Why Kids Need Dogs (or Maybe Cats)

Some of my proudest moments as a counselor have had nothing to do with the hope I’ve helped bring into a child’s life (although those make me proud, too).  They’ve been about puppies.  When the parent girls’ and boy’s classes we teach at Daystar used to be longer versions, I had a section where I talked about pets.  During that season and since, I’ve had multiple families tell me they bought their child a dog because of those talks.  So, now, I wanted to share that information (and pressure) with you.

I’ve had two dogs in my life…two of my own, that is.  My first dog, Noel, came to me in one of my hardest seasons, when I was twenty-two years old.  My parents had just decided to divorce.  That first Christmas, my mom was worried about my six year-old sister.  She was afraid Christmas would be shrouded in sadness, rather than the joy it should be for a six year-old child.  So…she decided to get her a puppy.  I went with her to choose the dog, fell in love with the larger of the two white fluffy Maltese.  And we drove away.  On the car ride home, I told my mom how she should put the puppy in a box under the tree…as I had always wanted to find one that way on Christmas morning.  And, you guessed it.  The box under the tree was a two puppy-size box, rather than one.  Kathleen and I, together, lifted the lid and there were two white fluffballs with a sign that said, “Sisters for the sisters.”  I believe Noel and Snowball got Kathleen and I both through one of the saddest times of our lives.

Fast forward sixteen years later.  (Yes, we won’t address how terrible it is to lose one of these furry family members…we’ll save that for a later blog).  I now have a black-and-white fluffball, a Havanese named Lucy.  Both of my dogs have gone to work with me every day of their little lives, helping me counsel girls and families.  Lucy is a clown and loves to “wave” at each child who walks through the doors of Daystar.  But, she also has a heart ten sizes bigger than her body and got me through another difficult season.  A few years ago, I had to have a surgery that I didn’t want to have.  I was recovering in bed for two weeks after.  Lucy never left my side.  My mom had to bring her food to my bed for her to eat.  When I’d take a shower, she’d sit outside the shower door waiting.  And, during that season, she started to sleep with her head on the very spot of my surgery…and has never changed since.

Dogs bring us such joy.  They have an innate sense of knowing when and how to sit with us in whatever we’re going through…often with just the amount of words needed at the time—none.  Over the years, I have had countless girls who’ve told me the one they talked to the most during a parent’s death, a difficult time with friends, or any hard season, was their dog.  (Okay, okay, maybe a cat, too.)

The world our kids are growing up in today is harder…harder, I think, than ever before.  They’re encountering bullying in greater amounts, peer pressure, emotional issues, hearing about suicide, being exposed to sexual images right and left because of technology.  The reality is that there is no telling what their day has entailed or how it has impacted how they feel about themselves as they walk through the door at the end of the day.  And so, to be greeted by someone who thinks they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread…who wags and licks and even sometimes waves can provide a lot of healing and hope for any child.  Or grown-up like me.

By the way, there’s a lot of empirical data to back me up.  Here are just a few statistics from a website called “The Power of Paws”, as well as some other articles outlining the power of pets with children.

Children exposed to humane education programs (with animals) display enhanced empathy for humans compared with children not exposed to such programs

Children who suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD) are able to focus on a pet, which helps them learn how to concentrate

Kids who own pets have lower heart rates/blood pressure at physical exams.

Kids 11-16 with pets have better ability to understand non-verbal communications.

Children exposed to pets during the first year of life have a lower frequency of allergic rhinitis and asthma.

The presence of a dog during a child's physical examination decreases their stress.

Children owning pets are more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs or chores.

Children with autism have more prosocial behaviors, less autistic behaviors such as self-absorption. Owning a pet can teach a child about the responsibilities of life and mutual trust. By feeding and exercising a pet, children can also develop an understanding of daily care.

Children who own pets score significantly higher on empathy and prosocial orientation scales than non-owners.