Shelter dogs help youth find their way

From left, The Underdog Project staff Emily Smith, Sphelele Ndovela and Michelle Smith doing a lesson on first aid for humans and dogs after a lunch of juice and pies.

From an early age, youth at risk are learning the importance of bonding with dogs through The Underdog Project.

It’s a Wednesday and five pupils from Silikamva High School are taking Domestic Animal Rescue Group (Darg) shelter dogs through their paces on obstacle courses.

Facilitator Emily Smith, from Rosebank, says they have a further 15 Silikamva pupils attending on Tuesdays and Fridays. They all live in Imizamo Yethu.

The Underdog Project, located on the lower level of the large Darg property, in Hout Bay, is a nurturing classroom where at-risk youth are taught empathy, kindness and responsibility through the training of shelter dogs.

Ms Smith says the programme helps vulnerable youth by offering a non-invasive group-therapy space with a registered counsellor. The focus is on humane education and essential 21st century life skills.

“It’s mutually beneficial for youth and dog, improving their lives and adoption chances,” she says.

Among other things, the programme teaches the youth about dog body language, first aid for humans and dogs, communication skills and how to respond to the needs of these animals, says Ms Smith.

Youth are presented with the challenge of training shelter dogs to prepare them for adoption while learning life skills themselves.

Ms Smith says this non-profit public benefit organisation also focuses on humane education, which teaches youth how to care for dogs and the importance of seeing them as sentient beings with feelings and needs similar to their own.

Ms Smith says Darg’s managing director, Faustina Gardner, pre-screens the shelter dogs for their suitability in the programme, ensuring the safety of both dog and human. These dogs are then paired with the right child depending on the needs of both.

“We ensure that both the dogs and the youth are benefiting from the interaction,” says Ms Smith.

A key part of the project is teaching the children to understand dog body language, and they learn to recognise immediate signs of stress in dogs, such as flat ears, growling, or excessive panting.

Children are also taught how to approach dogs respectfully, asking the owner for permission before interacting and not invading the dog’s space.

Ms Smith says the project’s dog-training approach is rooted in positive reinforcement, a force-free method using treats and clickers to train desired behaviours.

“This method fosters trust and willingness in dogs rather than fear, making training a positive experience for both dogs and children. It’s all about kindness and understanding.”

The programme stresses the “five freedoms” for animals – freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, and fear.

Ms Smith says they started a pilot project with pupils from the Dominican School for the Deaf in Wynberg, and they work with Positive Behaviour Intervention & Resource Centre (PBIRC) in Plumstead and the Cape Flats Development Association (Cafda) in Retreat.

Simnikiwe Venge, 18, says she feared dogs when she started the programme five years ago, but now she owns one and knows how important it is to take them for walks and let them enjoy the outdoors and explore nature.

Siya Gqomani, 20, who started the programme in 2017 and is now an intern for it, says it opened his eyes to the plight of abandoned dogs and the need for sterilisation to prevent overpopulation.

“Many dogs in the (Imizamo Yethu) community go hungry and experience abuse so the project encourages owners to have their animals sterilised instead of breeding and often selling them,” says Siya.

Another intern, Sphelele “Eazy” Ndovela, 23, of Salt River, is studying education at Damelin. “When I joined the programme in 2016, I was very shy, speaking softly. Since then, I’ve witnessed the transformation the programme brings to both youth and dogs,“ he says.

He went on to serve as the chairman of the representative council of learners at Silikamva High School and was the school’s head boy in his matric year.

The Underdog Project operates through donations and grants. Contact 072 848 9892,

Siya Gqomani, 20, who started the programme in 2017 and is now an intern for it, says it opened his eyes to the plight of abandoned dogs and the need for sterilisation to prevent overpopulation.
A Silikamva High School pupil, watched by intern facilitator Siya Gqomani, helps to train one of the shelter dogs.
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