Episode 64 – Virginia Hamilton

Canine Commandos is a service-learning program within the schools and is celebrating 15 years this year and has done amazing work to help animals find adoption into their forever home and the students who participate in her program. Virginia shares with us her dedication to not only the animals but the children in her program as well. They work with shelters across the county to help train the animals and increase their chances for adoption.

Welcome to the Professionals and Animal Rescue podcast, where a goal is to introduce you two amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is probably sponsored by do bert dot com. Do Bert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show. Virginia Hamilton, the creator of Cannon Commandos, has been teaching for the last 27 years. In 2003 she found a way to combine her two passions, animals and teaching. She started with one school, one shelter and 25 students, and now they have over 27 schools with 400 students. The canine commandos have helped train over 2500 dogs, with 60% of them being adopted. Well, I’ve been teaching. This is actually my 27th year teaching. Uh, the last 17 years I’ve been teaching gifted students and, um, one of the things with gifted education is that you providing community service, which is now service learning, and I can’t explain that a little bit was a requirement. So 15 years ago, this year I started community service with the kids taking them to animal shelters. And the reason I chose that as our service learn it was because, well, first of all, I love animals. Secondly, I was watching Animal Planet Channel and I saw I and Obedience Trainer on there that was talking about how animals were overlooked for adoption in the shelters because of lack of training. And all you had to do was give them of teaching basic commands just a couple minutes a day to increase their behaviors for a chance for a second home. And I thought, Wow, that right there was the answer for my kids and my administration teachers district. The superintendent. Everybody’s all on board and there we would, Yeah, we went from one class up to We now have 27 schools that are training and all the shelters in Brevard County, Florida. That is amazing. So just from watching this, I mean, you that just gave you the idea. Yeah, just from watching TV. I love Animal Planet Channel. I love it. So, yeah, just watching TV. Hey, whoever said that watching TV didn’t help your brain or was a waste of time. No. Yeah. So, um, that’s how it all started. And it’s taken off from there. And we just became a 501 and the way of a board full of teachers. And, you know, the teachers need to be able to love animals as much as I do or to provide the service for their kids. So we have between four and 450 kids training this year in all the trip and all three of our shelters. Wow. So tell us a little bit about how the program works. It sounds like you’ve really expanded it over the years. But you know where what actually takes place? All right, so I have 28 kids. Well, that’s an awful lot of kids to bring to the shelter, so I split them up into two days. So I will go out on a Tuesday and thankfully, Petco and Fundraising United Way supports us. We have some major donors that helps pay for old materials and for the trainers, so I’ll go in well but will bust in on Tuesday. It’s like a field trips. You go during the school day. I arrive at 11 o’clock at the shelter. The trainer meets us there. And so while the kids were reading to the dogs, the trainer and the staff member will go out and start setting up to pull the dogs. So we’ll pull out probably four dogs, and then we’ll have four groups of kids and and they will teach where they’ll get the dogs comfortable first, and then they’ll teach them. Watch me, then sit down, stay and come. Now, sometimes we’ll have a dog that will know all the commands already. So then the kids will start teaching him tricks like shake, roll over roll overs. Tough, yeah, but just just the bonding. Sometimes the dogs just don’t want to train. All they want is the attention. So the kids just give them the attention. And then once the kids have stopped training outside, one on one with the dogs, then we go back into the shelter and we start training the dogs that are in their runs and teaching them tow. Watch me because if you have the dogs barking in there than our goal is to get them to quiet down. So the kids there standing there and with their little treats and doing? Watch me after they so they’ll stand in front of the runs to try to quiet them down. Um, sometimes we’ll get a dog that is so shy that won’t come forward. And I will ask one of my female students to go and sit on the floor in front of the run and just talk to the dog very quietly. And I tease the boys. I say, No offense, boys, but I need a little feminine touch with these. They will work to hopefully get that dog to come forward to just sit and listen to them. So between training them outdoors, the basic commands reading to them and then training the dogs that are in the kennels Oh, it takes about an hour and 1/2 to 2 hours, and then we board the bus, go back to school. And while dogs are outside training, the kids have what we’ve created comment cards, because when you get grants they want to, you have to show them measure. They wanted your your success measured so the kids have the comment cards. They go take them out there. And so as the dog’s master command. So the first command is watched me when When they master watch me, Then the kids check it off. And then when they master sit, then the kids check it off. And so the cards are in the dog’s run so that the next day the trainer and the school, um, pick up. They look for the dogs with the gold cards and then they pick up start, you know, pick up review and then pick up where they left. So if they’ve mastered, watch me and sit in, the next command is down. So they reviewed the two commands and move on to down, and then the guard gold card goes back. So the next call comes in and picks up. So, for example, my shelter we do two weeks straight at that shelter, uh, training those dogs and a lot of times will come back and the next month, and the kids will say, Oh, I hope Dennis is still there and I’ll say, No, you hope Dennis is not great. Now they pulling up Well, what does that mean? If you stop there, it means hopefully means he’s adopted because we don’t have any kill shelters in Melbourne now. Thank you Sheriff Ivy, who has taken over the shelter when he now has brought it up from a 50% release, right to over 90%. So amazing. Yeah, well, you can utilize Thea Jail, too. So it’s it’s on. The inmates are gone when we arrived. So we have an agreement that they leave it 11 when we’re arriving at 11. So it works out very well. So then in perspective, I mean, how old are these these students? 10 years. Ah, on up. So basically fifth grade in up okay. And then how frequently air they are? You bringing field trips of students out to the shelters every day. If you look on almost every day, If you look at the calendar, you’ll see S P c a. This school is there that day or the Humane Society. This school is that day or if you look at South Animal Care Center, this school is that date. South Animal Care Center is the one that has the bulk of the kids from the south, and so we cover every single day for two weeks of training Monday through Friday. Wow. So these animals are getting a lot of just intense, You know, intense love and opportunity to get out of the kennels and an opportunity to learn new things. Yes, and bonding some, you know, when the candles are so full. Like I was just at the kennel the other day and they told me every single run is filled with the exception of two. And if they get two more dogs than the runs, have Gaea teens in the center that and so then they’ll have to close the gay teens and start putting dogs on either side, which is so sad. But I Hurricane Michael caused a lot of the influx in our shelters as PC A just went up to bring back Oh gosh, 80 animals. Um, and I know that our cat organization called Hope went into the shell, a shelter up there in North Carolina and took every single cat brought him down here. So that’s what’s going on right now. These hurricanes, whenever we have these major storms, the shelters really fill up because we run and help bring the animals down to us. So Ann, in hopes that if it’s us, they come down and bring our animals up to them to So right now we’re completely full and so sad. Yeah. So now tell us. Tell us a little bit more about how you’ve expanded this. Now, you said 27 schools are doing this. Actively. Yes. Uh, well, Wen, because we teach gifted, we have professional development days. And when I got my when I I’ll back up a little bit. So when I had the one class, I thought the only ones that were getting anything out of this experience where the kids So I thought, there’s got to be a way to make a difference for the dogs to. That’s when I started writing grants and I got my first grant $10,000 grant through, um state. And so we have professional development. I spoke to all the teachers. I said, I have this grant I would like to expand, and right then and there with that day I added 11 schools. And since then we have just grown and grown and grown. So we’ve gone from 1 to 11 to 27. I love to see it expand outside of Brevard County way tried to get out to two counties, but one shelter just said at this time, it just wasn’t feasible. They were just too busy. And it was a kill shelter and then my connections to the South and just never panned out. So one of these days, somebody, somebody on a podcast like yours will say, Oh my gosh, what a great I feel. Let’s help them get out of Brevard County So that’s our goal now if you develop this into a curriculum. So if somebody else is listening to this and they say What a great idea would love to do this in our community is, is it something they can pick up and run with? Yes, When you go to www dot canine commandos dot org’s, there’s a link there that says a humane and an for teachers and the one the length of the teachers were just adding. But we built, um, there’s a they’re the When they go on to that link, it’ll come up in a list the things that we will help them with and then the things that their costs and what we will incur, like insurance. We have to carry insurance. Sure, so we can get the teacher started. And then once the teacher If the teachers outside of the county come on board, then we will further help them. So our goal is to another county of a teacher. Comes on board. That teacher will represent that county. And I I and my mike board will help that teacher start expanding in two more classrooms out there. So that teacher in that county would be like the me of this county. Does that make sense? Yeah, absolutely. Yes. So But we’ve started building curriculum as well. Then this is the piece that was talking about Community service is the act of the service. You know, the kids training the dogs? Well, you turn it into service, learning where the kids reflect on the experience. So what I did this year is totally new. I built a stem program into the shelter experience through donors. Choose. I received $1800 worth of DNA kits, so the kids are studying DNA traits, genetics with dogs. So we went in and I’ll give you an example. The kids were training Scooby, so I swab Scooby and I sent the DNA off. So embarked bet is tthe e company we chose. And Dr Chu, she’s the geneticist there. We’ll Skype with my kids three times of the year. This amount of fact, the 23rd is our first Skype. So we got the results back of Scooby. We Oh, boy, it is massive. And the kids, or what the kids are going to do is when they train the dog, they’re tallying how well the dog trains or how well, the dog doesn’t train all. Scooby didn’t do a thing the kids wanted him to do, so we decided you will be our 1st 1 So what they’re gonna do is when the DNA comes back, they’re going to research those breeds and determine which the intelligence of those breeds as not doing well or doing well with the training. So with Scooby, we found out that he is 50 something percent American pit bull terrier, 40 something percent Staffordshire terrier, which makes him a pit bull. So they want to study pitbulls because that’s the Unfortunately, that is what the largest breeder is in the shelter, which I’m sure you know. So they will study the genetics of Scooby and talk about the traits and why he’s this. Why he is that why he didn’t train well with Dr Chu. And so she has four objectives that she’s gonna work with my kids. So it’s a stem program. So little do research. They’re doing the science behind it. Um, the math. There’s Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe how much math was involved in this, and then we just got Zeus is results back. He didn’t do well training, but we just went ahead with a dog named Sally that we know is not a pit bull. Also weaken. And she did very well, so they’ll be able to see why Sally did so well compared to why Scooby and Zeus did not. So that’s what we’re doing. Some teachers do artwork. Some do book writing when pages, all kinds of things to to link in what their experience on the best type of service. Learning for kids is, uh, be immediate reflection discussion with the teacher. That is the number one thing. But my kids I make this little booklet so they can reflect on the on the bus on the way back from the shelter. Say don’t forget, because they only go once a month. So especially with working with that particular dog they jot down notes, especially so when the when they go work with that dog on any project back in the classroom, especially the stim program, they have the notes to back them up. That’s really amazing what you’re doing to, you know, give them the opportunity. But you’re also now taking it, and you’re turning into a very big learning experience. So like you talked about, it’s not just about training the animals, helping them to get adopted, but you’re weaving in the science and the technology and all those other aspects of it. Yes, you know. And since the 1st 2 that came back, both have very similar genetics. Um, Zeus has bulldog in him. Then the kids will be able to research those three different breeds and try to determine Okay, So if we have a dog like this in the future, you can’t really tell by looks. What can we do to increase the the success for training the dogs Now? When the dogs went back into their kennels and the kids went back in and trained it from the inside, the dogs did work for the treat. They did not inside. So then that’s something that’ll research, you know, is there something to do with the environment? You know, that type of thing? We have to admit that it was very hot outside a couple of days training Zeus and Scooby so the kids would take. You know what? They all have their water bowls, and the kids would take water on the hands and rub it on their backs. The dogs backs to kind of help cool him off, so it could have been the temperature outside, too. So that’s another thing that they can research. Um, and both the dogs were dark. Actually, all three of the dogs were dark. They had a lot of black or grey and them so that something else they come research and the other thing to working with the geneticists. She’s a researcher. She’s a vet. Dr. Will this open up a career path or any of these kids, even at this early age, because these kids are gifted with IQ’s of 1 30 higher, so there’s so many opportunities for these kids to learn and look forward to. I’m one student that I’m calling the rial dog whisper, cause he had managed to get every single dog, even the most barking dog to quiet down. I was made. I was very impressed, so we may have opened up a career path for him already. Wow, that’s really cool. So what? What is the goal for this? What is the goal for the animals? What is the goal for the students? Obviously for the animals, a couple of goals for the animals is for them to have some human bonding. You know, they’re in those runs 24 hours. I have to say that the shelter that I’m working, what they’re doing a great job of getting those dogs out and getting playgroup started. So you’ve got the bonding. You’ve got the training necessary to help these animals find new homes and then for the kids empathy and compassion and kindness. These kids may have not been introduced to, um, those women. No miner wants, you know, wonderful. But I also have title one schools that go into the shelters and do this as well. And these kids may not ever have be be able to have an animal at home. So this is something they will be able to enjoy is working with an animal but teaching the kids compassion to get back to the community. That there are others that knee are in need before them is a good learning experience. We even have had a, um, organization here that used to do the commandos. I would love to see them come back with boys that were in trouble with the law, that all have pit bulls at home and, of course, that they have the pitiful stigma. So they go into the shelters and they come from, you know, they’ve revert from teenagers down, the little kids going, Oh, my gosh, all you know we have. They had one boy When they leave, they stay there for six months. So when they leave that group, they talk about something they want to bring back. One boy said that where he’s from, the terrorized cats, they kick cats, they abuse cats. He realized that the respect of cats, it’s just as important as respect for dogs. So he was going back to his hometown with his peers and teaching them that there’s more to these cats than what you all we need to change the way we are. And I’m just praying that he can know. What is it? Bypass peer pressure, overcome peer pressure and continue to make changes for cats in his community. That is what these kids take away. Another boy grandfather had a pit bull that was not neutered. When the boy realized why there were so many in there, he went home and asked, Grandpa, please neuter the dog and Grandpa did after explained it. So when you have these youngsters going back and making asking adults too, you know, help change the community for the better. What else can I ask of these kids? It’s amazing. Amazing knows the program, specifically four dogs. You also do cats and other animals. They do cats. They go in and they socialize cats. They read to the cats. You know, we do have rules in place. They’re not allowed to pick up the cats or put their arms. And if the cats in a condo trying to get away from the kids, they can’t put their arm there because we want to avoid a CZ much cat scratches as possible. Sure, you know, no fingers in the dog runs, but yeah, we do cats as well. The Humane Society and the s P C. A. Have gorgeous cat cat houses that the kids can go sit in. Just there’s cat toys in there so they can take the cat toys and play with the cats that way, too. So if there are other animals, they’d be right there. I mean, we’ve had the shelter here, there’s been goats and pigs, and you know, I’m not gonna have the kids go in and train those. But then they get a kick out of at least seeing those farm animals that they may not have and, you know, going back to that one group that was talking about. They run their curriculum through the book called The Lost Dogs, about Michael Vick. All their curriculums run through that book, and I just That’s amazing, just amazing. So what’s the future look like? What do you guys focused on next? Expanding is what we would like to dio save more animals, teach kids more about the needs of the you know, I tell my kids, if you’re not into animals, there are so many organizations that you could be involved in, and more and more colleges are expecting kids to to have had done community service. So these kids are still in elementary school, cause sixth grade here is elementary. So, you know, we’re already got these kids that are doing community service and grades five and six and their bright futures down here. That’s what they need to do is community service. So these kids are off to a good start. That’s really cool. I and like I said, I really love just the way that you’ve expanded the program. It started just with a simple idea, something you saw on TV, like you said. And you’ve really taken it in and growing it to 27 schools and 400 students, and I’d like to see it even bigger. I’d like to see a lot of kids learn to work in the community. I’d like to see a lot more animals saved. I’d love to see help shelters find homes for these animals. You know, I started with animals years ago with the first. My first start with animals is with our greyhound racing. You know, there was no greyhound racing in Melbourne and we had highlight so Grey Helm was coming in to replace Highlight. They did not bring that to highlight with the Brevard County was able to vote on. They didn’t give the community a chance to vote on whether we wanted to greyhound racing so eyes with an organization to try to stop it. We didn’t win, of course, but now we get a chance to vote it to stop to stop Greyhound racing November 6. So you bet I’m gonna vote to end Greyhound racing. So that was my first, my first start with animals. And that’s when I got into shelters and volunteering and shelters and then started expanding into the classroom. Well, Virginia, this program is really awesome and innovative, and I’m hoping that others do pick it up and run with it nationally. Is there Is there anything else you wanted to share their listeners before wrap things up? Everybody can make a difference. Everybody. I’m even a vegan. I went so far as I believe that animals are not to be used for our personal. You know, I there’s I still believe that we can plant more seeds to feed the hungry versus having cow and pig and all that to be the hungry. We can save weaken. We could make a lot of changes and and if animals aren’t sure thing and I don’t know if you’re listening to this. Obviously it is. But working the can just get into community. Help you feel you’ll feel good, too. You feel so good. You know, when the king, when we find out that our dogs that we work or got adopted, we I go back and I’ll make the announcement of the kids and their kids. Just Hooten how and cheer. And, you know, it’s just a big celebration. And then I email all the teachers. A Zeus was adopted and they spread the word. Look what we guys did. We save Zeus. We help save Zu Shane and then on to the next dog and next cat. And we just keep moving right along. Well, you’re clearly making an impact. And I really think it’s just an innovative program. So I’m glad you’re able to come on today. Thanks for coming on and sharing with us, Virginia. Thank you. And if anybody wants to know more about us, they can go to www dot canine commandos that c A N I. Any commandos dot org’s and thank you, Chris. Thanks. 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