You’ve got to talk to the animals!

In show business there’s an old saying ‘never work with animals or children.’ How many homes though have both children and animals? I’m sure quite a few!

As a child growing up I had a fear of dogs. At one stage I was even taken to a psychologist to try and help me as I would run crying to my parents when I saw a dog, regardless to whether it was on a lead or not. I could never pinpoint what had caused this fear, but my Mum always felt it was due to a small dog jumping up at me and pushing me over when I was very small, before a time that I could remember. Even at the age of 13 when I was staying at my friend’s house, (who didn’t have a dog), after an evening out we returned to find Toby the Jack Russell had arrived as a surprise for my friend and her sister, I couldn’t stop myself bursting into tears and feeling terrified, (sorry Sarah)!!

Fast forward 25 years and here I am now with not just 1, but 2 dogs of my own. Animals can play such an important part of children’s lives, even though combining the two may make life more unpredictable and chaotic. Over the last 15 years my husband and I have had a hamster, fish, 3 cats, a guinea pig, a rabbit and now 2 dogs. The hamster was actually the first pet we had, as having never had any pets growing up my husband was a bit worried about the responsibility of having a pet. (We didn’t even have any kids at this point)! Dear Bertie had a great life and spent many an evening zooming across the living room floor in his hamster ball.

Pets are great for helping children learn about responsibility. Children as young as 5 years old start to learn about what is needed to keep animals alive at school and with having a pet to look after at home, this makes the experience even more real. Children do love to tell people about the pets they have. They really do become family members to them. Let’s not pretend though that every child is going to take this responsibility as seriously as they should. For those parents out there that have had your arm twisted in to buying a pet, I’m sure you’ve all realised that the fascination of this pet can waiver over time. When the children smell the rabbit hutch after the rabbit has lived in it for a few days and needs cleaning out, they can soon change their mind about how cute the bunny is. This is all normal and part of combining children with pets. Having a dog and taking it for walks is great until the rain sets in and the wind is blowing. Ultimately it is the adults responsibility, so when thinking of buying a pet for your family, please do remember that although you can encourage your child to take an active role, some children’s interest won’t last as long as others.

Animals do bite too! We do everything we can to train our animals to be human friendly, but this can take time. Children do forget this and can expect them to be as cute and fluffy as their teddy equivalent. It can take time for a child to build their trust back up if they have been nipped by a hamster, for example, and you may want to reassure them by being a hands-on animal lover yourself. Children pick up from those around them how they should be around animals. If you are not confident around a certain animal then you may want to consider something else. Without my husband’s support and confidence I could never have even considered a dog. However now, I have not one fear with my dogs and it has increased my confidence with other dogs too as I feel like I understand them more now.

Pets can become a child’s best friend. Okay, they may not want to do the smelly jobs, but when all is calm and the cat is curled up in your child’s lap and he/she has started to talk to it, all the hard work is worthwhile. Dogs are already used to help the blind and the deaf, and there are more and more dogs training to be assistance or service dogs for children with additional needs, for example autism. Some dogs are trained to go into schools to help encourage children to read too. There is a lot of evidence out there that shows that pets can have a calming effect on children. I have had first hand experience of seeing a child in school who finds it hard to conform to school structure and listen to adults, to change to become a loving, kind and caring child when it is his turn to take the visiting dog for a walk around the school field.

A downside to having pets is the sadness of loss when the pet dies. Most pets have a much shorter life span than humans and it can be hard for children to go through the bereavement process. To love is to loose, and the same can be said for all human relationships. We all must die at some point. Having the experience of a loved pet dying can make it easier for a child to then go through the death of a family member or friend, but at the time of the loss it can be heart breaking for everyone involved. My youngest daughter’s guinea pig died the morning that I was due to go to London for the weekend with my husband and friends. Having said good bye and taken my daughter to school, and then returning to feed the animals, my husband found Runner had died overnight. We took the decision to postpone our weekend by a few hours and waited to leave until after our daughter returned from school. This gave us time to break the news to her and perform a burial in the garden. There were lots of tears, but Millie showed a great inner strength and watched us set off to London with Harry the dog giving her cuddles. Without Harry I don’t think we could have gone at all, even though she had her sister and Gran to look after her. Harry the dog gave her something that no one else could.

Animals and children may make life more complicated, but in my experience the extra love that is created is by far the best thing that comes out of these relationships. Having had the worst relationship with dogs as a child, for me the best pets I have ever had are our two dogs I have now. My two girls adore them, and they have given us a reason to keep active taking them now for two walks a day. It is even an excuse that gets me to spend more time with my girls as having two people walking the dogs is always easier than one. They are a lot of work, especially in the first few months. Max is still only four and half months old and not fully toilet trained outside, so we have to keep on top of his training, but all is going well. Going through the puppy process does remind me at times of the days when my girls were babies. The sleepless nights, nappy changes, feeding, crying etc, seemed never ending at the time and very hard work. It is a time I personally would not want to go back too, but I have no regrets and I wouldn’t change a moment of it.

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