In Defense of Pets – the benefit of pets for children


Last week, we said goodbye to our sweet old hound dog. As I reflect on how thankful I was to have shared more than 8 years with him, I think about how good having dogs has been for our 2.5 year old. Here is a small smattering of the most concrete advantages that I’ve seen with Claire (although I could really go on and on about the benefit of pets for children).

Responsibility:  Growing up, I had horses, cats, and dogs. It was always made clear to us that the horses ate before us, twice per day. Even on Christmas morning, we fed horses before opening any gifts. We planned our day around the horses and their eating times, and we had to know exactly how much each ate, any medicine or supplements, etc.—or else there could be serious consequences due to their delicate intestinal systems. While our current dogs are much easier, Claire learned from a young age how to feed them and routinely helps us with that as one of her chores.

Kindness, Compassion, and Gentleness:  It’s taken a while, but now Claire is gentle and sweet to our three dogs (and other animals she meets) the vast majority of the time. Yes, sometimes she still gets too loud near them, or swings a shoelace too close to them, or “pats” them over-exuberantly. But mostly, she gives them sweet snuggles, rubs them tenderly, and includes them in her playing.

Empathy and Understanding About Life and Death:  When we put Smokey down the other night, although Claire didn’t completely understand what was happening, she had a pretty good idea. She was also very concerned about my feelings. She said, “Mama, you sad?  You crying?”  When I acknowledged that I was and why, she said, “Mama, come in the house. I’ll get you some milk to make you feel better.”  Since then, she’s made references to Smokey not coming back. She says, “He lives in our hearts now.”

(When I was a kid and our pets died, it was one of the only times I ever saw my mom cry. My mom, sister, and I would sob together on the couch, and I so appreciated seeing that vulnerability and sharing it with my family.)

Social Skills and Learning Body Language:  We explain to Claire that the dogs can’t talk to tell us how they’re feeling. We’ve taught her to “read their body language” and now she’ll say things like, “Yum Yum’s happy.” And when we ask why she notes that:  “She’s wagging her tail.”  Sometimes, she’ll need a reminder to stay gentle and we’ll point out that Squid is moving away from her with her ears down. She’s clearly learning how to pay attention to subtle expressions of emotions, which I am confident will transfer over to humans as well.

Claire also tries to imitate our dogs. She puts on their collars and “scratches” her back on the floor “like Squiddy”. I’m no child psychiatrist, but I imagine that she’s paying attention to the behaviors of others around her and trying to replicate them for social reasons—a valuable skill in life. And if not, at least it’s good pretend play!

Exercise and Exploration of Nature:  Taking the dogs out is a great excuse to get out ourselves and get into nature, where Claire learns everything from meteorology to flora, fauna, and archeology in hands-on ways. Also, when we go on hikes, she is constantly tuned in to where the dogs are. If she doesn’t see one for a minute, she starts calling until they’re back in her view. She’s learning how to keep an eye on others and be aware of their presence.

Anatomy and Bodily Functions:  This one was an unexpected benefit of pets for children. As Claire is learning to use the toilet, it has been really helpful for her to see the dogs poop and pee outside. She’s also keen on the anatomical differences between “boy [dogs]” and “girl [dogs]”, and she knows a bit about puppies and how/where they get their nutrition.

As we all said goodbye to our sweet Smokey and thanked him for the vital roles he played in our lives (guard dog, companion), I also felt eternally grateful for his role in Claire’s life, albeit for too short a time. Although it’s devastating to lose a member of the family, the gifts he gave us far outweighed the mourning I’m experiencing now. I encourage anyone who can to get animals; one of the many advantages of pets is that they undoubtedly help develop children’s social and emotional growth.

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