Dogs really can be man's best friend

Best Friends 4-H Club involves young people ages 6 to 25, who have a variety of disabilities including learning, developmental, hearing, physical and emotional, in utilizing dogs as a teaching aid.

The Best Friends 4-H Club of Berrien County does extraordinary work in a unique and special setting. By working with companion animals, the members are able to be part of 4-H science, engineering and technology (SET) programming. SET offers many great programs for all audiences and species, and because companion animals are part of animal science, Best Friends 4-H Club falls right under the SET mission mandate.

Best Friends 4-H Club involves young people ages 6 to 25, who have a variety of disabilities including learning, developmental, hearing, physical and emotional, in utilizing dogs as a teaching aid. It was formed by Patti Dynes in 1988 when her child with Down syndrome sought dog obedience classes, and is now run by co-club coordinators Linda Shannon-Chaillet and Vicki Williams. Screened volunteer leaders assist members through a series of classes on obedience, agility, anatomy, safety, responsibility and sportsmanship.

The club name was chosen by the members themselves. Members benefit from relationships with the volunteer leaders and dogs, and from the skills and rewards gained by working with the dogs. 4-H Spring Achievement canine evaluations and demonstrations are facilitated by 4-H club leaders as an additional experience for these young people, outside of meetings.

Since its creation, Best Friends 4-H Club strives to follow its set goals:

  • Create an educational experience for youth that otherwise might be omitted from competition and denied the experience and growth it provides.
  • Provide members an opportunity to learn about dog training and handling in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Focus on guiding positive relationships between the club members and their volunteer dogs.
  • Provide dog therapy and motivation with physical and mental stimulation.

At the beginning of summer 2009, Best Friends 4-H Club received $1,724 from the 2009 Heart of Cook Grant. With this money, they were able to expand into a year-round club by purchasing the proper equipment and learning tools. An upright, locking tool chest on wheels was purchased to store approved canine handling equipment, such as agility equipment, a first-aid kit, obedience equipment and some educational supplies. Also purchased was a Dog Learning Laboratory Kit from the Ohio State University, which was used as an educational resource to teach basic dog care, dog handling and veterinary care to the members through a variety of hands-on aids and visuals.

The club utilizes the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen curriculum and instructor certification program. Club instructors also conduct the AKC Good Citizen test at the Orchards Mall and other locations as a public service and fund-raiser. Best Friends 4-H Club also developed the Berrien County Youth Fair judging procedures and guidelines for canine exhibitors with disabilities.

The vision of Berrien County 4-H is to make a positive difference in the lives of Berrien County youth. For the past 21 years, Best Friends 4-H Club has been the positive difference in the lives of their special members.

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