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The Chew: What Pets Can Teach Your Child

The following bi-weekly column is written and sponsored by Bark & Boarding, which provides a heart-centered and safe environment for your pets. Conveniently located at 5818-C Seminary Road in Bailey’s Crossroads, Bark & Boarding offers doggy daycare, boarding, grooming, walking and training services, plus in-home pet care.

By Rae Patterson, Writer and Animal Enthusiast

Pets require work, they make messes, and they sometimes smell. But they’re worth it. Anyone who has bonded with an animal will tell you that their home wouldn’t be complete without one.

Animals have something to teach everyone, but living with and caring for a pet has especially incredible benefits for kids. Here are a few things I learned that your children could also gain from having pets:

Responsibility: This first one might be obvious, because caring for an animal is a daily responsibility. However, not only is the care of an animal’s life a high-stakes duty, it’s also a highly rewarding one. And the rewards are often easier for a child to see than those of other household chores.

A 10-year-old probably doesn’t care much about the rewards of cleaning the house; but the fun of watching a colorful fish tank or playing tug-of-war with a dog are things a child can see as worthwhile. Likewise, animals often respond in the moment to the things your child does to care for them. A guinea pig squeaks and popcorns in delight when you place hay into his cage. A cat purrs and rubs against you as you combs her. These rewards teach kids the natural benefits of being responsible.

Patience: All animals require patience, and we all could probably use more practice with that! Pets offer practice in patience that yields rewards. For example, setting up a new fish tank requires you to wait three days after doing the work, to allow the tank to cycle, before adding the fish. A parakeet will be skittish for a few days, while you gently coax the bird until it finally sits on your finger.

When I was 10, my family got our first dog and I accompanied my mom to the obedience classes with our Border Collie mix, Molly. I was impatient and frustrated at first, because Molly was young and easily distracted. But I still remember the proud day my sister and I finally taught Molly to jump through a Hula Hoop. Working with my dog was its own reward.

The times of waiting can be used to build anticipation and to praise your kids for the work they are doing. Your kids will be even more satisfied with the results when they finally receive the fruits of their patience.

Non-Verbal Communication: “This communication is passed by means of visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic cues usually between members of the same species.” Animals communicate entirely through these non-language cues, and an observant human can learn to recognize many of them.

A child can be happy to know that his cat’s upright tail means she is welcoming and glad to see him. Your child can also learn the importance of paying attention to non-verbal cues by identifying the visual signs of fear or frustration that cats and dogs exhibit before lashing out.

There’s something very special about looking into your pet’s eyes and sharing a moment of understanding. The majority of human communication is non-verbal as well, so spending time with animals is excellent practice in an important life skill. Bonding with an animal has also been known to help children with autism, because verbal language is not required for communication with animals.

Respect: Animals need respect of their life, feelings, and space, the same as humans. While a human might remain quiet when hurt or crowded, animals usually won’t put up with it. As a young child antagonizing my mom’s cat I might receive a hiss or a swat that I quickly learned to avoid. A rabbit that is grabbed too roughly might kick and scratch to get away.

These self-preservation behaviors would not severely harm your child; they just send a clear message. With parental guidance, children can learn to handle and interact with animals with respect. Relating to animals with fairness and compassion is good practice in relating to other people. 

A Point of Connection: Children who love animals and have pets of their own have an immediate social connection when meeting new people. Pets are a great casual conversation-starter, a subject that your child might be more comfortable discussing with new kids or caretakers. And if your kid finds another animal-lover, it could be the start of a friendship.

I was the new kid in eighth grade, sitting next to a reluctant companion on a field trip bus ride. Thankfully, my mom had versed me in introducing myself by talking about my interests. “Do you have pets?” I asked. “I love animals! I have two cats and a dog and some hermit crabs.” Suddenly, I wasn’t so alien anymore. The girl next to me told me about her dog, Freckles, and she is, 10 years later, still my best friend.

Pets give us gifts of love and lessons every day, and they can be instrumental in helping your child grow as a person! If you decide to enrich your child’s life through a pet, know that you will always have a support system through the staff at Bark & Boarding. Whether you are a current client or a new pet owner, we are here to provide guidance and advice.

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