Newsflash: Pets Don’t Just Help Social Skills, They Teach Responsibility

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girl with puppyMy 4-year-old daughter already has a chore in our house. It might seem early for such things, but right around her birthday, she gained the responsibility of feeding our two black labs.

Buddy and Baloo became a part of our family two years ago. They were farm dogs that a friend of a friend just had to find homes for. When we went to pick out a dog, they had two left. The owner told us that if he couldn’t find a home for the last one, he would just have to “take it behind the barn.”

Immediately, I picked up both boys and put them in their brand new kennel. Two years and a hundred-pounds-a-piece later, those guys still have to sleep in a kennel most nights. Although they get their own now. Currently, they’re laying at my feet, well aware that they are not allowed to lick my toes. I can tell that they want to though. Buddy is eyeing my bright red pedicure. But experience has taught him that it’s not a good idea to lick me, because I might accidentally kick him in the face.

In our house, friends and family are amazed that a girl who weighs less than half of one dog is able to control two so easily. She lets the dogs out into the backyard when they have to go to the bathroom. She drags them back in when they’re barking at a neighbor mowing his lawn. She has full command of their treats, making the boys sit, stay, lay down, jump up, shake, and respond to their name. She can even make one puppy wait six feet away while she gives his brother a treat, then send the first back to wait while she pampers the second. The boys have never taken an obedience class.

Today, The New York Times‘ “Well Blog” talked about the many ways that a pet can help children grow and develop. Researchers are just beginning to study how pets can reduce stress, help with childhood obesity and teach social skills. So far, it’s really anecdotal evidence that have given owning pets such a great reputation among parents.

And yet, I was surprised to see the article completely skip over what I believe to be one of the best aspects of pet ownership in our family. Having two dogs to take care of has taught my daughter an amazing amount of responsibility that I might never have been able to instill this early on.

Of course they are her companions. She loves to play with them, cuddle them and try to get them to wear funny hats. It’s a regular family past-time. And I’m sure that accompanying them on nightly walks has helped my little girl’s health. But the biggest contribution to my daughter’s well-being has been our pets’ ability to teach her the importance of caring for something.

When she doesn’t get food for the dogs, they’re hungry. And they depend on her to fulfill that need. As parents, I think we can agree that having another life form depend on you is a very sobering and maturing experience. From having my pets, my daughter has gotten to experience that dependency first-hand. She cares for our dogs in a way that’s different from her love of anything else, even her parents.

Researchers, I hate to cut you short or preempt your findings, but I think that every parent with pets can tell you that they help our children develop. They help them learn how important it is to care for those who need you. They teach them the responsibility of helping, even when you don’t feel like it.

Basically, if scientists are asking whether owning a pet is good for children, the answer is “Yes.” You’re welcome guys, hopefully I saved you a little legwork there.

(Photo: Thinkstock)