Uplifting the lives of at-risk youth and shelter dogs to promote a non-violent society

The Underdog Project is a registered Non-Profit and Public Benefit Organisation working with vulnerable youth and dogs in Cape Town, South Africa.
Founded in 2011 by Jenna Da Silva Pinto, we provide a safe and caring classroom environment where supportive adult role models teach positive interpersonal skills such as empathy, trust and personal accountability through the training of shelter dogs.
At our programmes, at-risk and vulnerable youths participate in therapeutic workshops that provide psycho-social support and functional skills development via the subject of humane education and animal assisted activities (AAI). AAI have been proven to have long term benefits and lasting impact in both educational and therapeutic spaces.

While the youth learn invaluable 21st Century skills the dogs receive much needed mental and physical stimulation meaning our programme is mutually beneficial to two vulnerable groups: positively impacting the lives of at-risk youths, whilst socialising and training shelter dogs to improve their lives in the shelter and increase their chances of adoption.

It has been shown that positive relationships between people and animals can help to promote a non-violent society, reducing domestic violence directed against women and children. Our organisational philosophy is built on the belief that the mistreatment of animals and changing of human behaviour can be addressed best by education and long-term interventions, rather than by once-off or ad-hoc visits or activities.
We know that kindness to animals predicts empathy and kindness to others. We also know that domestic abuse and gang-related violence go hand-in-hand with animal cruelty and our programmes are designed to address this in a gentle, non-invasive way that encourages kind behaviour, positive coping skills and respect for all life.


Youth Builder Programme

The Underdog Project Youth Builder programme is made up of eight to twelve modules, broken up into two hour long, weekly sessions. The first hour provides hands-on positive reinforcement dog training and positive animal interactions. Working with untrained shelter dogs as therapy partners, positive reinforcement dog training techniques are taught to the youth as a form of non-invasive group therapy. Positive-reinforcement training is a force-free, non-violent method of training that builds confidence in both dogs and trainers.

The second hour is based in a classroom space with a focus on humane education and skills development activities. These activities provide the youth with a range of invaluable like skills such as team work, communication, time management, accountability and much more.

Past Grad Programme

After graduating from the Underdog Project Youth Builder, graduates apply to join the Underdog Past Grad Programme. This programme consists of weekly sessions focusing on life skills, goal setting and career guidance, while continuing to work with the shelter dogs. It includes more intricate training working with more challenging dogs that need higher levels of patience, perseverance, and consistency. These individuals also become peer leaders for the younger groups, which gives them an increased sense of purpose and provides them with invaluable skills such as leadership, accountability and so much more.

These sessions are focused on more advanced humane education activities for the youth and higher level training for the animals to help increase their chances of adoption. Through highly individualised engagement with the participants, the Underdog team aims to create a student-led, preparatory programme that will support its participants on their way to adulthood.

These individuals specifically, are recognised in their communities for their training and life skills and act as animal kindness ambassadors who lead by example in caring for animals. In this way our programme ripples out and reaches more individuals, spreading awareness and more kindness.

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