June 24, 2014

(Almost) All My Son Needs to Know Can Be Learned from His Dogs (and Cats)

We own a zoo.

Not literally. But we have two dogs, three cats, and three tiny little catfish that are quite likely going to live forever.

I realize that not everyone has the space, the time, or the desire to rescue that many furry lives and allow them to "decorate" their home to fit their own tastes. I put up with fur...everywhere, scratches on the table tops, stains, well-"loved" furniture. I trip over dog toys and have unattractive cat scratchers all over the house. 

When I leave town, I have to find a pet sitter. During the day, I have to have someone come and let the puppies out. It can be a huge pain the butt. 

And it can be expensive. Healthy foods (especially for one very finicky feline who, for awhile, was on a grain-free diet), vet visits, toys, crates, kennels, fences, collars, tags, microchips, grooming...Yes, I know...it's a huge commitment. 

But honestly, I'm not sure there's a better way to teach a child all of the things that owning a pet, especially a dog or a cat, can:

1) Unconditional Love, Empathy, Patience, and Kindness:

There is little a child can do wrong that a dog won't forgive...if a bond has been formed between them. When we first brought our son home from the hospital, we placed his car seat in the middle of the living room and let each of our two dogs "inspect" him, one at a time. The first dog took one sniff and high-tailed it to the corner, unimpressed, nose forever out of joint (there would be no bond formed there). But, Kira, the husky, the one we thought would have the jealousy issues, smelled and smelled and then lay down beside him. She had already decided to keep him. 

Over the first few years, she put up with him pulling her fur, crawling on her, tugging at her, hitting her with his toys, chasing her...you name it. She seemed to get it: he was a pup, and she was willing to accept him as such. As they both got older, her patience grew thinner. But she taught him a lot about empathy and responsibility. He received many the talking to for treating her poorly or unfairly. He had to apologize to her and give her hugs to show he was sorry. And she forgave him. Every time. Mostly.

Their relationship became much like that of siblings. They "fought" from time to time ("Mom...she's biting me for no reason!"...yeah, right...), and there were days they had to be sent to opposite corners. But ultimately, they were tight, and she'll always be his first animal companion and animal teacher.

2) Dealing with Loss and Grief:

We've lost several pets during our son's short life. Three cats have just "disappeared" (we live in the woods and have a coyote problem), and one dog was hit by a car (none of us actually saw her before we buried her...it would have been a terrible last image of her). 

Those losses were surreal for him. He never saw them, so the potential for their return was still possible in his mind. After watching "Frankenweenie" he was convinced we could dig Emma up and reanimate her. Thankfully, he didn't try to follow up on that.

When Kira, the husky, recently died (peacefully at home), my husband kept her in the house until my son and I got home. Believe me, we talked quite a bit about what would be best for him. Would seeing her body freak him out or scare him? Or would it show him death in as understandable a way as possible for a child? We opted to be as honest and open about it as we could. We let him pet her. We let him see us cry. He got to pet her and hug her goodbye. And he knew she was in the garden nearby...next to her friend Emma.

Later, when he had bad dreams or cried because he missed her, we had something real to refer to. He had an image. He knew she was really not coming back. There was closure. It wasn't like flushing a fish down the toilet...it was serious grief over the loss of a hugely important being in his life. Not a fun lesson to learn, but surely an unavoidable one.

3) Not Taking Advantage of Those Who Are Weaker Than You:

The relationships can be just as strong between kids and cats (surprisingly). Not too long ago, we brought home a brand new kitten. He was tiny, and fragile, and my son had to learn to be careful and gentle. He had to learn to respect the kitten's sleep, how to hold him, how to play with him. And for some reason, though he drags the cat around everywhere and pesters him incessantly, the cat loves him more than anyone else in the house. It's confusing to all of us...but it goes to show that the love of an animal knows no bounds. 

Now that we have two new young canines, we're back to learning how to treat baby animals...with patience, and thoughtfulness. Our son is continuing to learn how to empathize with and care for something other than himself who depends on him and loves him no matter what. And in return for his sometimes messy and failed attempts at being a good pet owner, he has earned the undying loyalty of at least one of our new pups.

4) Responsibility and Reliability:

We've given our son the job of feeding the animals. Partially, so they learn to respect him because they need him, but also, so he learns to be responsible to something that depends on him completely. Every morning and every night, he has to think about the needs of someone other than himself. He has to fulfill those needs, even when he's cranky, or tired, or doesn't want to. Sometimes, there isn't a choice. Sometimes we just have to suck it up and fulfill our obligations. Period.

5) Building Trust and Earning Affection:

Our newest addition came with a few neuroses. And she distrusts the boy. She shies away and doesn't want to go outside with him. Quite honestly, he hasn't been that welcoming. I'm pretty sure he likes his puppy more than mommy's puppy (let's face it...animals make their own decisions about us, too, and bond with whomever they want...or not). Now he's learning to build her trust, how to encourage her, how to be patient with her fears, how to accept the fact that she doesn't like him best. He's going to have to work a lot harder for her love. If he thinks it's worth it, he'll do whatever it takes. And eventually, she'll come around. Not all relationships start well or come easily. Sometimes one has to repair and patch and make do. But even though the bond might be a bit rough around the edges, it will be that much more special for all the work that it took. Maybe she's just playing hard to get.

6) How to Lead with Confidence, Consistency, and Fairness:

Our dogs are usually hard-headed, stubborn breeds. The kinds of dogs that need firm and consistent guidance. We spend at least as much time training our son how to train the dogs as we do actually training the dogs. He has to learn not to let them walk all over him, how to control them on a leash, how to make them follow commands. Basically, he has to assert his place in the pack. It takes calm strength, and the ability to reward and correct behavior quickly and fairly. 

He fails at this on a regular basis, to be honest. He loses his patience, pulls too hard on their leashes, plays too rough, gets mad and jealous when they choose each other over him. He plays favorites and intentionally leaves out the newest dog (two's company, three's a crowd?).

But these actions provide opportunities to correct that behavior and show how he should treat them. It's a learning process...one with natural consequences and rewards - fear, nervousness, and unwillingness to follow or undying loyalty of a type no human could replicate. 

Sure these are values he could learn in other ways. With siblings if he had any. With friends at school. With other family members. I'm not saying that if you can't provide your child with a pet you're a bad parent who should be strung up and judged. No, no. I get it that some children are allergic, some of us have schedules too busy to incorporate a dog or cat responsibly. The landlord says no, or it's cost-prohibitive. Maybe you just don't like animals. They are messy and they do ruin stuff. A lot. Obviously, a child can be raised well without animals. 

My argument is this...if it's possible...children gain a lot from animal relationships that they don't from human relationships. They don't feel judged, they don't feel pressured. They know they are accepted, no matter what.  Even when the whole world seems to be against them.

My son, standing in the corner, with the ever-present companionship of his dog, who doesn't know he did a thing a wrong and wonders why on earth the boy is facing the wall and not playing with him. But he patiently waits at his feet.

I have this terrible picture in my head of him heading off to college, leaving one very depressed cat and one very depressed dog behind. The companionship of animals is like no other. It changes us. It molds us. And hopefully, it will make him a better human...one who loves, empathizes, shows patience and kindness, is responsible and dependable, knows how to build and keep trust, and can lead confidently and successfully.

Getting a child a dog or cat isn't just buying him a pet. It's providing him a one-of-a-kind, hands-on education about relationships and what it takes to sustain them and nurture them.

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