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The Warm and Fuzzies

© Glenda Powers | Dreamstime.com

My kids and I would like to get a dog. My husband is the holdout—for now. He thinks he’ll end up as the go-to guy for all the “dirty” jobs. The kids have worked out a schedule for walking a dog, using the pooper-scooper and feeding the dog. Our job now is to persuade him they really will do it.

I’ve asked other parents about their experiences with children and pets and their answers are unanimous: They’re great! (The pets, that is.) Do the kids help? Fifty-fifty, they say. (Don’t tell my husband.)

But the overflowing love and fun they recount about their pets is truly amazing. Parents get passionate about many things, especially regarding their children; but their pets may come in a very close second on the passion scale.

From their comments and my experience with our cat of three years, several key areas emerge as learning points for children: care and responsibility; empathy; shifting the focus from “me”; and love. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry agrees. “Children raised with pets show many benefits,” according to the AACAP’s Web site.

Stacey Chilbert of Liverpool says “everyone” takes care of the family’s almost 4-year-old Maltese shiatsu mix, Darby. “In the morning, the little ones put her out” and their eldest sister lets her out when she gets home in the afternoon, Chilbert says. “Don’t ask who cleans up the backyard,” she adds. “That would be a Mom and Dad thing.”

Asked what she has she learned from having a dog, 15-year-old Madeline answers, “That you have to take care of
somebody else.” Her 13-year-old sister, Jacqueline, adds, “No matter what.”

Learning empathy, the second area of growth, seems to go both ways. Their dog is very smart, they say, and they appreciate how she recognizes their moods. “She can tell your emotions,” Madeline says. If you’re sad, “she’ll sit right next to you.” And Darby waits right by the door or window when it’s time for the kids to come home from school.

Another Liverpool mother, Maureen Conklin, says, “We have four children and they all take part in some sort of care and a lot of play” with the family’s two dogs, a 4-year-old Jack Russell terrier and a growing chocolate Lab. It’s not just about food and walking, notes daughter Maggie, 13. “You have to watch them, too,” she says, recalling how their new puppy tried chewing on something that got caught in his throat and he started choking. Now if the dog’s chewing or eating, someone keeps an eye on him. That level of concern certainly shifts the child’s focus outside of her or himself. Maggie recently noticed reddishness around one of the dog’s eyes and suggested the dog might have an eye infection, Conklin recalls.

Everyone gets the benefits of affection, Conklin says, referring to the family and the pets. “We’re definitely dog people,” adds dad Tom, who’s the main dog walker.

Desiree Couch, also of Liverpool, describes her dog as another member of the family. The dog’s barking alerts them to strangers and Bianca is wonderful with kids and babies. When visiting a family with a baby, “If she hears the baby cry, she goes and checks it out.” If anyone play-fights, “she’s right in there making sure everyone’s OK.”

As an Alaskan-Husky mix, Bianca even joins the family for sledding adventures at Long Branch Park.

Pets come in all shapes and sizes, and that includes birds, fish, guinea pigs and hamsters. For a Syracuse family with allergies to cats and dogs, a hamster turned out to be the ideal pet. The mom described to me how her daughter seemed to connect with the hamster right away. The 10-year-old

correctly predicted where the hamster would sleep in its play area (at the top) and enjoys watching it explore the habitat container, likes to pet it, and provides the daily food and water.

“She’s getting the whole pet experience to the level she can,” says her mom, Trish. If the hamster doesn’t trigger any allergies, the family may try a guinea pig next.

Three years ago, after my daughter’s begging and many good experiences with other people’s cats, my family with no previous pet experience picked out a wonderful cat from the Central New York SPCA on East Molloy Road in Syracuse (454-4479; www.cnyspca.org).

We have been very happy learning that she was aptly named Cuddles, the name she came with. Although afraid of strangers at first, she eventually warms up if they stay long enough. An indoor-only cat, Cuddles has snuck out of the house twice and our hearts have sunk. The idea of a home without Cuddles is too difficult to think about. And that is love.

Since the cat was supposed to “belong” to my daughter, Annie is asked to fill the cat bowl when it’s empty, and she routinely changes the water dish. Cuddles seems to know who her mama is: She’s slept on Annie’s bed since she arrived in our house.

Cuddles the cat has certainly helped my son become comfortable with animals. After being nipped by a puppy as a toddler, he stayed far away from others’ pets. When MacIntyre stayed home from school very sick one day, Cuddles seemed to sense how he felt. Instead of napping in her usual spot, she climbed up next to him on the couch and he reached out a hand to her. Now he wants a dog as much as the rest of us.

According to parents and kids consulted, adding a dog to our family could be good for all. Especially for my husband and me, I expect. As the kids get older and no longer want to hang out with us, or even stand next to Mom or Dad in public, at least we’ll have the dog to keep us company. And Cuddles waiting at home.

Eileen Gilligan of Baldwinsville teaches journalism at SUNY Oswego and tries to teach lots of things to her two children.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York