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The Pet Plunge

For Jill Doerger, the contribution made by her family’s dog comes down to one thing: love. “The unconditional love that he gives the whole family. He expects nothing from us except his food,” she says of the Baldwinsville family’s 5-year-old Labradoodle, Remy.

He’s also helped her girls, Haley, 12, and Abbey, 11, learn to be dependable and pitch in. “They are responsible for taking him for a walk and making sure that he’s fed and making sure that he gets played with,” Doerger says. “It’s a responsibility that they have and a chore that they like.”

Many children beg parents to get a pet or three for their household, and many parents struggle with the choice to stay pet-less or add to the family’s numbers. Parents who have taken the pet plunge find the furry benefits certainly outweigh the tasks left undone by children who promised to do them every day.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry cites several advantages to pet ownership. “Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence,” according to the organization’s website (www.aacap.org), and help children develop non-verbal communication, empathy and compassion.

Nicci Brown of DeWitt says there are three kinds of payoffs: emotional, physical and intellectual. “It’s nice for kids to have someone or a creature or another living being that they can connect with, especially when they might have gotten in trouble with us and then they can go find solace with the non-human member of the family who is always going to be happy to see them.”

The mother of two girls, Maddi, 11, and Haley, 6 (and, over the years, one dog, two birds and one guinea pig), sees the physical advantage in getting the kids away from the TV set and their electronic games and out walking the dog. The intellectual benefits start by learning about their specific dog, in this case a Havanese puppy that is turning 1 this month. Then, she adds, “They learn about other types of dogs so it’s an interest for them as well.”

My son, MacIntyre, volunteers a similar point: “It’s nice to have something to talk about with kids at school.” I hadn’t thought about the lifelong interest or even passion we may be introducing our kids to with the addition of our dog, Dixie, whom we adopted 18 months ago, and our cat, Cuddles, who also came from a pet shelter six years ago. We talk about cats and dogs all the time now, and talk much more to neighbors in our area who stop to say hi to Dixie or even us when we’re walking the dog. That’s the boost in socialization that a pet may bring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When my husband was considering whether we should get a dog, in addition to the cat, my daughter, Annie, and I started volunteering with the Central New York Cat Coalition, caring for fostered cats while they await adoption at our local PetSmart store. I think our dedication to care for someone else’s cats on a weekly basis helped persuade him that we were serious about another pet.

Caring for a pet sometimes exposes children to the nitty-gritty work of helping an ailing animal. When our dog developed glaucoma seemingly overnight, my kids first noticed the change in her behavior and her eyes. They took the initiative to call me at work to ask what to do. No one complained when we took her to two animal emergency centers that night as we tried to get a diagnosis. And no one complains when I ask for help putting in her drops twice each day. We’re all just so relieved and happy she’s OK.

Brown says of her daughters: “It’s good for them to have someone to care for and almost be like a parent. It forces them to think about (another), to not be so egocentric. That challenges that very natural state and so I think that’s a good thing as well.”                     

Eileen Gilligan, an award-winning writer and mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.

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