Those of you who know me or have followed my previous Back Chats, will know how passionate I am about animals and particularly my dogs. A few weeks ago, my friend Dr Jane Fraser, the homeopathic vet, took me to see how the NPO, Funda Nenja, operates at Mpophomeni Township near Howick. To say that I was blown away would be an understatement! I was so touched by this organisation’s mission and its success – to witness one of their Friday afternoon sessions was an absolute privilege.
Funda Nenja (which in isizulu roughly means “Learning through a dog”) has the following Mission Statement: To promote the human-canine bond in previously disadvantaged communities by using dog training classes as a means to develop respect and compassion for all living things. It was started in 2009 by Adrienne Olivier as a short-term project with the aim of educating some of the township’s children on how to treat their dogs with kindness. The response was so over-whelming – from 12 children and their dogs the first week, to now, more than 10 years later, an average of 80 to 100 participants each week – that the project became permanent.
Many things impressed me on my visit. There is lovely group of volunteers, from the local community and from more affluent ones. Each volunteer has a purpose, whether it is on the admin side – each new child is registered with the organization and given a collar and lead for their dog; or sorting through donations of blankets, collars and leads; or assisting with filling the water buckets; or applying tick and flea treatment; or distributing a fruit juice and an apple to each attending child. Subsequent to being registered, the child’s home gets a visit from Fund Nenja’s Education Officer and Social Welfare Officer, to assess the well-being of both the humans and the animal in the household. If required, the Social Worker will assist families that need support in areas such as counseling, accessing vital documents for social grants or referrals to other agencies.
At the training sessions, the kids and their dogs are separated into their different groups according to the level of training. All “newbies” are in the Puppy 1, Puppy 2 & Adult 1 groups and are checked and if necessary, are given a tick & flea treatment, are de-wormed, are given their vaccinations and are scheduled for sterilization by the organisation’s veterinarian, Dr Pachonick, at their monthly sterilization clinics. It was a delight to see the different groups and how the training has progressed and how disciplined the more advanced groups were. Even though there were nearly 100 dogs on the field, as well as several “free loaders” that were there for any treats they could scrounge, there was no aggression amongst the dogs and only a few unruly pups, all newbies who had not yet learnt to socialize. (I think I need to bring my boy Jack, who is also a township special, to learn some manners!!)
For me, one of the most admirable aspects of the project is that the trainers of each group of dogs are youths who have themselves started off by bringing their dogs to training and who have learnt new skills and are now educating the younger children. They get a small stipend each week which, in this mainly impoverished area with a high unemployment rate, helps them to have a purpose and a means to contribute to the support of their own families, which in turn gives them some status and self-respect. For some of them, the training that Funda Nenja has given has enabled them to get full-time employment caring for animals, either at local kennels or veterinary practices.
The Funda Nenja training is a reward-based model and the kids are given dog pellets to assist them with the training at the venue and at home. The organisation also gives food, bowls, blankets and assists with dog shelters at the homes. The project has had an impact on the community and has taught the participating families that their dog is part of the family and must be cared for accordingly. Lisa Button, the Project Administrator says that one of the most rewarding results of the programme is seeing the development of the relationships between the children and their dogs – from being just a dog to bring to training, to being a loved and loving companion and friend.
Funda Nenja’s aspiration is that “the practical dog training classes nurture the values of kindness, respect and compassion that will enable the children to develop an affectionate bond with their dog. By changing children’s attitudes and emotional response towards dogs, they are investing in the future of animal welfare. These children become agents of change and role models as responsible and caring dog owners in their communities.”
Instead of fake news and horrible images being shared and going viral on social media, this is a project that needs and deserves as much exposure as possible, and its message and methods need to be shared. It would be wonderful for this concept to be taken to other townships in South Africa and to impoverished areas throughout the world - not only are the animals benefitting but the children and the community are too.
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