By Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., ABPP
Every child needs a dog. That's quite a dramatic statement. Does absolutely every child need a dog? Maybe not. But every parent should consider the possibility that their child needs a dog.
There are lots of reasons why I feel so strongly about this. I illustrate two here, with more to follow:
- Dogs are unconditionally loving and accepting
Five and a half-year-old Eddie is very bright but socially awkward in the extreme with new people. The first time we meet, he latches onto Sasha, asks me if he can take her home, and says "I love you" to her. Why the instant response? The obvious answer is that children like dogs, that Sasha is small, cute, and friendly, her tail constantly wagging. All of that is true, of course, but it goes only so far. The answer is, I believe, quite a bit deeper. For one thing, Sasha is completely accepting. She doesn't care that Eddie's socks don't match, that his tee shirt is too small and his pants are too big. She doesn't care that he fears making eye contact with people. She doesn't even care that until today he has been fearful of dogs. She loves everybody and fully expects everybody to love her back. Even if they don't she still loves everybody. She is indomitable in her enthusiasm for new people, especially new children.
- Dogs help children talk about things that are otherwise difficult. In order for a child to tell his parents or any adult how is he is feeling about something, three elements need to be in place: the child has to know how he feels; he has to have the language skills required to express that feeling; he needs to be willing to share all of that. Not infrequently, one or more of these elements is missing. A dog can help.
Unsure which was the better school for five-year-old Jake, his parents arranged for him to spend mornings in a privately run kindergarten and afternoons in the local public elementary school half-day kindergarten. Jake is more than a bit impulsive and had been acting up so his parents asked me for a consultation. My attempts to engage Jake in a conversation about these two school experiences went nowhere until I asked him to help me understand Sasha, my Dachshund mix, who was at that time also five-years-old. Speaking to Sasha, I asked, "Which school do you like better, the morning school or the afternoon school." Sasha cooperatively vocalized in the way that some dogs do, after which I asked Jake, "I can't understand Sasha, what is she saying?" Without hesitation, and with certainty he replied, "She likes the morning school better!"