Changing the lives of a community – one dog at a time. By Helen Wallace
Humans and dogs have had a special bond for millennia, and one Cape Town initiative has used this to help both man and beast. The Underdog Project, which operates from the Domestic Animal Rescue Group (DARG) premises in Hout Bay, is the very first non-profit organisation of its kind in SA and, because of its positive effect on the kids, dogs and community involved,
is going from strength to strength.
Man’s best friend
In 2011, after identifying a need for humane education in the community of Hout Bay, Jenna da Silva Pinto founded The Underdog Project.
Her passion for animal and human interaction, and a dire need for better care for unwanted, unloved animals and children led her to establish this NPO and oversee it for the past five years. This is a creative way of dealing with the welfare of kids and dogs, and the bond formed between handlers and their four-legged friends facilitates this healing and growth.
‘When I first started The Underdog Project, my vision was to make a small, positive difference in the lives of Hout Bay youth and shelter dogs – and to address violence in the area,’ explains Jenna. ‘We organised a pilot project with Hout Bay High School and after the positive feedback from the school and shelter, I formally established the NPO.’ The community was fascinated by the notion of combining dogs and teenagers, and so, with their curiosity and support, Jenna established the project, with encouraging results.
Put into practice
Rather than employing conventional therapeutic methods, The Underdog Project has found that by using dogs as an indirect focus of their group interventions, they have been able to really get through to children. ‘The dogs provide us with an alternative way to communicate with kids; they are non-threatening, fun and engaging and help the youngsters lower their defences,’ explains Jenna. ‘While each child responds to their experiences differently, there has been an increase in self-confidence among the project’s learners in both their school and social environments. The levels of empathy, care and respect also appear to be far greater in those who have participated in the initiative, and the animal-assisted therapy interactions not only open up doors to challenging conversations, but also provide a wealth of material and highlight urgent issues that need to be addressed in ongoing individual therapy with the children.’
And the process doesn’t end on the completion of the course. Graduates of The Underdog Project can go on to become animal ambassadors in their communities, showing them how pets and strays should be treated in order to be healthy and happy. The benefits for the dogs involved in the programme are also extensive – being at training improves their condition both mentally and physically, gives them stimulation, reduces kennel stress and teaches them how to interact with humans, making them far more adoptable. As such, the adoption rate at DARG is high. This means everybody wins – which is exactly what this initiative set out to achieve.
Leading the pack
Looking ahead, The Underdog Project has plenty of plans in the pipeline, but is now concentrating very much on the present. ‘At the moment, we want to focus on growing our core component, which is the Underdog Youth Builder,’ says Jenna. ‘Our aim is to extend the programmes to even more schools and youth organisations. Our Underdog Connector also exists with the aim to build and strengthen connections with past graduates.’
The Underdog Project has a lot to be proud of. When asked what has pleased her the most, Jenna says that it’s the small successes along the way that have helped the project to grow and expand into something that can inspire real change. ‘Small moments have a huge place in my heart – from seeing a shelter dog master a new trick to seeing a child smile, or watching our new, young facilitator grow into a compassionate leader. I’m proud of the management team that works tirelessly behind the scenes to keep us running, paws to the ground.’
As the old saying goes, every dog will have its day and, thanks to Jenna and her team, perhaps one day, every child will too.
Follow the scent
For more information, visit underdogproject.org.