Puppy program brings message to class

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

FORT DEFIANCE, Feb. 16,2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

In a pilot program for elementary schools, Navajo Nation Puppy Program Director Kendra Wapaha shows Carolyn Marlow's 1st-grade class at Tse Ho Tso Elementary in Fort Defiance a picture of a neglected dog and asks, "How does this picture make you feel? How do you think the dog feels?"

The fight to end canine overpopulation on the reservation has entered the classroom.

Under a tribal initiative at Tséhootsooí Elementary School in Fort Defiance, a new generation of Navajos is learning the basics of humane animal care.

"Through them were hoping to change a nation," said Kendra Wapaha, community outreach coordinator for the Navajo Nation Puppy Adoption Program.

Wapaha runs the education initiative at the elementary.

The adoption program has been part of the tribe's Veterinary & Livestock Program since the 1990s and is complemented by the agency's work with off-reservation animal welfare groups that combat the stray dog problem through adoption and fostering, in addition to free or low-cost spay-neuter services.

The education effort is aimed at reducing the number of unwanted animals being generated on the reservation, and to sensitize the children to the suffering strays endure.

Wapaha said the lessons teach empathy towards animals and are intended to change the attitude most reservation residents have towards dogs.

"Just look around," Wapaha said. "We're just trying to look for different ways to re-educate people."

Nor are schools the only place she takes her message.

"I communicate at farm board and chapter meetings," she said. "Anywhere I can get my foot in the door I'm talking about dogs."

Currently the lessons are geared toward kindergarten through fifth-grade classes and Tséhootsooí Elementary is the first to try out the program.

Wapaha and her co-workers spent nine months creating the curriculum before approaching TES Principal Eric Lords.

"Kendra came in and asked if we would be interested in educating the students about the dog problem and I said yes," he said.

Lords agreed that more education on animal welfare is needed and that students need to understand "the animals are special to each one of us and abusing them is inappropriate."

So far Wapaha has visited all four kindergarten and first-grade classes at the school, totaling 150 to 175 students. The second-grade students will be taught this month.

She is assisted by Janelle Francisco, and is currently recruiting and training volunteers to teach future sessions.

Along with basic animal care, Wapaha includes the importance of spaying and neutering animals, and what to do when an animal becomes aggressive.

In order to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, she incorporates reading, writing and math in the lessons.

In the first-grade classes, for instance, she passed out activity books that covered teaching of shapes, colors, and numbers - standard learning for this age group.

"It was plain to see they were involved and trying hard on the exercises," said first-grade teacher Norman Barnes. "I think they learned something. The dog treat recipe sounded so good, I may make it to eat myself!"

Wapaha got the kindergarteners' attention with a puppet show in which a dog asked questions about basic care.

"The children were very interested and engaged in the performance," she said.

Lords complimented Wapaha and said he's pleased with the curriculum.

"Kendra does a wonderful job and ... I am very excited in the other grades taking part in the sessions too" he said.

Another sign of success: At the end of one session the children said, "When are you coming back?"

Wapaha said she intends to test the third- and fifth-graders to determine if they are retaining the new information.

The program is designed so it can be used again, and Wapaha hopes to use it every year at Tséhootsooí Elementary, and to expand to other schools on the reservation and into the higher grades as well.

Schools are welcome to contact her for more information, she said.

Information: 928-871-6615, www.facebook.com/pages/Navajo-Nation-Puppy-Adoption-Program/145972332120882

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