Children are naturally drawn to animals. Animals arouse their curiosity, soothe and comfort them, sometimes make them giggle. Animals populate the books, movies, and TV shows they like. The icing on the cake? Studies have long shown that having a pet—and particularly a dog—leads to a healthier and less-stressful life for their humans, both young and old. This is even truer for autistic children and their families. Service or therapy dogs can be wonderful, of course, but a companion dog can be equally valuable in so many ways. Other kinds of pets work, too—whatever kind best fits your lifestyle.
- Pets give unconditional love and friendship, and can be a calming influence, something we all need. Pets don’t judge, they don’t ask questions or demand answers, and they can be terrific listeners. They also may be irresistibly furry and cuddly.
- Pets may encourage exercise, as well as stepping up and taking on new responsibilities. There are many ways kids can help care for a pet, depending on their age and ability: naming, feeding, filling a water bowl, walking, playing, brushing. In whatever way they are engaged, it will grow their self-confidence. Children count on grown-ups for daily care. It’s a nice change to switch things around a little by having a creature be dependent on them!
- Pets offer opportunities to practice making conversation, by providing easy guideposts for questions and answers with both kids and adults: “What is your dog’s name?”, “Can I pat your dog?”, “My hamster is called Zippy because he’s really fast.”
- Questions such as, “What does it mean when the dog puts its tail between its legs?” or “Why do you think the kitty is purring?” encourage kids to try to figure out another creature’s needs. When children learn to treat animals gently and with kindness, they begin to stretch their empathy muscles. The confidence they build by interacting with animals may also encourage them to trust and confide in other people.
- It’s important that you choose the right pet—anything from a fish to a dog—with the right temperament for your child. Don’t get a loud pet for a child who likes quiet, for instance. If an actual pet at home isn’t practical, you can still encourage kids to learn from animals. They may enjoy getting to know a classroom pet, for example, observing animals in the neighborhood, reading about animals, and even playing with stuffed animals.