Living with a family pet teaches children about life, love and responsibility in a powerfully simple way. Sara Allom talks about the myriad ways her dogs have enhanced her sons’ lives.
When I got home from work today I found my youngest son Charlie sitting halfway up the stairs with his arm around Badger. Charlie was telling Badger all about his day at school, good bits and bad, and Badger was listening intently with his head cocked on one side. Mabel was far more interested in Charlie’s shoelaces, but nevertheless I was instantly struck, as I always am, by quite how much these two dogs have brought to every member of my family’s lives.
My husband loves the dogs for their loyalty and devotion – they are, after all, the only ones who show any genuine interest in his return to the pack at the end of his working day. I love them for the comfort of their company: they lie curled up at my feet when I am at my desk. They cannot wait to be at my side on a miserable, rainy school run. They are my most constant and positive companions. The very best example of the ‘glass half full approach’, they are completely and utterly delighted with two meals a day and an hour’s walk. If only everyone in life was so easy to please.
But the relationship the children have with Badger and Mabel is nothing short of wondrous. Their unconditional love, friendship and affection for each other never wavers. The dogs never change allegiance or turn the other cheek. They never compete, or make demands, criticize or humiliate them. They are just there, wagging their tails and licking the boys’ faces, and radiating enthusiasm for every new game the boys invent.
For a child, this unconditional adoration is exceptional. It isn’t what they get from parents, who ask for homework to be done and toys to be tidied and broccoli to be consumed. It isn’t what they get from friends, who tend to tease when they discover you’re frightened of the dark, or who might not understand when you just want some peace and quiet.
It’s a much-documented fact that the emotional connection we all have with animals can be hugely therapeutic. The national charity Pets As Therapy was founded in 1983 and takes kind, friendly and calm dogs and cats to hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and special needs schools throughout the UK.
Every week PAT animals visit more than 130,000 people across the country, contributing to lower blood pressure, faster recovery from surgery, improvements in depression and helping children through their fears of death and dying.
In the news last week was Droopy – a 4-year-old basset hound from Lancashire. Droopy works two days a week as a classroom assistant in a Morecambe primary school. Apparently pupils feel far more comfortable and confident reading aloud to Droopy than they do to their teachers and even their parents. Droopy means no pressure, no fault-finding, no expectations, just a soft velvety ear.
It’s rooted in real science too. Researchers in the scientific journal Pediatrics say that babies who grow up in homes with a pet are a staggering 25% less likely to get sick than children who live pet-free. These research results back up the fact that over-sanitising our children’s environments simply isn’t good for them. Instead it looks like the odd dog hair and slobbery lick could lower the risk of allergies and asthma in children (if exposed to pets from the very beginning, of course).
Yes, there are some things about our pets we could do without being exposed to. If you have ever house-trained a puppy, you will know that walking downstairs first thing in the morning and finding an unpleasant surprise is not a fabulous start to the day. But I learnt something new about my children in the days of house-training. I learnt that George and Charlie would race downstairs to deal with the mess before I woke up if they possibly could, just so that I wouldn’t find out and the puppy wouldn’t be scolded. In short, they took the rap, so that Mabel and Badger didn’t have to.
In return the dogs protect the boys in the most awe-inspiring ways. When a new neighbour moved in next door, he came to introduce himself and reached out to shake hands with the boys. The dogs, standing quietly at my feet, growled menacingly until he stepped back. The dogs know him now, and love him, actually. But they needed to be sure about him before they let him near the children. And I love that they did that: that my two Peter Pan’s have their very own Nana’s.
The key to having dogs in your life of course is having well behaved ones, who have learnt respect for their owners (big or small) and who have accepted, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are the very bottom of the pecking order.
Training a puppy, teaching it rules (drawn within clear lines), giving it treats for success and big, fat nothing for failure, is an invaluable life lesson for children – and one which I am sure has helped my children understand the job I have with them too.
Then there is their sense of achievement. I can remember watching George (10) persevere with training Badger to ‘roll over’ for months. Then, one day, they finally cracked it. The pride George showed in Badger’s ability, and in his own commitment to making it happen, was intense.
And that’s the crux of it really – having pets teaches our children about caring for others. They are learning to be responsible for their pet’s behaviour, for their wellbeing, for their happiness and their welfare.
Pet ownership is an emotional journey that gives children as much joy, sorrow and sense of place as we can possibly give them at this early age. It’s parenting 101, for kids.
Very often a child’s first real experience of death is losing a beloved pet. Bereavement is far too hard when it’s a parent or grandparent or brother or sister. But when it’s a family pet, it’s more of a shared process, one that can be talked about and shared and vocalised, far more easily than it can about people. What a very good lesson in how loss should be dealt with.
When we first brought our dogs home I can remember thinking that undoubtedly it would be me walking them every day, because the novelty would surely wear off. The children will get bored when the puppies are grown and they will gravitate back towards their iPads and their football nets. But I was wrong.
Now the boys are that bit older, they take the dogs out on their own. The four of them disappear for hours at a time with dog treats and jelly babies muddled up in their pockets. They look out for each other. They are growing up together. As you might expect, when ‘the pack’ find their way home, they all eat ravenously, pile on top of one another on the sofa, and fall asleep.Sara Allom is a freelance writer and creative consultant who lives in Surrey with her husband, two boys and two dogs. See more from Sara at www.saraallom.com or follow her on Twitter.