A learning op’paw’tunity

Getting a pet is equal parts commitment and responsibility, and can teach your child invaluable life lessons

You’ve weighed the pros and cons and considered the practicality of adding a pet to your family at this stage of your lives. If you’ve ticked off these boxes and are still considering adding a pet to the fold, consider this: “A pet can be a great way to bring joy and unconditional love into your home,” says Kristen Brooker, coordinator of humane education for the Ottawa Humane Society.


Caring for a pet offers children unique learning opportunities on a wide range of subjects, including nutrition, grooming, veterinary care, safety, budgeting, and even coping with loss, says Brooker. “Pets share many of the same physical and emotional needs as humans [so] pet ownership can promote further development of important life skills including sensitivity, accountability, compassion, and kindness,” she says.

Beyond the love they give, they’re also great for providing teachable moments, says Ottawa mom Colleen Sutton. Their dogs Igloo, a terrier mix, and Scarlet, a poodle, provide natural consequences for her kids, 14 and 11: they learn to put their toys and clothes away, lest they be chewed. “On top of that, [the dogs] provide opportunities for the kids to demonstrate responsibility and initiative by walking the dogs and cleaning muddy paws before they come inside.”

“Living with an animal can teach your child empathy, respect, and responsibility,” agrees Ottawa-area dog trainer Brian Picknell. “The love and loyalty of a pet can help build a child’s confidence, and learning basic tasks in [dog] obedience training can build their self-esteem.” 


The age of the child determines the responsibilities he or she should be tasked with. “Under 10, children shouldn’t be expected to fully care for a pet, but can still learn with the help of their parents,” says Picknell, while teens, for example, can take obedience classes with a new dog. “Assigning a child one specific responsibility, like filling the water dish regularly, can be a low-risk way to teach your child how to take care of an animal.”


Getting a pet should always be a family decision and everyone in the house needs to be on board, says Brooker. Once the decision has been made, choose an animal that is a good match with your family’s lifestyle. Brooker says to consider day-to-day routines, travel plans, finances and how much space you have. These will all have a bearing on what kind of pet will be a good fit. When it comes to dogs, “Prospective owners should research breeds and try to match them with their living situation and aspirations,” says Picknell, “some dogs have higher energy and exercise requirements, for example, and [owners] need to be ready to handle that.” 


“If I could do it over again, I would probably take some time to research dog breeds and make sure we’re getting the right fit,” says Heather Button of Ottawa, whose family adopted their beloved labradoodle, Bowie, a year into the pandemic. “I’d also better prepare the kids on what getting a dog really means — lots of walking, the possibility that your favourite shoes will get destroyed, and tons of barking whenever someone walks down our street.” 


Families considering adding a dog to their households should give the matter serious thought, as it is a life-changer, says Ottawa’s Valerie McLaughlin. “What you think you’ll experience as a dog owner may not be the case. My goldendoodle has severe separation anxiety which has only gotten worse during the pandemic. As a family we have learned how to deal with our dog’s anxiety. While I would have loved a happy-go-lucky dog, our dog is our dog and we love her the way she is.”


And don’t forget to consider small pets, as many different species make great pets for families, says Brooker. “Each species has unique needs and it’s important to consider whether you are able to meet those needs throughout a pet’s life.”