Girl petting cat

We’ve always known that pets are good for children, even before countless studies confirmed it, and confirmed it again. As children we knew it in our own hearts, and as parents we saw it through our own eyes. The steady, nonjudgmental love of a companion animal has helped many a child over the rough patches of the road to adulthood.

As children grow older, many of them want to help animals — and we should let them. This is just another way to allow animals to help in teaching life’s most important lessons: compassion and generosity. If you doubt me about how much children want to help, start asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. The answer “veterinarian” is very, very common!

Charity, as they say, begins at home, and that’s a good place for a child to help make the lives of animals better. The better you care for and the more you interact with a pet, the more you’ll reap the benefits of sharing your life with animals. From there, it’s an easy step for your child to help other pets, both those with homes and those in search of them. Here are five simple ways to get your children involved with animals.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Improve the care of family pets. If your family’s pets are too often lost in the shuffle of school, carpool, soccer, and dance lessons, it’s time to look at moving them up in the priorities. While it’s true that there are many things competing for our attention, pets are family members — or they should be — and they must be cared for, just like the rest of the family. Pets should never be left to the exclusive or primary care of a child. But children can certainly take an active role in pet care. Don’t make tending to the pets a “have to”; use your words and behavior to model pet care as a “want to,” a loving gift to an animal who’s counting on your child. Set realistic, age-related tasks, and be supportive of your child. This is important because it sends your child the message that when someone else relies on you, it’s time to shut off the video game and step up.

Bond with pets through training. Teaching tricks by using a clicker is fun for both children and pets, and even young children can get the basics pretty quickly. Training isn’t limited to dogs, by the way: Cats can learn to perform with enthusiasm as well, and so can smaller pets such as rabbits, rats and birds. With yummy treats and a clicker, there’s no end to the fun, and the bond your child shares with her pet will become more meaningful.

Shelter Pets Need Help Too

Start a penny drive for homeless animals. How about a project or two? Raising money for homeless pets isn’t that hard, if it’s done one penny at a time. Or just make it about small change: Get family, friends and grandparents to save their change for a month. Donations will need to be counted and rolled or taken to a coin counting machine. Once this is done, your child can donate the cash to a shelter. She can also ask around and collect one key thing that shelters need: a lot of towels. A few old towels here and there really add up and can give everyone an excuse to clean out the linen closet.

Volunteer as a dog walker and cat snuggler. For older children — typically middle school or older — volunteering at a shelter can be a wonderful experience. All shelters have different policies and minimum age requirements for volunteers, so ask around locally. Once through required training for safety and handling skills, children can help make shelter pets more adoptable by helping to keep them happy and active. Kitten snuggling is great for socialization, and walking dogs helps to keep their stress levels down while they are living in the shelter.

Support Other Pet Owners

Be neighborly to pets in need. Finally, never forget that helping pets often means helping people as well. If there’s perhaps an elderly neighbor whose dog needs more exercise than she can give him, that can be a great way for an older child to help out. And while long-term or complicated pet care is probably best left to a professional pet sitter, older children might also be able to help with a midday check-in for a pet whose owner works long hours, or a feeding when the family will be home late.

My wife and I have raised two wonderful children to be adults we are proud of, and the animals in our lives have helped both us and them. The lessons of giving, caring and sharing last a lifetime.