Impact Makers

France Teaches Kids Pet Responsibility

By Jeremy Lydic

WARREN, Ohio — Alpha might be the perfect dog to help teach kids about pet responsibility and safety. He never bites. He doesn’t jump or bark. He obeys all commands perfectly. He won’t make a mess. And, he’s light enough to carry under one arm.

He’s also a very soft stuffed animal. Alpha has been Karen France’s partner since she became education coordinator at the Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County three years ago.

“Some of my preschoolers say, ‘Is that dog going to become real?’ And I say no, it’s going to stay a stuffed animal,” France says with a laugh.

For 26 years, France taught at just about every grade level, but settled on kindergarten in Howland Local Schools. Her teaching career ended prematurely when she had to retire to help her father who was having issues with his health, but she still wanted to teach. She is an animal lover, so when the education coordinator position came available, “That fit right into what I would like to do,” she says.

“It’s good for me to share my love for animals with little kids,” she says. “And they are very much drawn to the animals.”

France had been a volunteer at the shelter years before as the leader of a Girl Scouts troop. She and her troop would wash food bowls, change the lining of the cat condos and learn the finer points of being responsible pet owners.

As education coordinator, she developed a curriculum for three age ranges to help children better understand how to interact with a new dog, or a stray they’ve never met.

Preschool to second grade is The Pup Club. Classes include a coloring book that illustrates the correct ways to approach and engage with a new dog, how to keep a pet happy and healthy, and how to help prevent dog bites if a student encounter an unhappy dog.

“You need to be a tree,” she says. “Do not run. Stand still. If you fall, roll up into a ball.”

Introducing preschool-aged children to dogs is important because “they’re going to be pet owners somewhere along the line,” she says. And while kids have lots of love and compassion for animals, dogs and cats don’t always like too much attention, she says. The program teaches kids about boundaries, responsibility, compassion and giving animals their space.

“If we can teach them all that at a young age, they sort of grow up knowing that,” she says.

And that’s where Alpha comes in. France uses the stuffed animal to demonstrate how to approach a new dog and the safe places for petting a dog they don’t know.

“Alpha is my perfect example of a pet,” France says. “If I had to take live animals, it would be pretty scary for the animal and maybe sort of scary for the children.”

Third- to eighth graders are part of The Member Club, which discusses a dog’s body language.

“Dogs are trying to tell you want they need or what they don’t need right now,” France says. “If you learn to read those signs of a dog, that’s really helpful in dog bite prevention and just being a better pet owner and more responsible.”

The Leader Program is for ninth grade students and up, including adults. This course covers the responsibilities of a dog owner, accountability and related home insurance should your dog bite someone, the importance of spaying and neutering pets and other things important for pet owners.

Classes are taught on-site or at a school. In addition to the education portion, France also helps the kids collect wishlist items to donate to the shelter.

“It gives them a way to sort of give back to their community,” she says.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.