We know pets can be man’s best friend, but can they be your child’s best teacher? Wet dog kisses and warm kitty cuddles aren’t the only things kids gain from furry friends. Caring for pets fosters responsibility and a whole lot more. “Loving something that needs you and depends on you teaches empathy,” says Becky Bishop of Puppy Manners in Woodinville.
Sometimes that empathy needs nurturing. Typically, kids need reminders that there’s more to pets than playtime. Shelly Macer of Seattle says her family’s menagerie has taught her daughter Jade, 11, many lessons in responsibility, but those lessons came slowly. By gradually introducing fish, then a hamster to the family’s animal collection, Jade learned to care for smaller, less demanding pets before adding a dog and cat to the mix.
By the time she was 7, Jade took on feeding chores, starting with dry food, and then working up to the dreaded stinky wet stuff. “She held her nose and did it,” Macer says, “but she still complained.” It turned out the real problem was Jade’s fear of the dark lower level where the cat was fed. After learning of this, Macer reassured her by standing at the top of the stairs while Jade raced down to feed the cat.
“Reluctance to feed pets can actually be a sign that the child feels intimidated,” Bishop says. “Maybe your pet is nipping at your kids. Your child might be afraid to say something because they don’t want to seem weak or get the pet in trouble. Try to find out why your kid is dropping the ball. There might be an easy fix.”
With this fear resolved, Macer met additional protests from Jade with a simple rebuttal. “Any time she complains about feeding the animals, I just say, ‘OK, does that mean I get to skip your dinner tonight?’”
With responsibilities come privileges. As kids gain independence, opportunities for pet care can be framed as rewards. At 10, Jade was allowed to walk the family’s dog Lulu around the block by herself. At 11, she was ready to walk the dog to the library. “The first time, I met up with her and made sure she knew how to tie Lulu up. After that, she was on her own,” Macer says.
Seattle dad Myke Folger assigns age-appropriate pet care to each of his three daughters, ages 9, 6 and 4. “Sometimes it would be a lot faster if I just went ahead and did it myself,” Folger says. “It’s been hard, but it pays off.”
His eldest daughter, Kristin, walks the dog, while his middle daughter, Lucy, cleans up the poop. Anna, the 4-year-old, feeds Riley, the golden doodle. All three girls are learning — with the help of a professional trainer — to train Riley.
Folger tries to suggest to his girls that Riley is a member of the family who needs their help. “They know he can’t feed himself and that he’s wild and could run out the door,” Folger says. “They take it seriously because we take it seriously.”
Preparing the family
Every family member needs to be on board for the realities of a new pet, whether it’s a goldfish, a kitten or a wriggly new puppy, says Bishop. That means learning all you can about pet care — the good, the bad and the soiled carpet — before the pet arrives, not just after. Without a clear idea of how to tackle problem pet behavior, adjusting to a new furry sidekick can be brutal. Folger’s family faced this when Riley started nipping and barking. Eventually the family brought in a professional to help.
“It’s important to really think it through,” says Bishop. “Parents have happy memories of their own childhoods with their dogs, but being the one in charge of kids and dogs is a different matter.”
Bishop suggests taking an honest look at your family’s level of work and activities, particularly if your goal is that your child be the pet’s primary caretaker. “If your kid is booked solid with after-school classes and activities, you probably shouldn’t get a dog. Dogs have to be a priority.”
Chandra Wu, a Vancouver, B.C., mother of two girls, agrees. Wu and her husband decided they’d be responsible for feeding and caring for their new Lab puppy until their daughters were older. That turned out to be the right decision — he was a handful.
“I would love to warn parents about just how much discipline, stamina and dedication is required to raise and train a puppy,” Wu says. “My kids may have been particularly easy, but I found the dog to be much more work. Living with a puppy brought me to tears on more than one occasion.”
Cedar Burnett is a freelance writer and the mother of a fiercely independent 3-year-old. More at cedarburnett.com.
Tips for smooth sailing with pets
- Prepare your children before the animal enters your home. Knowing the realities of your pet ― that puppies bite, hamsters make noise at night, cats need alone time — can help your child to avoid taking natural behaviors personally.
- Have your 7- to 11-year-old sign a contract listing simple rules about caring for their pet. Writing it down can impart a level of seriousness and help your child understand your expectations.
- Bring your whole family to a training class before you get a dog. Many area trainers offer classes for children ages 6 and older and encourage having the family in attendance. If everyone receives the same training, it’s easier to stay on the same page.
- When choosing a trainer, look for instructors who have had children themselves or extensive training experience with children. It will help the process to have a trainer with as much empathy and patience for children as they have for dogs.