— This year at Felix Varela Senior High School, there
were six new students in Yleana Escobar’s veterinary
science program. And, as newcomers, some of them had a
hard time adjusting. One student refused to interact
with his peers. Others acted out, jumping on desks and
refusing to sit still.
Escobar and the other students understood. The newcomers
had been through a lot before getting to the high
school. They had been abandoned at a young age and some
had lived on the streets. One was covered in ticks and
fleas and was losing his hair to mange.
Escobar and her students brought them to Felix Varela
for training, the six dogs faced a bleak future.
had one dog about to be euthanized," said Alyssa
Dawson, 18, one of the students in Felix Varela’s
SPOTS Dog Training Program, part of the school’s
veterinary science magnet. "We gave them a chance
the past semester, the SPOTS students have lovingly
trained the dogs, even coming to school on weekends and
holidays to work with the animals. Their goal was to
turn the motley crew into "perfect pooches" so
they had a better shot at getting adopted into a loving
of the top reasons people give up dogs is because of
behavior," said Escobar, who runs the veterinary
science magnet. "We want that to change. We want
people to understand that even your hardest cases can be
assisted through proper behavioral care."
program started four years ago in collaboration with
Karen Ashby, a Miami vet who was shocked by the number
of abandoned animals she saw while working at a local
animal shelter. Many of the dogs had been dropped off by
pet owners who were unable to cope with behavior
became overwhelmed by the number of animals that are
left there, and the overwhelming number of animals that
were being euthanized at that time," Ashby said.
She stayed up at night doing research on what she could
do to help and came across a book that explained how
vets could improve dog behavior so they were less likely
to end up in a shelter.
reached out to local dog trainers and rescue groups, and
started the Miami Veterinary Coalition to Prevent
Unwanted Pets & Pet Euthansia. The organization
teaches local vets and the public about force-free
training, a technique that uses positive reinforcement
like treats to shape dog behavior. Ashby’s group
partnered with Escobar to teach the technique to
students in the vet science program, and for the first
few years the students brought dogs from a local rescue
program to the school for training.
year for the first time, Felix Varela has partnered with
Miami-Dade County Animal Services to bring dogs directly
from the shelter to the high school. The six dogs taken
from a Doral shelter this semester lived in kennels
attached to Escobar’s classroom and played in a
spacious outdoor area behind the school. For 10 weeks,
students trained the animals, coming in at 6 every
morning to check on the dogs before class and squeezing
in whatever time they could during the day between
classes, homework and their other obligations. On
weekends and during Escobar’s class, they doubled down
on the behavior training.
students also documented the dogs’ transformation,
posting pictures and videos on a Facebook page for
prospective families. By the end of the semester, the
students had found homes for all of the animals. The
hardest part, they said, was saying goodbye to the dogs
they had grown to love. One student broke down in tears
when the dog she had worked with all semester was placed
with a family.
sense of loss will be short-lived, however. Come
January, the students will pick six more dogs from the
shelter and start the training process all over again.
in the vet science program are studying to become
veterinary assistants while they are in high school, and
many plan to become vets or work with animals in another
capacity after they graduate. Ashby and Escobar hope
that as the students start their careers, their
knowledge of force-free training techniques will help
change the way pet owners interact with canines and
hopefully keep more animals from ending up in shelters.
the meantime, the SPOTS program also serves another
purpose, said Jennifer Hernandez, 17, one of three
seniors who helps Escobar oversee the training along
with classmates Dawson and Marcela Alvaro, 17. For
students who feel out of place at school or struggle to
make friends, the SPOTS program provides a sense of
is their getaway," Hernandez said. "The dogs
don’t judge the kids … the dog becomes their best
agreed. "The dogs just listen and look at you like,
‘I love you,’" she said.
forget about the problems," Hernandez said.
"It’s another world. They forget about the math
test they failed."
nodded. "It’s a relief," she said.