This year at Felix Varela Senior High School, there were six new students in Yleana Escobar’s veterinary science program. And, as newcomers, some of them had a hard time adjusting. One student refused to interact with his peers. Others acted out, jumping on desks and refusing to sit still.
But Escobar and the other students understood. The newcomers had been through a lot before getting to the high school. They had been abandoned at a young age and some had lived on the streets. One was covered in ticks and fleas and was losing his hair to mange.
Before Escobar and her students brought them to Felix Varela for training, the six dogs faced a bleak future.
“We had one dog about to be euthanized,” said Alyssa Dawson, 18, one of the students in Felix Varela’s SPOTS Dog Training Program, part of the school’s veterinary science magnet. “We gave them a chance at life.”
Over the past semester, the SPOTS students have lovingly trained the dogs, even coming to school on weekends and holidays to work with the animals. Their goal was to turn the motley crew into “perfect pooches” so they had a better shot at getting adopted into a loving home.
“One of the top reasons people give up dogs is because of behavior,” said Escobar, who runs the veterinary science magnet. “We want that to change. We want people to understand that even your hardest cases can be assisted through proper behavioral care.”
The program started four years ago in collaboration with Karen Ashby, a Miami vet who was shocked by the number of abandoned animals she saw while working at a local animal shelter. Many of the dogs had been dropped off by pet owners who were unable to cope with behavior problems.
“I became overwhelmed by the number of animals that are left there, and the overwhelming number of animals that were being euthanized at that time,” Ashby said. She stayed up at night doing research on what she could do to help and came across a book that explained how vets could improve dog behavior so they were less likely to end up in a shelter.
Ashby reached out to local dog trainers and rescue groups, and started the Miami Veterinary Coalition to Prevent Unwanted Pets & Pet Euthansia. The organization teaches local vets and the public about force-free training, a technique that uses positive reinforcement like treats to shape dog behavior. Ashby’s group partnered with Escobar to teach the technique to students in the vet science program, and for the first few years the students brought dogs from a local rescue program to the school for training.
This year for the first time, Felix Varela has partnered with Miami-Dade County Animal Services to bring dogs directly from the shelter to the high school. The six dogs taken from a Doral shelter this semester lived in kennels attached to Escobar’s classroom and played in a spacious outdoor area behind the school. For 10 weeks, students trained the animals, coming in at 6 every morning to check on the dogs before class and squeezing in whatever time they could during the day between classes, homework and their other obligations. On weekends and during Escobar’s class, they doubled down on the behavior training.
The students also documented the dogs’ transformation, posting pictures and videos on a Facebook page for prospective families. By the end of the semester, the students had found homes for all of the animals. The hardest part, they said, was saying goodbye to the dogs they had grown to love. One student broke down in tears when the dog she had worked with all semester was placed with a family.
The sense of loss will be short-lived, however. Come January, the students will pick six more dogs from the shelter and start the training process all over again.
Students in the vet science program are studying to become veterinary assistants while they are in high school, and many plan to become vets or work with animals in another capacity after they graduate. Ashby and Escobar hope that as the students start their careers, their knowledge of force-free training techniques will help change the way pet owners interact with canines and hopefully keep more animals from ending up in shelters.
In the meantime, the SPOTS program also serves another purpose, said Jennifer Hernandez, 17, one of three seniors who helps Escobar oversee the training along with classmates Dawson and Marcela Alvaro, 17. For students who feel out of place at school or struggle to make friends, the SPOTS program provides a sense of belonging.
“This is their getaway,” Hernandez said. “The dogs don’t judge the kids ... the dog becomes their best friend.”
Dawson agreed. “The dogs just listen and look at you like, ‘I love you,’” she said.
“They forget about the problems,” Hernandez said. “It’s another world. They forget about the math test they failed.”
Alvaro nodded. “It’s a relief,” she said.