Regan and QT Pi

I grew up with dogs on our family’s dairy farm. My two kids, Mikkel and Lex, grew up with dogs on our Almost Heaven ranch. And now my granddaughter, Reagan, is following family tradition. She lives with two Pugs, Willy and Bruce, and she and my dog QT Pi have loved each other fiercely since the day they met. The bond between those two precious souls moves me so much.

Whether you live with a dog, cat, bird or other animal, he may well be your child’s first best friend. A dog will explore the world with your child while a cat will reward soft petting with gentle purrs. Birds? Well, they not only listen, like dogs and cats, they might even talk back. Pets are a child’s secret keepers, playmates and companions in adventure, both outdoors and as your child dives into a book, video game or television show. Any parent who has known the love of an animal wants to share that special relationship with his or her children.

Social Skills 101

My daughter Mikkel, now a dog trainer herself, says that when she looks back on her childhood, her happiest memories involve animals, especially her dog Scooter. She and I both agree that a loving, positive, healthy bond between animal and child is the foundation for some of life’s most important lessons.

As children learn to pet animals softly and refrain from pulling tails, they begin to acquire empathy, the understanding that they share another being’s feelings. They learn to care for another individual, to play nicely, to just “be” together. Loving a pet can be just as important in the development of social skills as any other relationship.

Change is constant in childhood and in life, but a pet can be a stabilizing force throughout upheavals and transitions. Pets are there when kids come home from school, move to a new home, lose — or win — the big game or the spelling bee and go through other experiences in their lives.

While I never recommend that a child be completely in charge of a pet’s care — that’s a parent’s job — I do know from my own experience that helping to care for the family pet is one of the first steps toward handling responsibility. Children as young as 3 years old can learn to put food in a pet’s bowl or wash and refill a water dish, while older kids can help with training and daily pet-related chores.

Routine care such as giving fresh water or a monthly heartworm pill or accompanying a parent to the veterinarian for an annual exam instills the idea that successful pet care is ongoing and that it’s important to meet a pet’s health needs on a regular basis. Other ways kids can contribute to and learn about pet care include helping with grooming, filling puzzle toys with kibble or treats and learning good leash-handling skills, including what to do if an unknown dog approaches or someone wants to pet the dog.

Exercise and Health

Pets are playmates — the kind who get kids outdoors and help them burn energy. Many dogs will fetch a ball for hours, play outfielder in neighborhood pickup games and go for endless walks. Cats often make kids laugh as they do flips over a teaser toy or chase a Ping Pong ball down the hall.

Even better, pets have health benefits. Children who are around pets during their first year of life reduce their risk of developing allergies to dogs and cats by as much as half, according to a study published in July 2011 in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy.

Pets teach children harder life lessons as well: that best friends can get old and die. A child may see a pet through an entire life cycle: puppy or kitten, adult, senior and eventually receiving the final grace of a peaceful death. It may be the first time the child experiences the death of a loved one and can be an opportunity to learn how to handle loss and grief.

Building that perfect relationship between pet and child takes work and practice on the part of parent and child, and even the pet, but I think it’s one of the most wonderful gifts you can give your kids.

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