How Dogs Teach Our Children

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication

How Dogs Teach Our Children

I’ll never forget the time when I was just a six-year-old child, some 30 years ago, and my pet dog, Buddy, was laying limp all day under the living room chair – her eyes moving only occasionally. But I could care less, as I played with my toys all day.

To the eyes of a child, Buddy’s behavior was nothing to worry myself about, nothing that I needed to be concerned with, that is – until my mother came into the room and disturbed the quiet.

She said, “Your dog has been dozing all day. Look at her. She rarely gets up. And when she does, everything droops – her nose, her ears, her tail. Would you like to change the way she looks?”

Mother Turned The Family Dog Into My Teacher

With that question, my mother began her experiment. Her plan was to take my pet dog and turn her into my teacher.

My mother continued, “Do you know that your dog needs your help? She needs you to make her happy.” My mother asked me what things make me happy. Was it being part of the family and doing things with mom and dad? Yes. “We’ll try that on Buddy. Let’s let her help us and see how we make her feel.”

Mom suggested that Buddy help us take out the garbage. She put a little garbage in a small bag. I gave it to Buddy and said, “Carry.” My dog sniffed it, and then picked it up and started down the long apartment hallway.

That small bag changed my dog. He was no longer a shambling wad of fur, but a sleek wolf. Lazy muscles tensed, his nose stuck up in the air. He tried to walk with us but his walk slipped into a prance, then a gallop, till all we had was a bouncing back view with a tail wagging above. Buddy became a part of something and learned to enjoy it, while teaching me something in the process.

One day, by the time we made it down the hall, Buddy had delivered the garbage into the incinerator – and brought it back to us four times!

What I Learned: Responsibility

The dog’s response and enthusiasm had introduced me to my first lesson – responsibility. I became aware of the needs of others. My mother guided me in finding those needs and filling them. My dog encouraged repetition. I was not performing a chore, rather, I was giving something to my pet.

Lessons like this went on for 17 years – till I was a junior in high school. That year Buddy died. The next year I graduated and left home. But some of the attitudes I have today can be traced back to my childhood relationship with a dog and my mother’s awareness of that potential.

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication (Part 2)

Every person who buys a puppy, or adopts a new dog, does so with the intention of teaching the new member of the family dog tricks, training plans, and such – but it is also common to use them to help teach the children.

How Can A Dog Teach Your Child?

Not only have I seen teaching-dogs in homes all around the country, but many progressive schools use animals as an integral part of their programs. Marie Montessori, the famous Italian doctor and educator, filled her books on the Montessori Method with fruitfulness of animal/child relationships.

Psychologists, too, use dogs as one way of teaching children who are lost mentally into a deep world of fantasy. The dog is sometimes the only reality that these children will respond to. The basis for this method of communication – no matter how serious or light-hearted – is an age-old recipe. It is the simple, uncomplicated friendship of child and dog. This simplicity frees the child to learn.

Missing are two natural ingredients found in human relationships – complexity and competition; a child’s relationship with brothers and sisters is normally fraught with rivalry, and parents are seen as symbols of authority.

A dog simplifies by acting out his feelings – whether joy or shame. You can explain to children the dog’s motivations and reactions. In fact, dogs are a teacher’s ideal – a living illustration.

How To Teach Responsibility

Dogs are an excellent tool in teaching your children about responsibility. Remember not to make your child feel that he is doing a chore, rather suggest the activity, then give him the skills to handle it.

Let’s take brushing the dog as an example. Don’t forget that your child may not know how to use a brush properly and the dog may not know what the brush will bring – pain or pleasure.

Aquaint both of them. Tell the child that the dog has never seen the brush before and that since he recognizes things through his sense of smell, letting him smell the brush and any other equipment you use will make them familiar.

Demonstrate brushing against the dog’s fur and then back with it. Break down the brush strokes into different lengths – one to use for long hair, another on the dog’s chest, and another near his head. That way you give the child more control and the chances of his unintentionally hurting or scaring the dog and the dog scaring him are lessened.

Point Out Verbally To Your Child

Point out the purpose of brushing:

“You brush with and against his fur to loosen dead skin and stimulate the new skin. You are really dressing him in a new coat – one that keeps him warm, and keeps the rain from getting through to his skin or even helps him to be cooler in the summer.”

Relate it to the child’s own experience:

“Brushing makes him comfortable. Like how mommy irons your clothes to keep you comfortable, dogs feel good when they have been brushed.”

Point out how the dog is responding:

“See how he lies on his back. He’s showing you he enjoys it.”

And finally, make good use of the times that do not by-the-book:

“He’s wiggling to get away because he’s not sure what you are going to do. Do it easy and be persistent. Give him a chance to see how nice it is. Maybe then he’ll be still.”

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication

By using your dog to teach a child, positive life lessons can formed and crafted that will last forever in your son or daughter. This works by getting your kids involved in activities that not only take care of the dog, but teaches your child at the same time.

They keys to this practice working effectively must revolve around verbal and physical coaching. Always follow a pattern. You do it with the dog, then let the child do it. Skills are learned by imitation. At the same time more  than physical actions are imitated.

Connect The Dog & Child Together

Connect what the child does with how the dog responds, and how the dog looks or feels after it is done. This encourages the child to work for natural rewards – as opposed to being paid for chores with money or privileges.

Stress this accomplishment by pointing out that the dog is happier or healthier. Be specific as in the example of showing a child how to brush the dog’s coat. The dog wags his tail more often now or his dull coat is now shiny, and that the child made this happen.

Use Failure

As well as success – use failure to teach a realistic sense of responsibility. In failures, show the child that the dog is not a toy but has a mind and personality of his own. Explain the dog’s “bad” behavior.

Show the child, since he or she is much more intelligent than the dog, that he has inherited the responsibility for making the relationship work or not. (Of course, there are times when this would not work – when fundamentally there is something wrong with the dog or the problem is too difficult the solve.) When problems arise, trace them with the child to their root.

A Common Example

Take the instance of a little boy playing with his new dog in the back yard. Both are strangers to each other. Both are trying to play before they properly know what to expect from each other. The boy shouts and pretends to shoot the dog with a toy gun. Then the boy runs around the yard.

The dog gives warning signals of being scared and uncertain. The boy doesn’t know how to read this so he runs away, while the dog makes a choice – that the boy wants him to chase him. That is what the boy wants – except the dog catches the boy by the seat of his pants and holds him against the wire fence.

The boy screams, the mother runs out, the dog backs away – everybody is confused.

Find out how this could be prevented: Let a new dog settle down first – smell around, explore the yard, meet the boy under quiet, calm circumstances. Have the child play slow games with the dog at first, so both will know what to expect.

Then, turn the frightening experience into understanding. It can save this from being the first of many bad incidents and bad feelings toward animals for the child.

Guide the child into re-establishing the relationship. Let him solve the problem by going back out in the yard, approaching the dog slowly, giving him food, patting him and reassuring him in a soothing voice.

Explain to the child – this was a misunderstanding. And if he gets through the hard times, it will help him understand his dog better, he will have a better pet and they will have more fun together.

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication

As a parent who brings home a new puppy for the joy that the children will experience, your role is also to use the puppy as a “teacher-dog”, which simply means using the pet to teach your kids morals and responsibility. Specific situations come up all of the time in the home to take advantage of this opportunity.

A Real Life Example

My neighbor, Irene, did not like dogs to begin with, but a Basset Hound was being abandoned. It was scruffy and had rickets. Irene took him, saying all the time she “didn’t want that dumb dog messing up the house, but someone had to take it.”

Now, one of her sons, Eric, is knee-deep in chores. He is  8 years old and exercises the dog, finds the places outside of Irene’s flowerbeds for the dog, Lily, to dig holes. Little boy Eric sees Irene preparing Lily’s food. She fries fat, adds it to the dog’s food, and mixes in vitamins.

Eric sees the medicine and the care…

… and he sees a change in his dog.

Her coat glistens from the food and her personality opens up. At first, Lily would not even move. Now she chases Eric with a fast, bow-legged waddle. At first, she would not even respond to a scolding. Now when Irene gives commands, she obeys but grumbles under her breath.

Irene sees not instant companionship but a growing bond between Eric and the dog. The eight-year-old does not consider this as a responsibility, but just a new kind of loyalty he never felt before.

Being put in Eric’s situation – having something weaker dependent upon you is a rare experience for such a young child. It gave Eric his own place in the family. He has an older brother and sister, and although they get along very well, there is a five-year gap between their adolescence and his childhood.

Eric’s association with the dog gave his brother and sister an opportunity to truthfully admire what he was doing without talking down to him. It was something Eric could do that was not just a child’s accomplishment – it was considered important in the adult world, too.

Eric also solved a problem he was having with not being able to play ball with his older brother. He would not play with Eric due to his age and lack of coordination that a 13-year-old just could not have fun with. Now Eric can play ball with Lily. It’s not the best – Lily can’t throw and neither of them can catch – but it evens out.

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication

Not only does the new addition of a puppy into the home make children happy, it also creates an unexpected learning center that can teach the kids care, tenderness, responsibility, and ironically – sharing.

I stress the word “ironically” because you probably feel that this would be the last result of adding a dog to a family. Would a dog be the spark to further ignite sibling rivalry? Would one child wind up with the dog’s ears while the other held onto the tail?

One fundamental element can help you cool off sibling rivalry and create a real sharing experience.

A dog is not a toy to be shared, but a coexisting being who expresses his personality and has a fill of his own. It is not easy to manipulate a dog. You have given the children something not just to play with, but to reckon with. You have taken the emphasis off each other and diverted their attention to the dog.

A True Story

I asked my friend Heather if I could use her story. She said yes but to change everyone’s name except the dog – “he’s the hero.”

Heather’s problem was not unusual.

After three sentences, a conversation would be broken. The two boys responsible (her kids were not even in the room with us. The constant interruptions came over an intercom that linked the kitchen to their bedroom. Heather’s two boys (age 2 and 3) were in constant competition with each other, classically called sibling rivalry.

Suddenly, there was a scream and crying.

Heather said, “Christopher, are you making Paul cry?” The polite answer came, “Yes, mother.” Heather, on the far edge of exasperation said, “Please don’t hit him. That’s your brother!”

One month later, there was a change.

Heather, reasonably free from interruptions, gave her answer, “We’ve got a dog. He was a stray. I said to him, ‘Look, Brown Dog, I give you a week. If you can take the kids, you can stay.’” Heather thought, God bless you dog, and introduced him into the children’s circle.

“Look, we gotta help this dog. He’s a stray and he needs us. Now Paul, you choose a place for him to sleep. Christopher, do you have an old shirt for him to sleep on? Let’s decide who can do what. Can you give some time to walk him? We’ll alternate, but Christopher, you can feed him tonight and at the same time show your brother how, so he can tomorrow? Now, what should I do – go buy him some food?”

Heather’s Method Worked

She took the boys by surprise. She gave them several things:

1) An honest approach – told them the problems they would have and exactly how to solve them. She made it their giving and their suggestions that made things right.

2) She diverted their attention. What had been riveted on each other in competition was now dispersed. Something else demanded their attention. They were too busy at first and too involved later.

3) The sibling rivalry cooled off and sharing developed because they had a go-between – the dog was the object of their giving and receiving but, in fact, they were learning to give and take from each other.

How Dogs Teach Our Children Responsibility, Sharing and Communication

In every instance where a dog is used within the family household to teach children important life lessons – lessons of responsibility, lessons of care, and lessons of sharing, it has been the dog’s similarity to us that has done the teaching.

His differences can helps us grow, too. You can use the unfamiliar to widen a child’s view, tickle his curiosity, exercise his senses, and encourage two soft spots – understanding and respect.

Curiosity exercised can establish a love for knowledge. You can begin to form your child’s learning habits before he enters school. Let his dog be a focal point for his natural curiosity.

Search with him for the dog’s differences in behavior and appearance. Some interesting facts and insights can be found in like-minded dog books and videos – how a dog reads with his nose, how a dog’s ears make him a remarkable eavesdropper, how a dog can fight with his eyes, how a dog has a tail that talks, how a dog loses the battle to keep peace.

These facts and insights can answer the child’s questions and stimulate new interests. They are fascinating enough for bedtime stories. It could be a running series of: “Charlie, the dog who…”

Make the illustration even sharper by using the dog’s name. Help him see the answers to his questions. Use the word “like” to put a picture in his mind. Explaining a dog’s acute hearing you could say, “ears like scoops.” Then make the picture move: “that can tilt and reach out to dip into sound.”

Involve the child actively in an illustration. It doesn’t always have to be scientific as long as it gives him the feel of it. “Charlie wags his tail because he can’t smile. It won’t fit on his mouth. Now show your child by stretching the corners of your mouth back as far as you can – pull your lips as tight as you can. That’s the shape of Charlie’s mouth. His mouth was not made to smile so he wags his tail.”

In stories like these you can give your child a valuable approach to the unusual. He can learn that there is a reason behind behavior. That what appears funny, or dumb, or even ugly can look differently when we know the purpose it serves.

He learns from seeing you actively seeking reasons behind the dog’s behavior. You are showing him the beginning of understanding. A child that is involved with animals soon learns there are different types of intelligence – used for different ways of life.


The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.

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