We got our first dog several years into our marriage. People joked that kids would be coming next, because couples often practice their parenting skills on fur-babies, right? The joke fell a little flat since we were also dealing with unexplained infertility by that time, and because of the way our dog, a black Labrador named Beasley, came to us – literally on her way to the animal shelter because her owner, a friend of ours, was out of options. They were moving out of country the next day and their placement for her fell through at the very last minute. We offered to keep her for a few days – just until we could find her a new home. The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of the week, she made it clear that she was adopting us.
Since then, our family has grown by two children and another dog, a mixed-breed named Gingersnap, that we rescued a few months after we had to say good-bye to Beasley. Our children are ten and six and, except for those few months after Beasley’s death, have never known life without a dog. There have been times when I have envied my pet-free friends and their ability to go out of town on a moment’s notice, or go on a day trip without arranging for someone to care for their animal back home. But when I look at the lessons my children have learned by having a dog in our family, I wouldn’t change a thing. There are many lessons, but these five come to mind first. Maybe these will ring true with you, too.
1. How to be responsible
This one is sort of obvious, but it bears repeating. Even very young children can be assigned pet care as an early chore. Our children have assisted with feeding, brushing, exercising, and cleaning up after our our dogs as a part of their regular routine, and they are learning what “responsibility” means in the context of how well they care for our dog.
2. How to be kind to others
One of the first lessons we had to teach both of our children was, “Be gentle with the doggie.” They learned what “gentle” looks like by learning not to pull our dog’s ears or fur and not to suffocate her by using her as a pillow. By learning to be kind to our animals, they also learn what kindness and gentleness looks like with each other.
3. How to be patient
Most experts agree that intelligence-wise, dogs are comparable to a two-to-three-year-old child. While our children have been delighted to help train our dogs, learning doesn’t happen overnight. They had to learn and exercise patience with our dogs, and in turn have stretched that character trait in themselves for future situations.
4. How to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own
Pets must be cared for, regardless of our own feelings. It doesn’t matter if we are not well, if it is pouring outside, or if we just got terrible personal news. Our pets cannot take care of themselves. Sometimes this is as simple as reminding my daughter to put her book down and feeding Ginger, but in learning this lesson, my children learn the life lesson of putting their own desires aside long enough to care for someone else.
5. How to say good-bye … and a new hello
With very few exceptions, the life-span of our pets is significantly shorter than that of humans, and so having a pet very likely will mean eventually dealing with that pet’s death. When Beasley died, we grieved as a family. We spent some time with her saying good-bye. We buried her in a special place. We talked together about our friend. We cried. We wondered if and when we should get another dog. We modeled for them what healthy grief looks like and that it is okay to feel sad because we miss someone that we love. We also learned as a family, when Ginger came into our lives a few months later, that moving forward in life does not mean you stop loving the one you love, and that life still holds much joy, even when mixed with sorrow.
The lessons a pet can teach us are so many, and for us, they are well-worth the costs and “inconvenience” of having them in our lives.