The Underdog Project

17th Jul, 2023

Siyamthanda Gqomani (Intern Facilitator at The Underdog Project) and Tyson (a dog currently available for adoption from DARG)

Written by Emily Smith, Facilitator at The Underdog Project

Professional photography by Juliette Bisset  

Building young lives, one dog at a time.

South African youth face countless daily stressors which contribute to hindering their education and heavily impact their transition into adulthood. These include, but are not limited to, poverty, under-resourced schools, no after-school care, limited access to therapeutic interventions, lack of role models or caring adults, crippling peer and societal pressures, and exposure to violence and substance abuse.

In a similar breath, out of the estimated 14.9 million dogs and cats in South Africa, a distressing 4.1 million are considered strays. Thousands endure lives of neglect and abuse, whilst others are left in shelters. Animal shelters are under constant strain having to care for and home the animals brought in off the street or confiscated from abusive environments. Aside from their basic need for food and shelter, these animals are in desperate need of support and upliftment if they are ever to find new and loving homes – or simply improve their lives in the shelter.

The Underdog Project asked the question: Could we impact the lives of children and teenagers in some positive, life-changing way and, at the same time, help the desperate plight of shelter dogs by giving them a higher chance of finding them forever homes? The answer? We can.

The Underdog Project, established in 2011, developed unique programmes that work with at-risk youth and shelter dogs. The children on the programme come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have been recruited from neighbouring schools or identified by teachers or counsellors as struggling socially, emotionally, or academically.

Using a combination of positive reinforcement dog training, humane education, and life skills activities, the project engages with, motivates, and inspires the learners to reorient their lives. Each learner is paired with a shelter dog under the guidance of experienced dog trainers and facilitators, encouraging the development of latent empathy and compassion for animals. While the therapeutic power of animals helps tackle social and emotional problems, working alongside shelter dogs also offers these vulnerable animals much-needed training, stimulation, exercise, socialisation, and unconditional love - all improving their chances of being adopted.

This incredible programme is immensely beneficial to these two vulnerable groups, each one a teacher for the other. The dogs learn to trust and bond with humans again, while the youth see something of themselves in the dogs that they train. When the dogs begin to succeed, not only is it rewarding and helps to build self-esteem, but the young trainers realise they, too, are more than capable of making a choice to change and succeed in life in spite of their difficult circumstances.

To find out more about The Underdog Project, feel free to WhatsApp 072 848 9892, email, visit their website, head over to their Facebook page follow them on Instagram @the_underdog_project_ct

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