True companions, dogs benefit kids in many ways.
It used to happen every day at 3 p.m. As I sat hunched over my desk typing away, I’d feel a tap on my thigh. I’d look down and there was Cruz, my dog, reminding me to pick up my son, Luke, from school.
“In a minute,” I would mumble, but Cruz, who is a Corgi – famous for their herding instinct and for being the Queen’s favourite dog breed – would have none of it. He’d jump up, set his paws on me, and stare at me intently. I’d sigh, “Okay, okay! I’m coming.”
This was Cruz’s favourite part of the day. He’d follow me from room to room, panting, on high alert as I got ready. Outside he’d strain on his leash pulling me to get to the school. Once there, he’d sit patiently on the grass, every now and then jumping on my leg in anticipation. When the bell rang, all hell broke loose as Luke and his horde of friends swarmed Cruz. He was one happy dog: feeling needed, loved and appreciated. Sort of like me, I’d reflect, but that would change all too soon when Luke entered his tween years. “Mom, you can’t walk with me to school. It’s uncool.”
So Cruz no longer jumps on me to remind me to get Luke. If I take Cruz for a walk around 3 p.m. and he sees Luke at the park behind the school, he’ll strain on his leash, looking back hopefully, wondering why he doesn’t join us. I see his confusion and feel bad, but I’m comforted a little to know that my pet companion shares these family growing pains with me.
But while Luke forced me into a different mode of motherhood, his relationship with Cruz has changed little. Cruz is an integral part of his life. There is much mayhem, barking and running around when Cruz and Luke are together. Like Luke, Cruz is quite the goalie. Before every hockey game when Luke will be in net, I throw orange foam pucks at him to catch. When he fumbles, Cruz jumps up eagerly to skillfully retrieve the ball.
Luke often lies on the floor nose-to-nose with Cruz to hug, cuddle or tease him. He kisses him on the nose for good luck before every hockey game. He loves it when Cruz rides shotgun in the car, snout sniffing the air, and ears blowing in the wind. And what better way to end the day than to have Cruz lie next to him as he reads his latest book?
None of this richness could we have foreseen six years ago. I wanted a dog but I had to convince my husband that it was a good idea. I had always had pets while growing up and knew what great companions they are. However, my husband’s formative years were another story. He had grown up with immaculate gleaming floors and everything in its perfect place (the kind of place where vacuuming twice a day was standard practice). Not for them, messy, furry pets that shed and leave poop in the back yard.
But I was persistent. I remembered the unfailing love of my cocker spaniel, Cinders, and how, when I was mad at my parents, she was always there to listen; she was on my side. I thought Luke, as an only child, needed a dog too. I assumed full responsibility, promising to pick up the poop, walk, feed and train the dog. Finally, my husband reluctantly agreed.
Getting Joe’s buy-in was crucial, according to Gina Mireault, a professor of psychology at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. “Families who succeed with pet ownership need to understand that this is a family enterprise. Both adults need to be on board or you can create an imbalance and bring a specific conflict into the family. They need to decide on the role of the pet in the family and who is responsible for its care. Kids are going to fall down on the job, which means you’re going to nag them. You need communication to make sure the needs of the pet are being met.”
It was a mucky, muddy, rainy day in May when we picked up our two-month old Corgi. Who could resist those big ears and comical face? We loved him at first sight, but there were some rough times ahead. Muddy paw prints in the house, dog training classes and chewed furniture. Cruz, thinking Luke was a sheep, herded him persistently into the corners of our backyard by nipping his ankles. Joe was losing his mind – and our backyard of polka dotted yellow pee stains didn’t help. Things were tense.
“People who are not that involved with animals get hooked when they have their own,” says Susan Simmons, a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist. “They get engaged when they watch the pet’s personality evolve.” She was right. Cruz won Joe over. Today, when he arrives home weary from the commute and a stressful day at work, he’s happy to be greeted at the door by Cruz. He often reaches for Cruz and strokes him absently while relaxing at the end of the day, the best de-stressor around.
Mireault says that pets allow families to experience joy. With the fast pace of family life today, their antics and companionship can bring families closer. “Families can share in that joy. They can produce a unique experience.”
I can vouch for that. Cruz, Luke, Joe and I have shared many a laugh together. I remember once when Luke and Cruz were running around the backyard like hooligans and out of nowhere came a loud clap of thunder. They both yelped at the same instant, bolting off in opposite directions. It was a priceless moment.
I work from home so I spend the most time with Cruz. He’s my guard dog; never quite settling until Joe arrives home, even coming to fetch me in the shower if the phone rings. Our nickname for him is Sheriff. It doesn’t matter where he is in the house, if he hears our pet cockatiel Spike fly out of the cage and fall (Spike is very old), he finds him. Circling, barking and clearly worried. He wants him safely back in that cage where he belongs.
Somewhere along the line Cruz became more than just a dog – he is a valued member of our family.
And I know we’re not alone.
The Beeson family has a five-year old Great Pyrenees named Grace. Kay Beeson says, “Grace has shown me how to live in a house that isn’t perfect. It was hard at first but I had to learn to let go of that.” Her kids all love different aspects of Grace. The youngest, Max, 9, appreciates the simple things, “She’s always a good dog to lie your head on. She’s awesome to play with.” To Jay, 11, “she’s a lump of love and fur.” Katy, 12, shares her confidences with Grace. “Grace tries so hard to listen,” says Katy. “She’s my best friend when I can’t talk to anyone. She nuzzles me to say it’s okay. All she wants is to be with me.” And Alex, 16, finds comfort in Grace. “I always feel safe when she sleeps in my room. She can always tell when I’m sad and gives me a lick.”
Susan Holman, who owns a Golden Retriever, also sees the benefits of dog ownership daily. “We spend more family time together than we otherwise would by going for walks, throwing a stick, diving off docks. On a rough day, my daughter will go off with her dog, her best friend, and come back happy. She always understands her.”
What we know through common sense, research has been able to measure, proving that pet ownership has significant health, social, cognitive and behavioural benefits for kids. These include: more physical activity, higher self-esteem and self-confidence, and better ability to cope with death (see sidebar).
Mireault says pets help kids develop emotionally. Kids learn how to nurture another creature, how to be empathetic, and how to put the needs of another creature ahead of their own.
Mireault also points to a study by Scott Mueller that found boys going through a divorce would express feelings of fear, sadness and loneliness to their dogs. This is important “because these are not permitted emotions.” If boys can’t express these powerful emotions they can externalize these feelings by being angry, defiant, withdrawn or sullen.
The loss of a pet can also provide a real opportunity for sharing, says Mireault. It can open up conversations about faith and family belief systems. “Kids can feel intense emotions about loss and grief in the safety of that family unit.”
Despite the many benefits of dogs and other pets, Mireault cautions people to, “Think long and hard about getting a pet. You owe it to the pet to give it a loving home.”
Yes, and when you’re ready, the payback will be enormous.
Advantages of Pet Ownership
A positive relationship with a pet can contribute to a child’s self-esteem, and self-confidence, help him build trusting relationships with others, and help him develop non-verbal communication skills, compassion and empathy.
Pets can serve different purposes for children:
- They can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts–children often talk to their pets, like they do their stuffed animals.
- They provide lessons about life: reproduction, birth, illnesses, accidents, death, and bereavement.
- They can help develop responsible behavior in the children who care for them.
- They provide a connection to nature.
- They can teach respect for other living things.
Other physical and emotional needs fulfilled by pet ownership include:
- Physical activity
- Comfort contact
- Love, loyalty, and affection
- Experience with loss if a pet is lost or dies.
Source: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, www.aacap.org/cs/roots/facts_for_families/pets_and_children