Science is proving pets are natural therapists, especially for children. They can help kids overcome aggression and shyness and they teach responsibility and empathy.
Pets make good therapists because they play the same role as human ones do, by providing comfort, companionship and someone to talk to and confide in, says Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology and a pioneer in the field of the healing power of pets. (In 1996 he and a colleague showed that pets could lower blood pressure simply by being present.)
Kids know there's no risk that their pets will betray them, and the animals give feedback in the form of unconditional love. "Pets don't judge," says Beck. He believes taking care of animals also teaches responsibility and boosts esteem by giving kids a "helper's high." That may explain why children with pets score significantly higher when measured for self-esteem, confidence and altruism.
Forever man's best friend
Researchers think we respond so powerfully to pets because it's hard-wired into our brains. At one time it was a matter of survival to be well attuned to animals. And companion animals, particularly dogs, helped early humans venture out of their caves, providing protection, friendship and help with hunting. Whatever the reason, "the evidence is overwhelming that animals have a dramatic impact in reaching children," says James Stowe, a veterinarian and president of the Human-Animal Bond Association of Canada in Ottawa.
Kids with pets are more attuned to the feelings of others because they're better at reading nonverbal cues, says Stowe. Animals have only nonverbal cues to give, and children quickly become adept at understanding them.
With the many virtues that pets bring, it's no wonder therapists across the country are using them to help troubled kids or those dealing with loss.
Taking responsibility for a pet
But before you rush out to get a pet to help your child through a rough time, make sure you have realistic expectations, says Sandra Johnston, the volunteer coordinator with the Pet Access League Society in Calgary. Pets are not a cure-all, she says, especially if owning a pet means unwelcome changes to your family's lifestyle. For instance, dog ownership may be impractical if your family makes frequent weekend trips or if a family member has allergies.
And regardless of what your kids promise, expect that you will do the feeding and grooming. It's reasonable to expect a child of 12 to be able to take on the primary responsibility with some supervision from you.
Love sees no breed
While most of the research has concentrated on the interaction between children and dogs, you need not limit your search to canines. Cats, especially ones that enjoy sitting with people and react well to petting and grooming, can be great companions and confidantes. And even hamsters, gerbils, birds and fish can teach children about responsibility.
For your child to reap the benefits of animal companionship, she needs to develop a bond with her pet. Here are some ideas for encouraging that connection.
• Involve her in the selection and naming of the pet.
• If your child is too young to walk the dog on her own, do it together.
• If your dog handles routine visits to the vet well, bring your child along. You might also ask her to remind you when it's time for checkups.
• Enrol in obedience classes together. Children will get a self-esteem boost from teaching their dog to sit and heel.
• Encourage talking to and confiding in the animal. It may help to do this by example.