Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Athens Area Humane Society
If there’s one thing I think kids should do before they graduate from high school, it’s be responsible for a pet. That’s partly because I grew up with a menagerie—cats, dogs and fish, yes, but also parakeets, turtles, a hedgehog and even an ornery, single lovebird named Chester. While some animals taught better lessons than others (parakeets are messy but can learn the “Andy Griffith” theme song; cats usually just want to be left alone), the experience of taking care of a living creature is one of the most valuable lessons a child can experience.
That said, now that I’m a grownup with children of my own, it’s not nearly as easy to say yes when asked for a new pet. We already have a cat and a dog, for example, and now my daughter is angling for something else—something that’s truly “hers”—like a hamster or a rat. I say the dog and cat are fine for now.
It makes me wonder how my parents handled the ask. Although, I’ll admit that once we got to high school, my sister and I stopped asking and just came home with random creatures (and I have zero recollection of how Chester the lovebird came into our possession). Cats were my family’s gateway animal—we adopted a series of ill-fated barn cats when I was in elementary school. But by middle school, my sister had her heart set on a fluffy, bouncy dog called a keeshond, a Dutch breed. When we brought home the puppy we’d call Panda, my mother, it turns out, did one of the best things she could do: She signed us all up for obedience classes.
Yes, all of us. Dog obedience was a family affair. Once a week, my mother, sister and I would head to puppy class and note how to make our little dog walk on a leash, sit on command and come when called. (Somehow my father got out of this duty.) Later on, when we took in Labrador puppies that would eventually be trained to be seeing-eye dogs, we also went through the rounds of classes. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a pretty good idea of how to run a dog training class.
I say this was one of the best decisions she could make when we got a dog because, from what Jane Stewart tells me, it’s the simplest way to get a dog acclimated to a family and vice-versa. If you are a family thinking of bringing a dog into the mix, signing up for an obedience class is the best way to break the ice. Not only does it give you a foundation for good behavior, but it also helps you to see things from the dog’s perspective. And that works out in the long term, because you better understand why the dog is doing that crazy thing (jumping, licking the floor under the high chair, digging in the back yard) and you’re less likely to say, “Hey, this relationship isn’t working out.”
Thinking like a dog is also a common mistake that dog lovers make when the dog is the first “child”—and then a baby comes into the fold. One of my biggest peeves is when a couple has a dog, then gets pregnant and decides they have to get rid of the dog. Sure, there are times when the dog is genuinely unsafe around kids, but if you don’t have any evidence of this, why assume the first member of your family now needs to leave, making room for a human? Again, it goes back to training—and also thinking like a dog. Because dogs know when something is up.
Also, I don’t mean to be picking on dogs. but when there’s a class for hamsters or cats, let me know. I may consider getting a hamster.
There are lots of private dog instructors around town, and Athens-Clarke County also offers a dog obedience class (athensclarkecounty.com/1970/dog-obedience-class). If you adopt from a shelter like the Humane Society, ask about an “overnight option,” which allows you to take a dog (or cat!) home for a trial run. That way you get an early indication if things may or may not work out, personality-wise, with your family, before you’ve bonded with the pet. Stewart said staff can also help you figure out which animal has a personality that best matches with your family.
And if you’re not ready to make the commitment but your child is dead-set on having an animal, the Athens Area Humane Society offers camps that teach kids about animals and how to handle them (the Junior Vet camp, June 13–16, had a few openings as of press time). And all local shelters are happy to have kids come to volunteer—I’ve seen birthday parties where, instead of presents, kids asked for donations of newspapers and food for their favorite shelter—or they can schedule a time to simply come by and play with the animals.
Just like having a baby, having a pet is an investment of love and time. But it pays off down the road in your child’s ability to care for another creature—or simply take on responsibility. Or, in the case of my childhood, the ability to give a cranky old lovebird a place to hang out for its final years.