Health and Development

The Power of Pets: How Raising Animals Creates Compassion and Builds Integrity

Girl with PuppyAlison Brownrigg’s kids accompany her to the backyard chicken coop every day. It might be easier for the Seattle mom to manage the brood without daughter Ruby, 5, and son Max, 2, underfoot. But Brownrigg understands that her children learn something important each time they visit those chicks. “It’s their chore, and taking part in that teaches them responsibility.”

Brownrigg is onto something. Anyone who has ever seen a child meet a pet understands the joy that comes with interacting with — and caring for — an animal. And while providing a child with a playmate might be reason enough to add an animal to your domestic ménage, it turns out there’s more to it than that.

There’s no shortage of information (just ask Google) on the benefits of pet ownership — developmental, emotional and physical. But how does it all play out when it comes to kids?

“By keeping a promise to do a chore or care for a pet, children make deposits in their personal integrity bank,” says Christine Hamer, author of Parenting with Pets. “The wealth of this account directly corresponds to the children’s self-esteem and belief in themselves.” That’s because each time a child makes a commitment and then keeps it, he consciously or subconsciously recognizes the integrity and strength of character it takes to do that, she says.

Hamer feels that kids with pets learn lessons in patience and tolerance. They also develop nonverbal communication skills by becoming adept at reading their pet’s body language. And a 1994 study by Kansas State University seems to back that up. The study found that 3- and 4-year-olds with pets were better able to understand the feelings of older children than those who didn’t have pets.

Nurturing compassion

James Serpell, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says nurturing a pet in the home can be instrumental in developing compassion and social understanding. “We have quite good evidence that kids who grow up with animals seem to develop more effective empathic skills [than children who do not have animals].”

Caring for a dog can also benefit kids’ health. In fact, there’s growing evidence that walking one could be an effective tool in the battle against childhood obesity. “The idea stems from early studies that showed people who acquired dogs started to walk a great deal more than people who didn’t,” says Serpell. “Other studies indicate that in families that own a dog, the children are less obese.”

And — counterintuitive though it may be — having a pet in the home might reduce the chance your child develops allergies. “There is some evidence that children who are exposed to animal allergens derived from animal dander early in their lives are likely to be more resistant later on,” says Serpell.

Peggy Gilmer runs a life coaching farm in Enumclaw, where she helps build leadership and productivity skills in both business executives and children. She often guides school groups through a series of horse-related exercises designed to increase self-awareness and understanding of others. The results are profound, she says. “Working with horses very rapidly develops a child’s emotional intelligence and self-mastery.”

Through activities such as grooming the horses, the kids learn about ways their behavior and energy can affect others, and how to be more sensitive to someone else’s feelings. “The kids arrive and right off the bat they are squealing, jumping and buzzing about,” says Gilmer. “I show them exactly how the animals react to that.”

In one exercise, Gilmer asks each child to work one on one with a horse in the arena and command it to walk to a designated area. “The kids don’t have a hold of the lead rope, so they have to channel their energy and focus in a way that communicates where they’d like the horse to go,” she says.

At the end of the day, Gilmer asks them to reflect on their experience. Their confidence is breathtaking, she says. “For a fifth-grader, to recognize this sense of ‘This is what it feels like when I’m standing in my own authority; this is what it feels like when I use intention,’ that’s incredible,” she says. “They can then replicate that feeling in their day-to-day lives.”

Helping at-risk kids

Girl with horseAt Hooves with Heart, a Bothell-based nonprofit that provides experiential learning for at-risk and special-needs youth, the focus is on life-skills education. Through working with horses and other animals on the farm, kids learn about teamwork, integrity, work ethic, leadership, trust and more, says the program director Leif Hallberg.

“Even though the kids may be learning a skill that isn’t directly related to their everyday lives, such as cleaning out a stall or feeding the chickens, the success and sense of accomplishment they feel translates into a sense of empowerment over the ability to learn and function efficiently in society,” says Hallberg, the author of Walking the Way of the Horse: Exploring the Power of the Horse-Human.

The horses provide a therapeutic connection the kids don’t get elsewhere, she adds. “Horses are nonjudgmental. They don’t lecture or criticize. But they do expect you to be your best, and they give you instant feedback about what’s going on with you. It’s reflective therapy for kids.”  

After years of regarding animal therapy as an alternative concept, the medical community has recently started to examine the science behind it. The evidence is compelling, says Serpell. “We don’t really fully understand all the mechanisms yet — in other words, how exactly the animal can reduce a person’s blood pressure in a stressful situation, for example — but we can certainly see the effects,” Serpell explains.

Jennifer Patterson, a Seattle-based family therapist, witnesses these effects. She often introduces informal animal-assisted therapy and sometimes brings her own dog to sessions. The calm presence of the animal seems to sooth the kids, she says. “Children with anxiety and depression can have trouble with self-soothing. Having an animal there can really ground these children, because the kids can have a tactile exchange with them.”

Research shows that animals can help reduce anxiety, says Serpell. Studies indicate that animal interaction can reduce blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations. “Interacting with certain animals can offset the feeling of depression by triggering the release of certain feel-good hormones, such as serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin,” he says.

Therapy pets

If the average family pet can reduce a child’s anxiety level, imagine the magic a trained therapy dog could generate.

The Lonstein family of Boylston, Mass., knows this well. At age 6, Wendy and Keith’s autistic son, Nolan, often had public meltdowns. When the family’s pediatrician told them a therapy dog might help, the Lonsteins were skeptical. But soon after getting involved with Delta Society (now Pet Partners), a therapy dog placement program, they found Clara.

After just two weeks, the Lonsteins noticed a monumental change.

“We were at a carnival, and Nolan insisted on going on one particular ride. The line was long, and we knew he’d never make it without a meltdown. Sure enough, about two minutes went by and he started getting agitated,” Wendy remembers.

Ready to make a run for it, Keith began hunting for the car keys. But Clara was with them. “I suggested to Nolan that maybe Clara wanted some treats,” says Wendy. “Nolan asked her to sit and bark and lay down. Other people began to notice, and suddenly the meltdown look vanished from his eyes. He stood up straight and held his head high. He was so proud to show the other kids what he could make his dog do. And he made it through the entire day.”

Clara has been at Nolan’s side for four years now. She’s with him when he wakes up and gets ready for school, and she’s waiting for him when he gets home. If he begins to lose control of his emotions, he works with Clara to bring himself back down to a level playing field. “Two minutes with her and he’s forgotten all about whatever incident just set him off,” says Wendy. “It’s been life-changing.”
Make no mistake, says Serpell, “animals are affecting children at many levels, and for the most part, it’s all beneficial.”

Andrea Dashiell has written for Seattle magazine, Parents, DailyCandy Kids, Red Tricycle, Where and others.

How to choose the right pet for your family

If there’s a critter in your family’s future, Christine Hamer, author of Parenting with Pets, suggests asking yourself these questions (and being sure you’re OK with the answers!) before you bring your new pet home.

  • How long does this pet live?
  • How large does this pet grow?
  • How much space does this animal need to have an optimal life?
  • What kind of exercise does this animal need and how often? Some pets require training time in addition to regular care.
  • What kind of grooming and vet care does the pet require?
  • What does this animal eat and how much?
  • What is the daily care regimen for this kind of pet, and does our family realistically have the time?
  • Are there any allergies or other sensitivities among family members that might conflict with having this type of pet? For example, parrots can be quite noisy for sound-sensitive people. Rodents may be odoriferous for those more sensitive to smells.

Read Next