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Teaching Lessons in Puppy Love

Puppy mills campaign enters schools to plant seeds of kindness

All Animals magazine, March/April 2016

by Tracy L. Scott

Tammi Brosan teaches her students an important lesson on puppy love. Photo by Meredith Lee/For The HSUS

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a celebrity, just ask Dewey the dog. The 4-year-old golden retriever was recently the center of attention at Sycolin Creek Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia. It was similar to a Hollywood red carpet scene. Surrounded by affectionate fans and photographers snapping his photo from every angle, Dewey was able to use his fleeting fame for good.

With his human companions, teacher Tammi Brosan and her husband, Christopher—the policy implementation coordinator for the HSUS Puppy Mills Campaign—Dewey helped teach 17 bright-eyed second-graders about the dangers of puppy mills and how they differ from responsible dog breeding operations.

The students listened to their teacher read A Home for Dakota, a children’s book about puppy mills, and learned that dogs need the same things from their families that kids do: food, shelter, care and, most importantly, love.

Launched in October, the pilot program focused on elementary school students, but organizers expect to develop puppy mill education programs for all grades, including college. The goal is to educate students on the horrid living conditions at puppy mills.

“It’s often children who bring up getting a dog. Asking their parents not to get one from a pet store or online—since those puppies are usually from mills—can make a huge difference,” says Haley Courville, the campaign’s education and outreach coordinator. “So, we wanted to reach kids directly by providing materials that teachers can use independently in the classroom.”

Download or request a copy of the curriculum »

Not only do puppy mills often neglect and abuse dogs, depriving them of basic needs like food and water, but many of the animals are ill. Unsuspecting buyers often end up paying hefty vet bills and, in some cases, having to euthanize their new pets.

Brosan talked with her students about using their senses to determine whether they’re visiting a responsible breeder or a puppy mill. How might a puppy mill smell? “Bad,” or “like poo,” they answered. What might you hear? “Crying.” How will it look? “Dirty.” Message received.

Thirty educators participated in the pilot program, which ended in December. After gathering feedback from those teachers, Courville and Humane Society Academy members tweaked the curriculum they developed and began offering free toolkits to more schools in February. “We have a goal to reach 1,000 classrooms in 2016,” she says.

The educator toolkits include a five-lesson curriculum that comes in versions for kindergarten through fifth grade and are aligned with Common Core and National Education Standards. The toolkits also include activities and children’s books about animal protection. A dog is not necessary, but Dewey’s presence proved to be a powerful real-life teaching tool.

  • Golden retriever Dewey is showered with affection. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS

Brosan says students continued to ask about Dewey and ways to “help the puppy mill dogs” days after his visit. One parent “told me their child recited the entire lesson to their family at the dinner table,” says Brosan, who believes humane education plays “an important role in creating ... caring human beings. It not only helps build their moral character, but it helps them become more responsible members of society. It not only teaches them responsibility about animals but respect for life.”

The students’ care and concern for Dewey, whom the Brosans adopted from a shelter only months earlier, was obvious as the youngsters took turns petting him. Even the boy with a dog allergy accepted the risks, wearing gloves while stroking Dewey’s fur. Another student opted not to join his classmates on the carpet while Brosan read. Instead, he sat by Dewey for the entire lesson, raising one hand periodically with the other on his new friend.

“They absolutely loved Dewey,” says Brosan, who often shares pet anecdotes with her class. If the success of his first appearance is any indication, the local celebrity will soon be receiving an encore.

Download or request a copy of the curriculum »