I have a mini-poodle mix named Gabriela. She came into our lives three years ago from a rescue shelter in town. We had recently lost our beloved dog Amanda, who we had loved for seventeen years, and I found myself missing the companionship of a pet. Gabriela had arrived at the shelter on the day I visited. She was a five-month old scrawny, dirty puppy, barely weighing four pounds. We had to wait for a week for the shelter to finish giving her a medical clearance before we could bring her home, but as she climbed into my then-eight-year old's arms at the time, we knew we'd found a keeper.
Gabi (as we came to call her very quickly) was a pretty sick little girl. She'd been a stray that had ended up in another town's animal shelter before being brought to the rescue shelter in our town. She had a broken tail, worms, kennel cough, and was extremely underweight. As we nursed her through the first few months, she and I developed a close bond. She came with me pretty much everywhere she could, including work once it was medically safe to bring her. I learned quickly that this puppy absolutely loved children and they loved her. Unlike my sweet Amanda, Gabi had energy to spare, and would sprint across the playground in giant leaps with groups of preschoolers following chase. When the kids caught up to her, she would roll on her back, tail wagging, as they petted her and fussed over her. She was a puppy that loved to play.
Bringing Gabi into the classroom is something that would probably be frowned upon by some educators as well as parents. I always made sure to check with parents before I brought her to ensure they were comfortable with their child being around Gabi. We took precautions to keep Gabi away from children who were uncomfortable with dogs and let those children approach her as they chose to. I got interesting feedback from parents who delightedly told me about how their children would regale them with stories of Gabi and what she did, both at school and at my home (I talked quite a bit about her!). I even had a parent tell me that she felt Gabi had helped her child get over a fear of dogs.
From an educator's standpoint, I think the most meaningful part of that experience was the ongoing humane education the children received. Learning how to care for a puppy, how to pet her and be gentle with her, were important lessons for them. They got to touch her broken tail (the bone had fused before we had gotten her) and to talk about how important it is for owners to take good care of their animals.
Too many people--both teachers and parents--think the idea of pet ownership for children is a great one, that it can teach their children responsibility. Unfortunately, in too many situations children are not taught appropriate ways to interact and care for animals. Children's behavior is written off as being "developmentally appropriate" or even funny. Shaking an animal's cage, pulling it by its hair or tail, even squealing loudly near it isn't appropriate or funny--it's scary for the animal and dangerous for the child. These situations don't teach responsibility; if anything, they reinforce the idea that it's not important to consider the feelings and impact of your behavior on others.
Pet ownership can be a wonderful thing for families as well as classroom communities, but it's our jobs to teach kids how to care for animals and to always, ALWAYS monitor their interactions at young ages. The children in my class talked about how Gabi would feel if somebody pulled her tail or hit her, and agreed it would hurt, so we needed to use gentle hands. I'd like to say we never had a problem with anyone being too rough, but in a classroom of nearly twenty preschoolers, that's next to impossible. Instead, as those incidents occurred, we taught appropriate touches, guiding the child's hand more gently over Gabi, until all of the children were able to use gentle touches nearly all of the time.
I think if I wasn't a teacher I'd probably work for the humane society--I've always loved animals and have a soft spot in my heart, particularly for shelter animals. We owe our children and our animals the guidance and protection that ensures positive relationships for both.
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