Tina Batty: Children, Pets and Learning
“C” is for cat, “D” is for dog. Children, learning and animals just seem to go together. Why is this so, and how does it happen? Children, as young as infants and toddlers, are captivated by observing the behaviors and antics of animals. Perhaps in your own family there is a child who exclaimed “Doggie!” or “Kitty, meow” among first words spoken. Associations with our family pets span many developmental domains for children. Consider the following examples. Cognitive skills are enhanced by observing and reading about animals, social skills develop as children talk with others about their pets, emotional bonds are formed as a child strokes and cares for an animal, and aesthetic appreciation is fostered as children look at illustrations, photographs, or draw their own pictures of their pets. Physical activity turns to fun when it involves walking a dog or playing movement games with a puppy.
In our current society, pets have become an integral part of our family life. According to the Humane Society of the United States, pet ownership has tripled since the 1970s. In 2012, 62 percent of all households included at least one pet. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that dog owners top the list of households owning pets. This means that for a majority of our children a companion animal, most often a dog, is part of their everyday family life. Sadly, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year according to American Society of Prevention to Cruelty to Animals.
Given the above statistics, there may be a dog in your household, or perhaps you have considered adding one to the family. You may have even experienced a son or daughter begging you for a dog with the familiar “Pleeease? I promise to take care of it!” Dog ownership can be a joy and an enriching developmental experience for your children. Not be overlooked is the responsibility that it entails for all family members. How can a family increase the likelihood that all members of the family will safely benefit from the warm bonds and learning opportunities that dog ownership brings? What kinds of benefits can be expected? Here are a few ideas to consider.
Pet ownership can reinforce all areas of academics. To reinforce the language arts, children can read about pet care in books or on the Internet, or dive into any of the multitudes of fictional stories about animals in picture books and novels. Mathematics is reinforced through measuring dog food, comparative shopping for pet products, or estimating the number of repetitions it might take for a dog to learn a new trick. The sciences are reinforced through behavioral observations. Biology is involved in watching animal growth and development, and those all-important wellness visits to the veterinarian. The themes of social studies play an important role in understanding where and why certain breeds were developed to do the important jobs that helped humans survive throughout history. These are just a few examples of the academic connections children can make as they develop bonds with their companion animals.
The dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to share and understand another person’s experiences, situation or emotions. Social scientists tell us that while empathy toward people and empathy toward animals are not exactly the same, it warrants our attention. Further, explicitly teaching empathy can improve our chances of raising children who are empathetic to the plights of others. Parents can take advantage of these “teachable moments” as they team with the child to care for the animal. A preschooler who observes that the dog’s tail wags when it is petted kindly can be taught that our kind interactions also make family members and friends happy. Understanding that comforting a scared or hurt pet to help it feel secure transfers to how we relate to a scared or hurt classmate for the school-age child. Adolescents are able grasp the concept of respecting needs versus practicing cruelty when pets are well-cared for in the home. Daily interactions with a pet provide the opportunities to model, teach and discuss empathy, an important skill that a child needs to develop and carry into adulthood.
Learning and Managing Responsibility
You decided that your sixth-grader was old enough to begin to handle the responsibilities of a dog so you got a puppy this summer. Homework, music lessons, and sports practice may fill in your child’s schedule as we turn the calendar page to September. The challenge (and learning opportunity) of pet care with busy family life becomes a reality. How do you we teach our children to manage all of these responsibilities? Prioritizing and shared responsibility can help. Understanding that a living, breathing, being has needs that can’t wait is an important lesson for young pet-care givers to learn. Feeding, exercise, training, and grooming the dog are just as important as other scheduled events, and can be treated as such. A calendar schedule, checklist, or an automatic reminder are just a few ways that pet care can be scheduled. Older siblings can learn the advantages of mentoring younger siblings with duties of pet care. A collaborative “team approach” can be modeled as the family chips in to care for the puppy’s needs. Time management that all important skill for success, can be learned in scenarios such as this.
Finally, it is important to remember that adult supervision is necessary when children and dogs interact. Parents and caregivers in the home should have enough knowledge of animal behavior to be able to “read” the dog’s behavioral signals to know if the dog is not enjoying interacting with the child. Parents should be able to model appropriate handling, petting, and positive talk toward the canine family member. Teaching children that dogs need “down time” to get away from the activity of family life is important. Expecting a new baby in a home where a dog resides? Or, is there a busy toddler who is demanding the dog’s attention? Extra diligence is required under these circumstances. There are resources available to educate parents on setting up the environment for success, both for the family and the well-being of the dog.
Enjoy, learn, grow... parents can create a safe opportunity for human-animal bond experiences, the fruits of which can last a lifetime.
Fine, A. H. (Ed.) (2006). Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Jalongo, M.R. (Ed.) (2004). The World’s Children and Their Companion Animals. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
About the Author
Tina Batty is a professional educator with over 35 years of experience in teaching, evaluating, developing and designing special programs, supervision and teacher training. Ten of those years included animal-assisted therapy and learning. She saw firsthand the strength of the human-animal bond and the power it has to motivate and educate. Her professional passions include educating children and families, combined with her passion for integrating dogs into families, schools, hospitals and the community. Mrs. Batty has completed a Certificate in Animals and Human Health from the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver. She holds a Master of Science degree in early childhood education and Bachelor of Science degree in special education. Mrs. Batty is licensed presenter of Dogs & Storks® and Dogs & Toddlers™ programs through Family Paws® Parent Education. She is the owner of dogday LLC, a consulting business which focuses on all aspects of successful integration of dogs into families and communities.
Are you as involved in your child’s education as you would like to be? See what new research shows about parent engagement in our schools.
Whether it is helping a child with homework, volunteering at a school event or simply working with teachers when an issue arises, parents are taking an active role in our schools. A recent survey shows that levels of parent involvement are increasing. But, there is always room for the school division to create new opportunities for parents and the community to become in engaged. We wanted to know how satisfied parents are with current opportunities and what barriers may be keeping them from being more involved. The school division recently worked with the local research firm Issues and Answers to survey parents about their involvement and communication needs. You can learn more about the survey and see the results here.
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