The Case for Making a Four-Legged Creature Part of Your Family

Melissa Chapman
March 17, 2011

When I first brought my Shih Tzu home there was an adjustment period during which I tried to get her to stop peeing on the carpet, decode her bark and eat food without heating it up.  And even though 12 years later I'm still microwaving her food, I cannot imagine the fabric of our lives without her.

When you bring your pooch home, especially if you already have kids, there will be bumps in the road.  You'll be sizing each other up, learning to gel your routines and ultimately become a cohesive unit.  But remember, anything worth its weight is going to require a little work.  If you follow through it can be one of the greatest gifts you'll ever give your kids - a sense of compassion, patience and a responsibility to someone other than themselves.

Sherrie A. Madia, Ph.D., educator, author of Alphabet Woof! and single parent who, together with her teenage daughters rescued a dog from their local animal orphanage, believes having a dog has made all the difference in their relationship as a family.

"Our dog Polly caused a shift in the dynamic in our household because she is now the most helpless member - the new baby. She's caused my girls to become more responsible in that we all simply have to ensure that she's safe," says Dr. Madia.  

While Dr. Madia admits neither she nor her girls enjoy taking Polly for a walk when it's pouring, freezing or super hot outside, the act of doing so has become an opportunity to bond and get up and outdoors in the fresh air.   

"During our daily dog walks we've seen early morning sunrises and beautiful stars thanks to our dog," says Dr. Madia. "Since the day that we got her I have said to our dog Polly, 'How did we get so lucky to have you?' My girls say, 'Mom, when are you going to stop saying that already?' and I respond with, 'I don't think I ever will.'  Our dog is truly a gift in her innocence, in her enthusiasm for each new day and in her ability to make us laugh and bring us together as a family."

With more than 20 years of teaching families how to train their dogs under her belt, Eugenia Vogel of feels pets can unify a family and provide kids with integral life lessons.

"There is plenty of scientific evidence of dogs helping children improve social skills and self-esteem,"
says Vogel.  "If you've ever had a dog, especially as a kid, you know how irreplaceable they are a best friend, anchor, sounding board, mood lifter and reason to get out of bed on a cold, rainy morning."

Vogel says children reap both physical and emotional benefits from sharing their lives with a dog and offers three reasons why bringing a dog into your child's life can be immeasurable.

#1 Provides comfort during stressful times
It is common for children to gently pet and speak lovingly to a dog when the child is under stress, talking to the dog as she wants to be spoken to.  Kids often play out familial scenes with their dogs too; repeating something that their parents have said, like don't run out into the street.  It allows the child a way to assert a bit of "authority," easing the pressure of (seemingly) being the only one with rules.

#2 Instills responsibility
The age-old reason for getting a dog for a child can certainly be used to instill responsibility, especially when the child's responsibilities are fair and clearly defined.  In fact, assigning a child daily dog duties like feeding and yard cleaning, and rewarding them with praise for a job well done can go a long way.

#3 Helps develop their empathy and maturity
Helping to care for a sick or injured dog helps a child develop their nurturing and maturity skills.  Kids become a "parent," talking soothingly and calmly to the dog when they may, in fact, themselves feel anxious and scared about the dog's condition and want reassurance themselves.  This can be one of the child's first experiences putting someone else's needs first.

Read more about how to create a kind child.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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