Their name intrigued me. Funda Nenja translates to “Learning with a dog” in isiZulu. Their mission inspired me: “Our aim is to improve the quality of life for both township children and their dogs. The concept of ‘learning with a dog’ incorporates animal welfare and the development of young minds.” Funda Nenja believes that instilling values of kindness, respect, and compassion through positive reinforcement training of their dogs changes children’s attitudes toward and emotional responses to their dogs. “We are investing in the future, not just applying a Band-Aid approach to animal welfare. These children will become agents of change and role models of responsible, caring dog owners in their communities.” The month I spent in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, observing the dedication of the adult staff and volunteers, mentoring the college- and high school-age instructors, and working hands on with the township children and their dogs was one of the most transformative experiences of my career.
Life in the townships
Mpophomeni Township is one of the most deprived areas in KwaZulu-Natal. The hills are swallowed by hundreds of single-room houses put together piecemeal with earth, brick and metal flashing. Many have neither running water nor indoor plumbing. Their rows are interrupted only by rows of tattered, colorful laundry billowing on the line. Every Friday at 2:30 p.m., people start emerging from the dusty brown land in the distance. Dozens of giggling children appear with their dogs in tow, some cradling puppies close to their chests like baskets of fragile china. Never mind that Dog School doesn’t begin until 3:15 p.m. This is the highlight of their week!
The chain-link fence to the school grounds begins to sag under the weight of approximately 100 children and their rambunctious little brown dogs, eager to enter. The Funda Nenja song blares out of portable speakers. It’s a catchy tune graciously created and donated by Don Clarke, an award-winning South African musician and composer. Everyone joins in. That’s when I felt it: the irrepressible sense of joy emanating from these children. “This is amazing,” I think, as hundreds of pairs of feet and puppy paws pour in through the gates. I watch a constant flow of boisterous, grinning children rush by. Their excitement for this week’s lesson and the opportunity to teach and bond with their precious dogs will not be dampened by the frigid temperature, nor the looming threat of rain. They hurriedly scoot off to their respective classes on the immense grass field.
For the next hour these children are surrounded by the power of positive reinforcement training, supportive guidance from their instructors, and the self-satisfaction of teaching their best friends to sit, lie down, and walk with them. Moreover, they gain the knowledge, possibly for the first time, that they have the ability to communicate and teach using nonviolence. Dog School concludes with social opportunities with their peers, proudly shared details of what they accomplished with their furry best friends, and a free piece of fruit and a juice box. After all, one of the fundamental requirements for a successful dog training session is “Always end on a positive note!”
How Funda Nenja came to be
Adrienne Olivier, founder and general operations manager of Funda Nenja, saw the need for humane education while volunteering at SPCA outreach clinics in the African townships. “It was greatly distressing to see the cruel, coercive manhandling of the dogs. It made sense to share my practical dog training knowledge with the local community to show people a better way of dealing with their dogs.”
With the help of local SPCA field officers, Olivier advertised the first workshop. The goal: a short-term project aimed at teaching school children humane handling of their dogs. “I rounded up a group of SPCA volunteers and some relatively experienced handlers from my dog school to assist with instruction,” notes Olivier. “We had no idea what the response from the community would be, and we set out with no real plan other than a determination to make a difference. The first session was attended by 12 boys and their dogs. Each week the numbers increased. We realized the project might extend for longer than originally anticipated.”
Ten years later, Funda Nenja went from exchanging ropes and chains for flat collars and leads, and teaching basics of dog training using lure and reward, to becoming a nationally sought-after program attracting attention from international welfare organizations, the World Health Organization and Animal World Health Organization, and media from across the globe. Olivier explains, “It started as a loose, informal activity that happened once a week with the help of volunteers. We’ve developed into a completely structured nonprofit organization with full-time staff and a dedicated team of more than 25 volunteers who share the passion and vision of Funda Nenja.”
Living the value of positive reinforcement
One value that Olivier holds fast to is positive reinforcement training. “From the outset we were determined to follow a force-free approach, as violence is common in all aspects of South African township life. We wanted to demonstrate a more humane way of achieving one’s goals.” This is guided by a relatively new concept called One Welfare. It acknowledges the interconnectedness of animals, humans, and the environment. On its face, it seems to have some similar qualities to the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) in the United States.
“As a result of this we see children who were initially afraid of their dogs begin to form beautiful bonds with them,” according to Lisa Button, project administrator and assistant Dog School manager. “They go from not knowing how to hold their puppies to gently stroking and talking to them. Some of these children come from unfortunate home circumstances. Through Funda Nenja they discover their dog can be their best friend who loves them unconditionally.”
Button describes one of the most heart-warming stories as an example of the human-animal bond in action. “We came across a young boy, about 7 years old, who had no social skills whatsoever. During our home visit we discovered he lived with his grandmother, who is unable to work due to poor health. They are poverty stricken. We have been keeping an eye on him as he attends Funda Nenja every week with his little dog. He has to walk a long way to get to us, which he does alone with only his little brown dog, Lion, by his side. They have the most incredible relationship. They are a beautiful pair to watch. He occasionally speaks very softly to his dog. But there is an indescribable connection between the two of them. Their relationship requires few words.”
One young man who was previously involved with a gang in Mpophomeni said, “Funda Nenja helped me turn my life around. I realized how badly my life could have gone if I stayed in the gang.” He began as a student before becoming an instructor. His position as an integral part of Funda Nenja gave him a sense of self-worth. He finished school and is now employed at a dog grooming establishment.
In addition to serving the children and their, dogs Funda Nenja is serving the entire community through the Social Services Department. Button states, “We assist the very poor families with clothing and food parcels in certain circumstances. Our social worker also offers free family counseling, a service no one else is offering in Mpophomeni.”
Every new intake puppy or dog gets a free jersey, veterinary check, wormer, and rabies vaccine. They can purchase a flat collar and lead for a nominal fee. They are loaned cloth pouches to hold the kibble that is used in their lure and reward training.
Button points out that LIMA figures prominently into their program. “We only allow positive reinforcement training. The kids are shown that patience and perseverance pay off, and there is no need to use force. They see how relaxed and willing their dogs are and learn to encourage their dogs in difficult situations versus forcing them.”
The main message to the students is to treat their dogs with compassion, patience, kindness, and love. “We teach them all animals have feelings and emotions, similar to us, and they need to take care of their dogs’ basic needs. The lessons they are learning are spreading rapidly through the community. The change in mind set is having far reaching benefits as the children are transferring these feelings and emotions to their families and friends.”
The children are also learning to respect their environment as part of Funda Nenja—before class starts, each student is required to pick up at least ten pieces of garbage from around the school field, which is often littered with trash.
The sustainability of this program is vital to the psychological health of this community and the welfare of all its residents. That job falls heavily on the shoulders of Button. While attending Olivier’s training classes with one of her own dogs, Button was asked to volunteer. “Once I started volunteering on the odd Friday afternoon, I fell in love with the program and became a regular.” That was five years ago. Button is now the go-to for many of the program’s primary functions, which include getting more dogs spayed and neutered, providing easier access to veterinary care, and reaching more people to educate them about animal welfare.
According to Button, “We are very well-known in the townships. More and more adults are bringing us their sick or injured dogs for treatment. There are more workshops for the instructors, which improves their training and communication skills, improving the program. We often receive direct feedback from residents that they are grateful for the work we are doing. Parents and grandparents are starting to attend Funda Nenja’s Friday Dog School!”
Olivier states, “The impact we have made on the broader community, both socially and in terms of animal welfare, has been noted by the Social Services Department as well as verified by a recent survey overseen by the local State Veterinary Department. We would like to see our model of animal welfare, which follows the One Welfare approach, being replicated all over South Africa.”
Some notable achievements
The Funda Nenja model has garnered interest from the academic and veterinary community. For example, they presented the Funda Nenja model of animal welfare as invited guests of Dogs Trust at the International Companion Animal Welfare Conference, in Krakow, Poland, in 2018. They also have an invitation to present at the 3rd International Dog Population Management Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, this September.
Funda Nenja’s model of animal welfare is inspiring other animal welfare organizations, including Edu-Paw, to start similar projects in other parts of the country. “People are recognizing the value of the loving bond between handler and dog that develops through the training process,” according to Olivier.
Their demonstration team, consisting of five advanced dog-handler teams, is in hot demand to give demos at events in and around the Midlands. Go to Funda Nenja’s Facebook page to see them in action! “These training displays are always well-received by the public and help dispel the belief that all African township dogs suffer neglect and abuse from their guardians,” Olivier said. “They’re also a wonderful opportunity for our young handlers to experience another slice of life which would not otherwise be available to them. They delight in showcasing their canine skills, which helps nurture their self-esteem and confidence.”
Olivier is especially proud of the fact that Funda Nenja offers both part-time and full-time employment to members of the Mpophomeni community, where more than half the population is unemployed. It also provided career skills for other dog-related jobs. Students from Funda Nenja have worked as airport detection dog handlers, dog groomers, and kennel assistants at local veterinary practices and boarding facilities.
As with most nonprofits, funding is the biggest challenge. Olivier says, “We constantly have to seek financial assistance, as we are totally dependent on the support of donors.”
Seeing for myself the deprivation the children at Funda Nenja experienced, and the challenges they faced every day in the township was at times a shocking experience for me. My most valuable takeaway: Every ounce of positive energy a person invests in a mission that uplifts animals and people has the power to change not only the quality of life for that animal, but also the perspective and quality of life of the participants, their family members, their community, their region, their country, and the world.
(If you are interested in learning how you can help Funda Nenja in their mission, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Melissa Yank is a supporting member of IAABC. She has been a senior canine education instructor and district mentor for Petco since 2010. She also owns Top Notch Dogs – Positive Reinforcement Training and Behavior Modification in Newport Beach, California. Her initial 20-year career was with exotic animals as a trainer and educator for three major Southern California zoos, as well as founder of her own exotic animal sanctuary. She learned about Funda Nenja through a fellow positive reinforcement trainer and was inspired to spend a month with them last year sharing her knowledge and passion. She plans on returning to help further their mission.