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Lucia Conti's daughters are growing up with pets. Before the girls were walking, they shared play space with June Bug, an English bulldog, and Roma, a boxer. Now, 11 and 9, the girls enjoy the company of Ruby, a boxer the family adopted in 2014.
"We went a year after Roma died with no dog in the house and we were all miserable," said Lucia, whose family lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. "Then we found Ruby on our shelter's website and brought her home. She's a joy. She became part of the family from the moment she came into the door."
More Than a Furry Companion
While Ruby's simple companionship brightens the life of the whole family, Lucia believes the dog's presence—and that of June Bug and Roma before—have been important to Emma and Alexis in other ways too. Having dogs in the house have made her children more compassionate, she said.
Scientific studies back her up. Researchers have found kids who are growing up with pets are not only more compassionate, but also more empathetic, have enhanced social skills, and higher self-esteem.
There are health benefits too. Babies who grow up around dogs are less likely to suffer allergies, according to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Psychology Today reports that kids with ADD and ADHD benefit from having a pet in the house. Taking care of pets requires a strict schedule and lots of outdoor playtime, and sparks social interaction with peers, all of which are activities and skills that may manage ADD and ADHD behaviors.
Surprising Development Benefits
Researchers have studied the bonds of kids and pets. The benefits children gain from their relationship with family animals translate to life-long lessons. Here are just a few:
- Compassion and empathy. Learning how to take care of pets, how to be gentle with them, and how to understand their non-verbal cues all help develop compassion and empathy in kids, notes The Washington Post. Ruby's complete history is unknown (the dog was 5 years old when they adopted her), but the pup has permanent injuries consistent with abuse. Lucia uses Ruby as an example when kids are mean or exhibit behavior her girls don't understand, to help them develop empathy. "If a kid is rough or mean, we talk about how you don't know their history or what's happening in their home life, and it's the same with Ruby. Some of her behaviors we might not understand, but we don't know what she went through."
- Self-esteem and responsibility. Giving a child age-appropriate tasks to care for the family pet develops responsibility. When those jobs are accomplished, kids get a sense of satisfaction that can boost self-esteem, according to Mother Nature Network. Lucia's daughters are responsible for feeding Ruby and taking her for walks. "They're learning if you take care of someone, if you're nice and treat them well, then you've earned that love in return," she said.
- Social skills. A study conducted by Australian researchers, published by Anthrozoos, discovered children whose class cared for guinea pigs showed "significant increases in social skills and decreases in problem behaviors." The study also cited research that indicated the presence of a dog in classrooms increases social cohesion and decreases aggression in kids ages six to ten.
- Learning about the circle of life. For many kids, losing a pet is the first significant death they experience. Helping them through the grieving process in a healthy and understanding way teaches coping skills. Emma and Alexis were devastated when Roma died. The experience taught her girls that "sometimes you have to let someone go even when it hurts," Lucia said.
Lucia said the experience of growing up with dogs has meant so much more to her family then having someone to cuddle with on the couch or play fetch with in the backyard. "The girls are growing as human beings by having a dog," she said.
So, if you are considering getting a family pet for your children be sure to consider the benefits a pet can help in their development as well as the responsibilities that go along with caring for a pet. Pets can also be a great bonding opportunity for you and your children. As you teach them how to care for your new pet you are getting opportunities to impart your own wisdom and spend valuable time together.
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer and pet parent who lives in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.