“Pets provide an impetus for running and practicing motor skills,” says Sheryl Dickstein, Ph.D., Director of Humane Education for the ASPCA. Walking a dog or running in the yard and throwing a ball are great ways to exercise the dog as well as for children to get away from sedentary indoor activities and move around. Small motor skills can be encouraged by allowing children to scoop food and pour water into dishes, and by helping to groom them. Depending on the child’s age, parental supervision is recommended for both the child’s and the pet’s safety.
For children especially, pets can be wonderful social facilitators. Children are more prone to approach and interact with another child who is playing with a pet. In this way, a pet can be the bridge between a less socially outgoing child and other potential playmates.
Pets can facilitate various aspects of emotional development such as self-esteem and a sense of responsibility. Says Dickstein, “As kids age and take on more of the care for the pet, it helps to build self-confidence.” She points out however, that it is a misunderstood fact that pets teach children responsibility. “Parents teach responsibility,” explains Dickstein, “Pets just make a good vehicle for learning.”
The responsibility a child has for her pet needs be age appropriate. At the age of three, a child can help to fill food bowls. By five, he can begin to take on some basic grooming tasks as well as to help clean the pet’s living area. As children reach the mid-elementary school aged years, they can begin walking a dog independently, and as the teen years approach, the child will most likely be able to take on the bulk of the responsibility for a house pet. Keeping pet-oriented tasks age-appropriate is not only necessary for the safety of the pet, but for the child as well — both physically and emotionally.