Do Dogs Help Children's Behavior?
When I worked as a Humane Educator at an animal shelter, one of my favorite programs was called No More Bullying®. It was a program held in classrooms for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders to teach character education with the goal of ending Bullying.
Developed by the animal shelter Wayside Waifs, the No More Bullying® program emphasizes treating all living things with care, and encourages the students to practice core values both with pets and with their peers.
One of the reasons I loved this program so much is that it included 5 visits to the same classroom with a dog. As I presented the core value of the day, I was able to use Whimsy as an example of how to practice that value with our pets. Multiple visits allowed me to get to know the kids. Bringing Whimsy made the students look forward to my lesson and really get engaged with the material.
Presenting the No More Bullying® program made me really consider how having a dog can be impactful on a child’s life. There is a lot of research about the impact of a family dog on the development of children. Studies show that young children that live with a dog have higher pro-social behavior; they’re more likely to help others, share, and follow rules. Additionally, these children have fewer conflicts with their peers.
But even more than the advantages in childhood development, growing up with a dog offers an opportunity for them to learn and practice the core values such as those introduced in the No More Bullying® program. Parents can role model core values and encourage children to practice with the family dog.
Dogs can teach children Responsibility
If a family doesn’t have a dog, kids may beg for a dog and make all kinds of promises to take over the entire care if parents agree to getting one. And no matter what the kids say before the dog comes home, they most likely won’t take 100% care of the dog, because they are kids.
Part of teaching children values is modeling them yourself. Parents shouldn’t get a family dog unless the adults want a family dog. Realize that the adults are 100% responsible for ensuring the dog is getting everything it needs, because if you leave it to the children all of your dog’s needs will likely not be met.
So how do kids learn responsibility? It depends on the age of the child. Very small children can help fill the food bowl, let you know if the water bowl is empty, or come along on a walk. Older kids can help with brushing, training manners, letting the dog outside to potty, and picking up poop.
Parents can designate specific dog care jobs to the kids, but then the parents need to ensure that there’s follow through. It shouldn’t be assumed that because it’s the job of a child to fill the water dish that it’s being done. That assumption isn’t fair to the dog if someone forgets to do it.
Dogs can teach children Empathy and Compassion
Anthropomorphism is considered a huge No No by dog trainers because many times dog behavior is misinterpreted when seen through our human lens. These misinterpretations can lead to conflict between dog and human. An example would be assuming dogs regard hugs as an expression of love, when dogs may see it as a threatening action.
However, I do think anthropomorphism has a place for teaching children about the feelings of dogs, because it can be used to talk about how the child feels in certain situations and correlate that with what a dog most likely feels in similar situations. When children develop empathy for other living beings it gives them the motivation to treat others with compassion.
Adults can help children relate to a dog’s feelings by pointing out the dog’s behavior in reaction to an event, and using an analogy. For instance, if a dog has been interacting with the child and leaves to rest in his crate, you can correlate that to how the child might decide they don’t want to play a game anymore and go off for some “alone time”. Ask the child how they might feel if the other children didn’t respect their decision and kept bothering them. Then ask how they think the dog might feel if the child bothered the dog when the dog chose to lie down in the crate.
Dogs can teach children Self-Control
One of the things I’ve noticed is that these core values all work together! I believe empathy can be a big motivator to get children to practice self-control around dogs. Once children have a reason, it’s more likely that they’ll restrain their impulses around the dog.
Again, parents can help children with practicing this core value. A child who wants to run up and pet someone else’s dog can learn that some dogs are frightened by a running child that is a stranger. Asking how the child would feel if a complete stranger ran towards them and touched their head can help them understand why a dog would be fearful with that behavior.
Taking it a step farther would be having a discussion about what behavior would prevent a dog from becoming frightened, and then practicing in a role-playing scenario at home. Practicing appropriate behavior when a dog isn’t present makes it more likely the child will display self-control when they see someone else’s dog they really want to pet.
Dogs can teach children Integrity
When I first presented the No More Bullying® program and had to come up with a way for children to practice integrity with dogs I was a bit stumped. The program definition is “Being honest and having strong character even when no-one is watching.”
As I thought about it, I realized that what our dogs need most from us is trustworthiness. In order to be trustworthy, we need to be honest with them at all times. So how can we be honest with an animal that doesn’t share our language?
First of all, by respecting dogs as individuals and not as objects. Dogs shouldn’t have to endure an interaction if they don’t want it, unless it’s a welfare issue. Children can be taught that if a dog wants to walk away from being petted or played with, that choice needs to be honored.
Additionally, doing something to or with a dog for entertainment purposes should only be done if the dog finds it entertaining as well. I saw a video recently where an owner dressed up in a lion costume and jumped out at the dog, scaring the dog. While the owners laughed about it, all I could think was that the dog didn’t understand, much less join in on the joke.
The way we obtain trust is to offer respect for the feelings and choices of other living beings, whether it’s another human or a dog. When we do that, the other individual is more likely to want to spend time with us. That’s an extremely valuable lesson for a child to learn!
Children can learn to practice core values if they have a dog in their lives. The key is that they need to also see the values being modeled by adults, and parents should make an effort to encourage the practicing of those values with the family dog.
Children can learn responsibility through helping care for the family dog doing age-appropriate tasks under the supervision of their parents.
Teaching compassion for others by helping children develop empathy, will many times be easier if started early with the dog they live with. Compassion will also be a key motivator for children to carry out their responsibilities in caring for the dog, exhibit self-control to make sure the dog isn’t frightened, and practice integrity by treating their dog with respect.
Children pretty much by definition lack self-control. With help from parents, children can learn self-control around their dog to help their dog feel safe with the children.
Learning to be honest with the dog by not playing practical jokes or teasing that the dog won’t understand can lead to a great discussion about integrity leading to respect.
The No More Bullying® program is based on the belief that when core values are regularly practiced, they are more likely to become a natural part of a child’s character. What better place to start that practice than with the beloved family dog?
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