Pets as social skills teachers, Part 1

MilkBone125-border.jpg Note: This post is part of the It’s Good To Give series, which is sponsored by Milk-Bone. This is the second sponsored post I’ve done here at Parent Hacks (the first was for the American Cancer Society). I generally stay away from sponsored content, but this campaign, with its focus on service animals, happened to dovetail with my long-standing intention to write about pets as social skills teachers. (Milk-Bone supports the Canine Assistants program.) Now that that my son’s homeschooling, I’m seeing our dog’s effect on him even more clearly. I feel like it’s an important story to tell, and I’d love to hear yours as well.

I love animals. I mean, I REALLY love animals. So getting a pet, along with having a family and buying a house, always seemed to be part of my theoretical grownup future.

Then I had kids. Two creatures that spent much of their time eating, pooping, making noise, and needing stimulation. Add a pet to this picture? No way. My caring for other living beings quota was maxed out. I also happen to be married to Mr. Allergy Man, so living with an animal would mean more detailed housecleaning. Despite the immense pleasure I got out of growing up with a dog, I just couldn’t see how we could add another member to our family without pushing one of us — me — over the edge.

As my children grew and became more independent, however, my love for animals started elbowing in on my “no pets” reasoning. It goes without saying that the kids wanted a pet…they inherited their animal-loving genes from me. But reason persisted. I wouldn’t get a pet unless I was absolutely sure we could provide the love, attention and care it needed to thrive.

Meanwhile, my son was growing more and more stressed at school. Academics weren’t the problem; he struggled with the social requirements in the classroom and on the playground. It was obvious that he was bright and full of energy, but the overstimulating environment at school and the growing complexity of peer relationships were more than he could handle. It took us a long time to understand the cause of his growing anger and isolation. But after three schools, several different therapies, and lots of parenting adjustments, we could see that he needed more than a behavioral adjustment — he needed a place where he could feel safe and loved.

When you’re a kid with social skills challenges, humans are frustratingly illogical. People who smile aren’t necessarily happy, and teachers (and parents!) make rules but don’t necessarily apply them consistently. Trying to “read” what people are thinking or feeling based on visible evidence is a hit-or-miss proposition, and that’s stressful for a kid who finds comfort in absolutes.

As my son lost confidence in his ability to make friends and function well at school, he began to withdraw not only from the world at large, but from us. Even my inconsistencies as a parent, normal though they were, disturbed him and eroded his trust in me. What he needed more than anything was a friend he could rely on without fail. A friend he could share his thoughts with, someone who would always be up front about how he felt, someone who would always be there. He needed the kind of unconditional love that came with no expectation.

What he needed…was a dog.

Continue reading Part 2.

Pet-owning Parenthackers! How has having a pet changed your family life? What advice would you give another parent who’s considering getting a pet?


  1. says

    Now that you’re homeschooling? Congratulations on that choice, I had no idea.

    I like Milkbones, takes nothing away, I promise.

  2. says

    We have two whippets, a cat, and have been very liberal with allowing them to interact with our 6 mnth old from birth. When compared to her same age cousin that is without pets, our daughter is ahead on many social fronts. She’s learning to respect her “dogdog” by petting gently and is more tolerant to noisey new things. Even at her young age we use the dogs as a great motivational tool for learning. We play “chase” to practice crawling/exploring, read to them and they are great with turning a fussy baby into a giggle machine with thier antics and smooches. I could go on forever, there are endless benifits that far outweigh the work.

  3. Justin says

    We started fostering cats and kittens after our little girl was about 18 months. We already had two of our own cats, and we weren’t sure how it would go, but it ended up being amazing. She learned so many social skills – how to be nice and respectful, how to share toys, how to take care of sick things, and even about death and loss (one kitten died, and all of the rest except one have been adopted). The best part for me was that we didn’t have to worry about interfering with another parent’s way of doing things, and we were much more open to letting our daughter explore her options. She’s now over 2 but is still constantly learning how to interact with other “beings” because of the cats.

  4. Kate says

    Asha, my heart goes out to you for what you’ve been through, and I couldn’t agree more about pets and what they bring to our lives. My 6 year old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome about a year ago, and he struggled (and struggles) with many of the same things you mention. We had two beautiful and loving kitties until recently. One died in March at age 11 after a yearlong battle with cancer, and the other died VERY suddenly in February at age 14 due to heart disease. My son didn’t show much interest in them until he was about 5, and I’m happy to say we are adopting two amazing cats from a shelter next week. My son has been very interested in the adoption process and cannot wait for these kitties to come into our home. He showed so much love and compassion toward the animals at a shelter we recently visited. I can only imagine how wonderful he will be for these cats, and what an impact they will make on his life. Pets are so full of unconditional love and I believe they speak to us in so many non-verbal ways. Can’t wait to read part 2!

  5. miriam says

    Kids are mean.
    I don’t remember making any friends at school until middle school– which, coincidentally, was a new school. And I mean no one to talk to at lunch, or about homework, or…
    PArt may have been my own emotional maturity, but I think much of it was a new group of kids that had plenty of nerds. Who else brought books to school to read in class?
    It is unfortunate that after 3 schools you came up with nothing– I look forward to good things in your new situation.

  6. says

    Boy can I relate. Our oldest is like the queen of friendliness and all things social, but my younger daughter, practically since she was born, has been PAINFULLY shy. Like, I’ll-cry-if-gramma-tries-to-hold-me shy. Like, mommy’s-cleavage-is-a-great-spot-to-hide-my-face-when-the-camera-comes-out shy. When she was under 2, she was even shy of her own DAD every time he buzzed his hair off! I was so set against getting a dog – for ALL the reasons you mentioned, PLUS because I envisioned her constant fright of an animal making me absolutely LOOPY.
    Turns out, she changed COMPLETELY when my husband sorta… tricked us into getting a dog. My child who was formerly cripplingly shy is now an assertive, bold little girl. she’s like this little… PACK LEADER. And she’s THREE. I can’t advocate getting a dog enough for children who are having problems socially. It makes all the difference in the world, and is totally worth the extra work training a pet entails!

  7. says

    We have three dogs and two cats with a 23 month old daughter (and baby # 2 coming in 2 weeks.) Having the pets around has been wonderful. My daughter is not afraid of animals at all and gravitates toward them. She loves to pet nice with our dogs and cats, helps me feed them and loves our daily walks. Having them all around has been a huge benefit!

    People asked what were we going to do when we found out we were pregnant with #1…5 animals is a lot to take care of. But it works itself out. She loves them and they love her. It’s win-win all the way around.

    On another note, my cousin has Asperger’s Syndrome and about 4 years ago, their family got a dog (Lab/Weimaraner mix) and it really helped him socially. He had to walk the dog and interact with people at the dog park and it brought him out of his shell. He’s now 17 and getting ready to graduate high school and the improvement in his demeanor and interaction with people has been very noticeable over the years since their dog Emmy came into their home.