Story: Jalisa Hill
Multimedia: Ashley Gerke
“If a dog charges at you, be a tree.”
This is the advice of Natalie Keegan, animal trainer and behavior analyst.Through the Open Society Institute’s funding Keegan has created the Kids-4-K9s program. It aims to teach children how to treat animals and ways to prevent dog attacks. As a result, the children learn the importance of characteristics such as empathy, kindness and respect.
The Open Society Institute-Baltimore is part of the Open Society Foundation in the U.S. that focuses on children’s education, decreasing suspension rates, and increasing after school activity participation. Children are just one aspect that OSI-Baltimore seeks to make positive improvements in. Established in 1998, OSI-Baltimore continues to provide funds for programs that strive to make a difference in children’s lives, injustice, and/or poverty within Baltimore.
Often you hear about someone who is afraid of dogs because they were bit by one as a child. Keegan specializes in dog bite prevention, puppy socialization, kids with dogs, multiple dog households and trainer mentoring.
Keegan got the concept of her program from a book titled “Don’t Shoot the Dog!” by Karen Pryor. This book seeks to give insight on animal and human behavior.
Keegan goes to Baltimore City schools and holds a Kids-4-K9 session for 10-12 weeks. So far she has only visited elementary schools. Before the sessions start she preps the children with a survey, benchmark test, and by teaching them the right way to greet a dog.
“At first children are very hesitant, many of them have not had any experiences or what they have had has been very negative experiences with dogs, and Bella is a big dog and for some of these students when they’re sitting at their chair her nose is at their face,” Keegan said.
Bella is one of Keegan’s dogs and her assistant for the Kids-4-K9 program. She is a very friendly Golden Retriever/ Standard Poodle mix that is trained to do several things such as jump, touch, sit, and more without the use of harsh disciplinary methods. She also has another dog named Lacey who is identical to Bella, but she was recently injured and has become temporarily paralyzed.
Keegan feels one of the most effective ways to teach animals and humans are by positive reinforcement.
“All of my training videos that I use with the kids are used as prizes, clicker training for puppies, clickers that you put on your wrist. Reinforcement has to be timely, right when they’re doing the good thing. One teacher said they could have five extra minutes of free time. But it has to be immediately after the session. Motivation is important not only for the kids but for the dogs. The value of treats is important. For students, I use coupons so that they can redeem them later. I make sure at least everyone gets at least one coupon. It’s highly effective. They will all raise their hands because they want a prize. “
To help the children who are afraid of the dogs, Keegan invites them to sit in the back and observe until they feel comfortable. She teaches the kids warning sides for dogs that may be preparing to bite.
“We show the kids a series of slides that indicate different body language that dogs use to communicate how they’re feeling, most of which are warning signs that if you come closer I might bite you.”
Keegan plans on moving forward with her program. Last summer she started private sessions for anyone having troubles with their dogs or neighbor’s dogs. She is also in the process of getting her book published, “A Dog’s Fight.”
Another goal she hopes to accomplish is finding qualified people to become a part of Kids-4-K9s. She uses the money OSI gives towards supplies so she is unable to pay anyone. She will have to find volunteers with an animal training background who are willing to use their dogs as a means of teaching. Currently, Keegan is handling Kids-4-K9s on her own without any real monetary rewards for herself, but for Keegan it is not about the money.
“This is my dream, my passion,” Keegan said as she fed Bella a Cheerio.