By Sapna Khajuria
“Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole.” – Roger A Caras, wildlife photographer and writer
When my sons were trying to convince me to bring home a pet, one of the less outlandish reasons they presented was, “A pet is like a walking health tonic”. After a lifetime of having pet siblings and now being a pet parent, I could not agree more.
School, sports, after-school classes, tuitions – phew, it’s not easy being a child today. Coming home to a pet has been shown to have great benefits for a child’s physical, mental, social and cognitive health. Kids and pets are natural-born allies.
Playing with a pet is the most fun form of exercise ever; however tired your child may be, there’s no way he can say no to the cute face of a dog who has just brought his favourite toy to play fetch with. Studies also show that children who grow up with a pet end up spending a lot of time outdoors. The responsibility of looking after a pet teaches children better impulse control, and the art of patience.
A dog and a child will always have each other’s back. I learnt it the hard way when I recently gave my boys quite the epic scolding, and had to deal with a dog who proceeded to give me the sulky, silent treatment on behalf of her brothers.
For Anuragini Malik, her two-year old Shih Tzu, Truffle, is definitely her third baby, along with a teenaged son and daughter. She has seen her children’s outlook towards all animals become more welcoming; with them becoming more caring, affectionate and expressive of their love and feelings. In a true role reversal, the youngest child is incredibly protective of his older siblings whenever they get ticked off by their parents. For her children, he is their stress-buster.
When we were growing up, we spent a lot of time outdoors, and other than the family pet, there was a world of adventure to look forward to – there were dragonflies, glow-worms, earthworms and beetles to marvel over; and a whole lot of dirt for immunity building. In the urban jungle, busy daily routines, the perfect antidote to today’s over sanitised world is to let our child play with a pet, and get introduced to all kinds of immunity boosting dirt and microbes. Four paws and two legs jumping in puddles will be a far more realistic memory to hold on to, than my eternally hopeful image of a tidy room. Children who grow up with pets tend to fall sick less frequently and are less prone to common allergies than children not exposed to any animals.
Doggie love found a way into Gayathri Datla’s home and hearts through her children. Frequent relocations across the globe came in the way of the family bringing home a pet, but her children’s love for dogs helped them find a happy solution — to host friendly dogs from verified families through a portal. For her, it was a happy surprise to see how well and how fast her children bonded with the dogs (both puppies and older dogs) and vice versa, and this validated her belief in their selfless love for each other.
There are times one is simply not in a position to bring home a pet. You can still have your child interact with pets. Sign up with an enterprise like Zambadogs and host pets when their families need help dog sitting; and get cuddly doses of unconditional pet love.
Thankfully, now there are Cafes like Puppychino and Fur Ball Story that have brought to cities happy spaces for pets, making them an ideal setting for spending some time with happy furry bundles of love and to leave your stress behind. You could also volunteer at an animal shelter.
Zamir and Heena, parents to a three-year-old, were keen to light a spark of love for animals in their child, and started with introducing their daughter to cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, and spending time with pets of friends and family. Now a regular visitor to cat cafés in Mumbai, their daughter loves interacting with parrots, crows and pigeons that frequent their apartment building. The parents have watched their child become more confident and compassionate; and sensitive to the needs of others at such a young age.
It’s not just doggy love that helps children — cats are incredible pets too. Saroj Sirkeck, mum to two grown-up children, says, “For me, the cats were the best thing that I never wanted!” After growing up with cats in the house, she feels that, being kind to all living beings was the biggest life lesson from her pets; and also a poignant lesson on dealing with loss. Children do end up learning about the circle of life when they grow up with pets.
Recent studies show that having a pet to look after makes children more nurturing, whether they are boys or girls. And raising boys who grow up to be nurturing adults, wouldn’t that be everyone’s version of an ideal world?
My family has included a dog ever since I was a toddler – each of our pets was my buddy, my partner in crime; my constant through the 11 towns and 15 schools that were my childhood. While I couldn’t quite live out a “My Family and Other Animals” inspired childhood dream of living on a Greek island with dogs, pigeons, tortoises and goats for company, I was quite sure I would like my children to grow up with a pet. For them, our Labrador Cookie (Her Highness Cookie the Wookie – we are Star Wars fans, after all) is their best-friend, playmate, bundle of cuddles, their sister (festive season is quite entertaining, when all three siblings tie rakhis to each other); basically, she has a leading role in all their dramas.
Invariably, after many pleadings by children, families bring pets home, only to realise that, after the initial fanfare, somehow the pet has become the mother’s responsibility. We had made it clear that Cookie was the family pet, and everyone needed to pitch in for all the mess and tedium that accompanies raising a puppy. Cleaning up after her, training her, grooming her – all this taught my boys a sense of responsibility. Nothing teaches a child about being responsible for another being like the chore of poop scooping, or cleaning out the rabbit hutch – you get the drift. These chores can start with children as young as the toddler stage – from checking if there is enough fresh water for the pet, to cleaning up, and as they grow older, taking the pet for a walk.
As a mother of twins, I have written about one child sometimes feeling overshadowed by his twin. Incredibly, bringing home a pet has done wonders for his self-esteem. A pal who hangs on to every word he says, whose cuddles remain regardless of the kind of day he has had – Cookie has boosted his confidence to new levels.
Pets foster creativity in children – not just limited to the pass-the-blame “I didn’t break this, must have been him” variety. Having to make allowances for another being in all your plans means sometimes you have to figure out how to accommodate their needs. Whether it is the creativity of making your pet a unique wizard’s cape so she can be a part of your Harry Potter game, or realising you have no choice but to clean up the gazillions of Lego pieces lying on the floor because your puppy might swallow one, as far as a parent is concerned, this is a win-win.
Pets make awesome, non-judgemental listening buddies for young readers – patiently turning their heads towards the child, woofing at the right interval during storytelling – gives a young reader quite the confidence boost. Some schools and libraries in the United States have programs where children read to rescue animals, and end up improving their reading skills.
Pets’ calming influence rubs off on the moodiest of teenagers. For instance, ever since my boys realised that the dog flinched every time they lost their cool with each other, they tend to keep a check on their anger. The minute they wake up, or come home from school, they look for Cookie. For Cookie, waiting for her brothers to return home usually means waiting outside their room and periodically sighing dramatically.
Being responsible for another living thing and the love they get in return makes children think beyond their own pets. Their pets’ affection inspired teenager Sanghamitra and 10-year-old Yashodhara to raise funds for Karma Foundation by upcycling their old books.
With a pet, you can be guaranteed non-stop entertainment and not a dull moment. My boys have trained her to run to the balcony and look down upon the world when she hears the command “go inspect your kingdom”; or the fart gun (yes, it’s a real thing, not just one you’d find in the Minion movies) that scares the living daylights out of her; the three of them refusing to get out of the pool; or when she sat with the guiltiest look of all time after ripping a cushion to shreds; running with her as she goes to meet her best buddies Ollie, Scotch and Adonis, and teaching the best of them to get into trouble by eating twigs; and my personal favourite, when the boys were playing with slime and Cookie decided to sit on it and ended up with a lurid green coloured rear end – I know that this collage of memories is more priceless than anything money could ever buy.
Whether you are a cat person or a dog person, one thing is quite clear – the pet becomes the focus of the family and gives you a chance to slow down, and to bond with each other. Fill your lives with purrs and woofs, not frowns. Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs – take your pick and transform your child’s life. And if you can give a home to an abandoned creature, the joy will be multiplied thousands of times over. Bring home a pet today, baby sit a dog, or spend some time with a dog at a pet café or a shelter.
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