Human/Animal Bond

What Kids Learn from Pets

Pets teach children bits and pieces of how life works

October 22, 2018 (published)

As children, pets taught us bits and pieces of how life works. Sometimes it’s subtle, such as knowing when someone is sad and needs a friend, and sometimes it’s the sheer joy in playing hard. We learn from dogs how fun it is to run, from cats how fine it is to climb and nap. (Raise your hand if you climbed a tree to get a cat out of it.) Birds teach us to sing, rabbits to eat our vegetables, and reptiles to understand the need to sanitize.

What most children learn from living with pets is responsibility: we have to provide for them, just as our parents provide for us. We learn that pets must have food and water, that a dog’s urinary needs are reason to come home even if we really don’t want to yet, that some cats (and people) are more timid than others.

We put our heads together to reminisce. Of course, some of these “reminisces” occurred when we were adults, but you get the drift.


We had a pool in the back yard. Our German Shepherd didn't like going in the water, and protecting children was difficult from the side but she did her best. She got wet a lot from our splashing, and then she'd shake and shake and shake as though she’d been subjected to a major downpour. To this day, to help dry my hair faster I shake and shake and shake my head when I get out of the shower. One of these days I'm going to make myself so dizzy I fall down, but my canine hair dryer is quick and natural.

Exercise is play. Play is often exercise.

Don't overlook the utility of recycled/reused things. Dogs enjoy leftover cat food or even cat barf. Just because someone else had it before doesn't necessarily mean it's beneath your dignity to enjoy it as well.

Approach life the way your pets do: If you have to puke, puke on someone else's stuff, not your own. Then just go away and let them clean it up at their leisure. (We're kidding. Do not leave your own puke untended. Get the dog to clean it up.)

Those small dogs that manage to take up the entire bed by morning taught me not to be afraid to make my presence known. Others may not offer space to you and you may have to gradually and subtly make more room for yourself — whether you’re on a bus, plane, or in a board room — but you should strive to get what you deserve. 

My dog is never mad at me when I come home, regardless of when or in what state; she's always excited to see me. My wife? Not so much.

No leftovers. Ever. After all, you might never eat again. (Perhaps not the best lesson for those of us who learned it too well.)

My dog was happiest when he was leaning against me or someone else he loved, or didn’t even know, actually. I understood the power and comfort involved in physical touch.

My dog’s death was my first experience with grief in what would become a steady string of human deaths in the family over the next few years. We went on vacation when I was in the third grade; when we came home, she'd been missing for a few days. We never saw her again. She probably got out of the yard when the pool cleaning service came. I remember standing on the pier in the cold December wind, crying hysterically.

I have learned from dogs, cats and horses to pay attention when they do. Even if I don't hear, see, or smell something, their awareness is far more sensitive than my own and I can count on them for early warning if something unusual is afoot. If I hadn't been paying attention to my pony's behavior when we crossed a rattly wooden bridge, she would have jumped out from under me when that mass of snakes boiled up out of that collapsed shed beside the road. Because I always paid attention, I was able to jump up the bank with her instead of falling off into the middle of that mess. <shudder>

Sometimes you just need to go walk-about. It was a gorgeous day for camping and we had stopped for a bathroom break before arriving at our campsite. We got out of the car and were standing around when we noticed the dogs were gone. Two hours later they came back, muddy and grinning. They had a great time while we were frantically looking for them. Since then, when I am frustrated and ready to explode, I get in my car and drive and drive. I have never come back muddy, but I do usually come back grinning.

True horsemanship is determined by a mindset – a gritty practicality, a determination to finish the job, to solve the problem, to use all of the resources at your disposal. The first lesson is persistence.

Stop and smell the roses. My cat stops to play for a bit every morning. He does ab exercises while trying to catch my hand and I start my day with a smile on my face.

At some point every day, my dog brings me a toy (usually Dragon or Fox) and insists that I stop what I'm doing and play for a few minutes. It's quite therapeutic.

Not every species communicates the same way. Meowing and barking are not English or Chinese, and the pig’s squeals are not likely to be translated exactly, although you can figure out which squeals do not come from a happy place. 

Showing up matters. Most friendships and relationships come from this basic foundation. You have to be there to take care of your pets, and you need to spend time with them for them to thrive. The more time you spend with them, the deeper your bond to them is. You can't phone it in: time with you is what they need.

My dog showed no prejudice. She was an equal opportunity pet-hound - happy to visit everybody and anybody for a pat or a treat. 

Our donkeys and ponies are teaching my young daughter many things she needs in life. She’s learned how to overcome fears by facing large animals. Humility is another lesson (ponies build this skill) and how to be assertive (ponies build this ability and donkeys perfect it!).

My mare had a trick that worked almost every time. We'd be running full tilt for the house because the ride was over and they were going back out into the pasture; we'd thunder down a 2-acre field with a 90-degree right turn back to the house. Every. Single. Time. she would dodge left, then back to the right toward the house, which served to unbalance bareback riders just enough to fall off the left side as she ran all the way to the gate without them. We considered it the ultimate triumph when we were able to anticipate it and manage to stay on all the way to the house. The best part was that when she did manage to pitch us, she'd flip her head back around to the left and laugh. It was so funny, you didn't really mind losing the bet that day.

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