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Broza and Friend. (Photo: Flaura Winston)

Raising a Mensch

How Pets Can Teach Your Kids Humanity

-- Flaura Koplin Winston, MD Ph.D.

"And [Rebecca] said: ‘Drink, my lord’; and she hastened, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said: ‘I will draw for thy camels, also, until they have done drinking.’ And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw, and drew for all his camels." -- Genesis 24:18-20

And thus, according to parashat Chayei Sarah, Rebecca’s act of caring for the camels signified that she was a woman of character befitting the role of wife of our forefather, Isaac. Earlier in Genesis, Abraham introduced us to the importance of hospitality. In this parasha, Rebecca followed the example set by her uncle, Abraham, and went further. Not only does she offer water to a stranger (who happened to by Abraham’s servant) but also offers drink to his animals. She extends Abraham’s lesson about the proper treatment of human beings to animals and, in the process, broadens our concept of humanity.

How can we apply this powerful lesson in our lives and the lives of our children? Just as Rebecca taught us humanity by her treatment of animals, I believe we can teach our children humanity by bringing a pet into our family life. When a child learns to care for an animal and treat it with kindness, respect and patience, he develops empathy and caring. In return, pets can give positive reinforcement in the form of loyalty and unconditional love. This mutual bond forms a strong foundation for the development of character that transfers to loving-kindness for fellow human beings as children mature.

While pet ownership is not required to teach humanity, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children who develop positive feelings about pets gain self-esteem and self-confidence and build capabilities needed in trusting relationships with others. In order to develop the bond with a pet, children need to learn non-verbal communication skills, compassion, and empathy. In return, pets provide opportunities for physical activity, comfort, love, loyalty and affection. They can be a child’s confidante for secrets and private thoughts. Due to the pet’s dependency on the child, they can teach responsible behavior and how to handle an imbalance of power in a relationship. Through a pet’s short lifespan, they can provide lessons of the lifecycles – from early growth and development to illness and injury to death and bereavement.

Choosing an Appropriate Pet

An added lesson can be gained when a pet is rescued from a shelter and the child sees a pet as a being in need of caring rather than an object bred for profit. All of my pets have been rescued; most recently, I adopted my current dog, Broza, from Main Line Animal Rescue after Fauna, another rescue dog, died at 19 1/2 years old. However, for some it might be important to choose a pet bred specifically for characteristics. Some breeds are bred to be calm and gentle, good for young children; others require less grooming, good for busy families; while others are bred to retrieve, good for older, active children. For virtually every breed, there is a rescue society attempting to place unwanted pets into new families. If you decide to go through a breeder, please do some homework. The conditions of some kennels are unsanitary and the mothers and their puppies are treated cruelly and with poor veterinary care. Not only is this inhumane but also the puppy you bring home may be ill or traumatized.

Regardless of the type of pet or from where you adopt it, make the adoption a family affair. If possible, choose the pet together, to find one that fits your lifestyle and the interests of the child. Aggressive animals are not appropriate in any family. For the youngest child or for a busy family, a goldfish might be an appropriate first pet. Take into account that dogs require much more care than cats. If someone in your family has asthma, allergies, or eczema, speak to a physician before adopting a pet.

Before you bring the pet home, ask if you can spend a day with it. Spend time with the pet before buying or adopting it. Look for a pet (young or old) that is curious, lively, and friendly with no signs of aggression, and healthy. If you expect your child to help in the care of the pet, make sure that this is clear before you bring the pet home. Also, be sensitive to your child’s response to the pet. If he is excessively fearful, this might not be the right time to adopt a pet. You might get your child used to animals by exposing him to other people’s pets under close supervision. A pet should be a source of joy rather than a source of tension. When you first introduce the pet to your family, allow it time to explore the setting and people, but watch infants and young children carefully. Hold back the family’s affection at first, the crowding may make the pet feel cornered and threatened. Remember your pet has been taken away from a familiar setting and moved to a new family and needs time to acclimate. Everyone needs to show patience.

Some cautions about dogs and children

It is important to remind children that dogs and cats are not stuffed toys. When provoked, cats can scratch or bite, both of which can cause infections. Dog bites are nearly an epidemic in this country. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites; half of these are children. Children between the ages of five and nine, particularly boys, are most at risk for dog bites. For younger children, 2/3 of the injuries are to the head and neck region.The cause of bites have as much to do with the children - how they are supervised and how they are socialized to be with pets - as it has to do with the pet's personality. There is no such thing as a perfect breed. All pets can bite if provoked.

Some tips for dog or cat ownership

  • If your pet shows aggressive behaviors, immediately seek expert help from a veterinarian or trainer.
  • Seek medical advice after all pet bites or cat scratches.
  • If you and your children find that you cannot spend sufficient time with the pet, admit it. Most rescue societies would prefer that you return the pet rather than neglect it.
  • If your child abuses or tortures your pet, immediately speak with your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider. This might be a sign of serious emotional problems.

Advice specific to dog ownership

  • Never leave young children alone with dogs. A new tested and effective program is available to teach preschoolers how to behave around dogs. The Blue Dog CD and Parent Guideuses interactive, nonverbal computer animation in combination with written instruction for parents to teach principles of dog bite injury prevention to children ages three to six.
  • Dogs need to be socialized to feel at ease around strangers, children, and other animals. They should never be forced into a position where they feel threatened or teased.
  • Dogs need to be trained to respond to basic commands, particularly those of submission like rolling over and dropping food or other objects.
  • Make sure that your dog’s vaccinations are kept up-to-date and neuter male dogs as early as possible. Dogs who are neutered are three times less likely to bite than those who are not neutered.
  • Learn dog body language to recognize the difference between playful versus fearful and threatened behaviors. I recommend the book, Canine Body Language, for terrific photos of dog behaviors.

One final thought from Proverbs:

A righteous man knows the needs of his beast.

In my experience, my dogs have known my needs, too. They have paid me back many times over for my investment in them, and I believe I am a better person thanks to them.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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