It’s a dog’s life: Lessons in leadership from canines


Smiling faces complement wagging tails as children and their canine companions run through open fields. Puppies soar over hurdles towards the promise of treats. But this dog show is no ordinary spectacle. Pampered pedigrees are nowhere to be seen – today’s occasion is reserved for township dogs. And it’s helping the humans who accompany them. Adrienne Olivier, who started the dog training initiative to support animal welfare, found that the therapeutic nature of working with animals created a safe space for kids to bond and address issues they face back home.

Olivier has worked with dogs for over 45 years, running puppy training schools, founding a township dog talent show and teaching animal safety. Funda Nenja (Learning with the Dog) is Olivier’s way of helping both dog and owner. “I think of all the things that I’ve done with dogs in my life, this is the one that’s given me the greatest satisfaction,” she says. The initiative doubles as a support centre for the kids handling the dogs. It now includes a full-time educational officer and a social worker, who identifies vulnerable children by interacting with them during the training sessions and provides educational and psychological guidance.

What started as a dog-training project has evolved into a social initiative reaching over 100 families and their dogs in the township of Mpophomeni. The self-discipline and leadership skills that come with dog handling contribute to children’s sense of self-worth, with some eventually becoming Funda Nenja trainers themselves. In a place that fosters safety, protection and belonging, they are learning respect and compassion which echoes back into the community as they develop into responsible adults.