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Teaching Children Empathy with a Family Pet

April 30, 2015

By Ana Vela

Teaching Children Empathy with a Family Pet | Mariana and her dog strike look-alike poses for the camera. Having a pet can teach both babies and even teenagers empathy.

Photograph of Manitas and Mariana (left to right) by Ana Vela. 

No matter how much my siblings and I pleaded while growing up, my parents did not allow us to have a dog. Which is why I was shocked when my parents decided to get my younger sister a dog once I left home for college. I guess you could say Cookie was “replacing me” so my sister wouldn’t feel alone after my departure. At first I was a bit upset, but I quickly saw the positive impact Cookie was having on my sister—she was teaching her empathy.

There are many ways to define empathy, but according to a review in the International Journal of Caring Sciences, “empathy is the ‘capacity’ to share and understand another’s ‘state of mind’ or emotion.” Empathy is a component of Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI can be critical to your child’s success in school and later in life because it includes skills, as described in this review, in “perception, expression and control of emotions, self-control and empathy, communication, conflict resolution process, conscience, and perhaps many more.” Many studies argue that a person’s EI can be more important for success than IQ. Educators also see the value of teaching children empathy, as demonstrated in the wave of new school programs that help promote this skill in the classroom.

Empathy should be promoted at home, and having a family pet such as a dog can be a great avenue for teaching this skill to your child. Other benefits include building responsibility and living a healthier lifestyle. Here are some practical ways you can guide your child’s practice of empathy with your family pet:

Take care of a pet’s needs.
Your child can learn empathy by taking care of a pet’s needs, such as feeding, bathing, vet visits, providing medicine, and caring for the pet when it is sick. He or she will become considerate of the pet’s scheduled needs, and feel compassion when the pet is not well. My sister quickly became Cookie’s advocate and made sure she had everything she needed, which led to her eventually advocating for others.

Show the pet affection.
Your child can learn to express his or her emotions through affection with the pet. Teach him or her to gently pet, hug, and if you are okay with it, even kiss the pet. A dog will naturally reciprocate, which will validate your child’s self esteem and help him or her express affection with others.

My parents were not very affectionate people, but once Cookie entered our lives, it was amazing how quickly affection just flowed out of everyone in our family. She became an avenue for us to express ourselves without feeling judged.

Provide everyday joys for the pet.
Your child can learn what makes their pet happy. Most dogs love walks and playing games such as fetch. Guide your child to safely play with the pet and encourage making it happy. Your child will be able to better read others’ emotions and will develop a desire to make others happy. I remember my sister would find the most creative ways to play with Cookie and developed positive social skills when playing with other children.

Encourage communication with the pet.
Your child can learn to develop positive communication skills with the pet. Guide your child to practice communication by being polite, describing and talking about their day, talking during play, and even reading to the pet. Because a pet will never judge, children can develop confidence in communication and learn to listen to others. When I would talk to my sister over the phone while I was away in college, I noticed how her communication skills had improved as she described her adventures with Cookie.

Remember that as parents, we set the example for how a child should treat the family pet. I had three dogs in my home prior to the birth of our now 10-month-old daughter. Although I wasn’t directly teaching her how to interact with the dogs, I quickly realized how much she was learning from observing me. I was surprised when I first saw her gently pet one of the dogs on the head when she was about four months old. Eventually she was giving them hugs and laughing with them. And now she is learning to play with the dogs.

With a family pet, always practice safety with their interactions with children. Cookie is 15 years old now and still bringing joy to my sister and our family. I, too, am enjoying using the three furry members of our family to teach my infant empathy and am looking forward to creating long-lasting memories.

For more ways to foster your child's emotional and social well-being, check out our YOU: Your Child's First Teacher books, now available on Amazon

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