"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Anti-Bully Dog

Last Christmas, Joe Dwyer got one of the best gifts he could have hoped for. A package containing 80 letters arrived at his doorstep from students at the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Jersey City. The Sixth through Eighth Grade students wrote to thank Mr. Dwyer and his therapy dog, Shelby, for visiting them earlier in the year. The duo were at the school to present "Bullying From a Dog’s Point of View," a program to combat bullying in schools.

"Actually only one or two of the letters were addressed to me. The rest were written to Shelby," says Dwyer, a motivational speaker, life coach and dog trainer.

Dwyer shares with students how Shelby, a pit bull, was found tied up near a gas station in the middle of the winter. She was freezing, starving and scared, and both of her back legs were injured. Once discovered, Shelby was taken to the Bloomfield Animal Shelter where she lived for five months before being adopted by Dwyer, a shelter volunteer.

The Dwyer family saw her through two major leg surgeries that involved long painful recovery periods. And she wasn’t with them long when they realized that she had a special gift.

"We took her for a walk one night and encountered a man in a wheelchair outside the senior housing in our town. As we approached he called to Shelby. I was hesitant at first because we had just adopted her, and I didn’t know how she would react," says Dwyer. "But Shelby walked right up to the man and put her head on his knee. He petted her and started to cry. Then he thanked Shelby for helping him to forget about his pain for a little while."

Today, Shelby works as a therapy dog and is certified through Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc. She and Dwyer visit nursing homes, senior centers, hospitals, homes for special needs adults and children and a juvenile detention center. Shelby is also working on becoming a bereavement dog helping those who are mourning the loss of a loved one. Disturbed at the growing trend of bullying in the school system, Dwyer also saw an opportunity for Shelby to inspire young people to live better lives.

"I share with the students that despite all of the good that Shelby is doing she is still discriminated against – she has been turned away from a number of institutions – because she is a pit bull," says Dwyer, author of Shelby’s Grace (Perennial Press Publishing, 2010), that tells the story of how Shelby overcame abuse and the impact she is having in the community as a therapy dog. "Profiling is also a trait of bullying, so it helps me to address that issue with the students in a proactive way."

Shelby’s first anti-bullying assignment was at the Jersey City School where she got a standing ovation from 200 students. Since then she and Dwyer have taken the program to eight other schools in North Jersey.

Hope Koturo, a reading specialist at the Martin Luther King Jr., School, says that Dwyer’s program enables students to really hear the anti-bullying message.

"Many of our students were deeply moved by Shelby's story. They were able to connect her story of abuse to that of judging and bullying fellow students," says Koturo. "These students say that after hearing Shelby's story they would no longer judge people based upon their looks, but on who they are on the inside."

Visit Shelby's website to buy her book.

For more information on the "Bullying From a Dog’s Point of View" program, visit www.proclaiming-treasures.com/bullying.html

By Vera Lawlor

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