “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”

Keegan will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to improve and expand upon her Kids-4-K9s program, which uses the natural bond between children and animals to teach youth to control their anger, find non-violent and non-coercive ways to solve conflicts and increase their ability to empathize. Keegan will bring therapy dogs into two schools to safely encourage less aggressive behavior among city youth.

“I use only positive reinforcement, no bullying,” Keegan says. “You can teach a dog to do just about anything if you offer them a click and a treat. It seems like magic, but it’s not. The point is, there are much more effective and positive methods to achieve the results that you want.”

Keegan says her work with therapy dogs in Yorkwood Elementary School in East Baltimore and John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School in Highlandtown is fun work, both for her and for the first- through fifth-graders.

“But it’s so much more serious than it comes off,” she says. “It is well-documented that youth in Baltimore City are frequently witnesses to violent behavior, and many have experienced traumatic losses related to this violence. Some manifest their anger by harming animals or bullying their peers or other innocent people. And incidents of this kind of behavior seem to be on the rise. With this program, we can teach the young people how to empathize.”
Kids-4-K9s’ humane education philosophy is rooted in the idea that there is a natural bond between children and animals—especially dogs, Keegan says.

“This bond can have a transformative effect on both,” she says.

Keegan tells a story about a nine-year-old boy who threw rocks at a neighborhood dog to avoid appearing afraid of the dog in front of his friends. With help from Keegan and her dogs, he “discovered that dogs can actually feel things very much like people can,” Keegan says.

He started talking to the dog, saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Good boy!’ as he walked by. Before long, the dog stopped barking at him and instead now sniffs the air and wags his tail. This made the youth feel better about himself and Keegan believes it helped to change the way he treated his friends at school. Keegan says she hopes that “instead of getting mad when things don’t go his way, he tries to think about it from the other person’s point of view and he tries to consider what he can do differently.”

Keegan hopes to expand her program over the course of her fellowship to possibly include middle- and high-school students. She also will monitor just how successful the program is in fostering less aggressive and disruptive behaviors, more cooperation and compassion toward fellow students and better problem-solving abilities among young people.

“It really changes the school environment,” she says.

Keegan, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, has two golden doodles and a rescue dog named Jack.

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