Who’s the better teacher, your school or your dog?

Ready, waiting - dog teaches kids

One of the most poignant stories I’ve ever come across is about a vet who was called to examine an ageing Irish wolfhound.  The family were very attached to the old dog and were hoping against hope that the vet could save him.  Sadly he had to inform the family that their beloved old dog had cancer and needed to be put to sleep.  He kindly offered to do the procedure at their home.  Dad and mum thought it would be a valuable lesson for their six-year old son to be present, so when the vet came the next day they all gathered to stroke the dog and say their last goodbyes.  Quietly and quickly the old dog slipped away.  For a while the adults stood around, gently commiserating with each other and asking why it was that animal’s lives had to end so much sooner than ours.  To their surprise the young boy suddenly said, “I know!”  Then he explained, “People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?”  He paused.  “Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

Seems dogs know a thing or two. What else can they teach our kids?

Ten things your dog can teach your kids


  1. To read.  Yes, I’m serious.  Reading dogs are now used in a number of educational programmes to help develop children’s reading skills.  Since the dogs are non-judgemental even the shyest child is able to take the risk of reading to a canine friend.  Stumbling over words just doesn’t matter anymore, which is brilliant because making mistakes is a crucial part of learning to read.
  2.  To care.  Having a pet of any kind teaches your child to think about ‘someone’ else.  Young children, especially, believe that the whole world revolves around them.  As parents we try to cover up the fact that yes, it often does, but only because they can’t yet change their own nappy, make shepherd’s pie for dinner or drive to the after-school sports club.  Pets require love and attention, and through these needs they can teach your child to express affection.  For boys, in particular, they provide an acceptable way to learn how to ‘parent’ without the embarrassment of being considered a softie.
  3. To take responsibility.  Learning to care for a dog’s day to day needs can be a great way of teaching your child responsibility.  Every day the ‘woofster’ will need walks, water, food and friendship – not just on Mondays and the occasional Saturday.  Every day.
  4. To become an expert.  Dogs have the knack of doing one thing at once.  They live in the moment and focus on doing just one. Thing. At a time. Chasing a ball. Eating their food. Barking at the neighbours. But whatever it is, they do it with gusto!  It seems that they’re well ahead of recent time management theories that stress it’s more efficient to focus on one task and complete it well before moving on to the next.  Multi-tasking is so last year!
  5. To have curiosity.  You’ll get plagued with all sorts of questions like: why is a dog’s nose wet?  Why do cats have whiskers?  Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze?  (Top marks if you know this one.)  The whole world will take on a new fascinating dimension.
  6. To value discipline.  Dogs are happiest when they know their place in the pack and have their boundaries clearly defined.  You’re probably happiest at that point too, since the sofa’s cleaner, and the food in the kitchen is safe from a sneaky scavenger.  But more importantly your child will begin to understand why ‘no’ is an important word.  However cute your dog may be, you don’t want him jumping up on the table and stealing your food, or pooping on the carpet or sleeping in your bed.  Your kids get this.  Discipline does not equal unkindness; it just means necessary rules and consequences when those rules are broken.
  7. To get the best out of life.   Dogs just love today. For them, every day is the best day of their life.  It’s full of opportunities: walks, play, food and fun.  They bounce at every chance they get. They greet friends enthusiastically (maybe you shouldn’t let your kids get too carried away with the licking thing). They never say no to going out. They never apologise for who they are.  They enjoy every minute of every single day.
  8. To overcome their fear of spiders.  Or anything else really … Some things really frighten kids.  It could be the global economy and bank interest rates.  It could be next month’s rent or an invasion of aliens.  But it’s more likely to be the small things that bug them.  In fact, bugs are very much what bother my youngest son.  Any kind really, but especially spiders.  If there’s one in his bedroom, or in the bathroom, then the emergency services have to be called: “Dad!  There’s a spider!”  However, “Flopsy” doesn’t seem bothered at all.When she was a puppy she was vaguely interested in black scuttley things that ran across the floor, but a quick sniff proved that they were not worth pursuing.  So she gave it up.  Now if a spider ran across the floor she wouldn’t even deign to open both eyes.  She’s bigger than them: they know it, she knows it.  End of story.  So, the next time my son sees a spider I’ll say, “Just pretend you’re the dog.”
  9. To act with kindness, respect and sensitivity.  Children with pets learn from an early age that kindness is important.  They learn not to pull the dog’s tail, shout too loudly, or jump on his tummy.  They learn to treat animals of all kinds with respect. We can teach them to be sensitive to the non-verbal clues our pets give us about how they’re feeling.  Until I had a dog I never knew that a growl in play was different from an annoyed, “Leave me alone”, or “Get out of my way”.  I can teach my children to give our pet some space when she’s had enough and just wants to be alone.  This kind of instruction helps children to be sensitive to others who may not always be good at saying how they feel.
  10. To deal with life’s tough lessons.  The inevitable thing about having a dog is that one day you will have to say goodbye.  When your child brings their first bouncing puppy home the thought of death is the last thing on their mind. They just want to go crazy romping around with this wonderful fuzz ball.  However, sickness and dying are part of life.  A child supported by their parents in dealing with the loss of a pet can begin to embrace life’s mysteries and pain in a safe environment. They can ask the hard questions of ‘why’ and ‘how long’ with you at their side.  Seeing your sadness will help them to express their own. And your ‘big picture’ view will help them to see that this is not the end of life, just the beginning of a new phase.


So maybe now would be a good time to sit back with a cuppa then, and let the dog earn its keep.

What wonderful or funny things have your kids learnt from, or said about your pets?



This post is an abridged section from my best-selling book, Unlock the Cage.

Image courtesy of James Barker/freedigitalphotos.net

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