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Young Children and Pets – Emotional Bonds and Enduring Friendships

Kathleen Tuite


Tuesday 08 November 2016

I have been struck many times watching my grandson playing with our family pet, a small Jack Russell terrier, how he shows such love and affection for this small animal. He treats him like his best friend, he talks to him, shares secrets with him, knows what he eats, helps with feeding him, settles the covers on his pet bed to make him comfortable and most of all loves taking him for walks or cycles (attaching his lead to the handlebars of his trike) around our estate.

As I thought about how my grandson interacts with our pet, it is clear to me that there are many benefits to children in having a pet or having access to a family pet. I set about doing a little research on the benefits to children of being raised with pets or having regular access to pets. Some of the potential benefits I found include, children developing skills on how to care for pets, sharing in little jobs like pouring the food into the pet’s dish. Learning that like people pets need food, shelter, exercise and love. That children can learn lessons about life and biology, such as reproduction, birth, illness, accidents, loss and bereavement. And the role of animals in therapeutic and educational interventions for children with special needs has long been seen to have major benefits.

Having a pet teaches children how to respect other living things, they can learn about empathy and compassion. When we go on holiday, the first thing my grandson asks ‘who is minding Fidge’? Pets can provide a connection to nature. Going for walks outdoors, finding sticks for throw and fetch. Children often talk to animals because they are safe recipients of secrets. I have observed on many occasions my grandson talking to our dog, and even checking with him if he heard him, ‘did you hear that Fidge’?

Apart from the obvious safety precautions that pet owners must exercise over their pet when around small children, having access or ownership of a pet for young children is special. The love, loyalty and affection that children can get from having a good relationship with a pet can contribute to a child’s development of trusting relationships with others and their ability to nurture. My grandson has recently got a new baby sister and he helps with her care, even takes it upon himself to rock her in her pram.

Pets and animals also play important symbolic roles for young children in stories, toys and TV programmes. One particular TV programme that I see my grandson follow and love is the animated series of Paw Patrol. For those of you who may not be familiar with this series, it’s about a group of six rescue dogs, led by a tech-savvy boy named Ryder who have great adventures. The heroic pups, who believe ‘no job is too big, no pup is too small’, work together to protect the community. This particular series has a great influence on my young grandchild and it sends a lovely message of courage, help and togetherness and affirms his love of animals.

In early childhood settings that I visit I have come across a variety of animals, from rabbits, guinea pigs, budgies to visiting pets and each time I am told by children all about them, how they care for them, how they came up with the name for them and who’s turn it is to feed them. I have also noticed how many children role play being ‘dogs’ themselves! This is a delight to see and hear, how the emotional bonds that children build up with pets and animals is recognised and encouraged. Having access to pets in early childhood settings supports young children’s development across all areas, emotionally, cognitively, physically and socially.

Do you have pets in your early childhood setting? Have you noticed how children behave around pets or bring in stories from home about their pet? We would love to hear some of them, share your thoughts below...

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