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Animals Teach Children Empathy and Compassion

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Pets and children share a deep bond, one that teaches children empathy, compassion and respect. When Cynthia was five years old, her family acquired a cockapoo named Nellis from a neighbor who no longer wanted it. "I still consider Nellis to be the brother I never had," wrote Cynthia one afternoon a few months ago on the New York Times blog.

Nellis played baseball with Cynthia by holding a plastic bat in his teeth and running the bases. When her family moved to a new location, he was the bridge who enticed neighborhood kids to visit, helping Cynthia make new friends. He was also her mother's late-night TV watching companion when the children went to bed and her father was out.

"He set the tone for all the pets I've had since," Cynthia wrote, "and a big factor in why I volunteer with animals today. His legacy is a rich one, as is the legacy of all companion animals."

Legacy of empathy

That legacy includes the lifelong skill of empathy - feeling the feelings of others, knowing when someone is uncomfortable, caring enough to change your behavior so that the other person becomes more comfortable.

"Parents have traditionally encouraged children to respect and care for animals in the belief that this would enable children to become more caring, compassionate, and responsible," said Elizabeth Omerod, companion animal veterinary surgeon, and member of the Pet Health Council in London, England. "Studies demonstrate that children who interact with animals have higher levels of self esteem, greater empathy, and better social skills."

Evidence on animals and nurturing

Research around the world demonstrates the tremendous benefits of owning a pet. Studies show that children who own pets have more empathy and nurturing ability, and as they grow into adulthood, essential skills to develop meaningful relationships.

  • Researchers in Poland studied the impact of keeping dogs or cats at home on the social development of 530 children 4-8 years old. Those children with pets had higher scores in pro-social behavior and self-reliance than those without pets.
  • A study in Germany found that children 6-17 years old with diagnoses of anorexia, bulimia, anxiety disorder, and autism had improved behavior with a therapy dog than without one.
  • A study in Australia concluded that animal-assisted preventive efforts are an optimal vehicle for promoting nurturing and empathy.

Pets can teach compassion to children

TLC is a violence prevention program designed for at-risk youth in Los Angeles, part of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This program is helping 400 middle school age teens feel empathy and compassion for others.

These children are in this program because of gang affiliation, drug use, history of violence, being severely withdrawn, decreasing grades, decreasing socialization, severe shyness, or being a victim of bullying or being the bully.

One such child arrived at TLC dressed in black. He spoke to no one and seemed angry, recalls Melanie Wagner, director of this program. He had no friends and was bullied often. After he was assigned a dog, he had someone to talk to. Slowly, his self-esteem rose and he became friendlier, so much so that he is now a peer leader with the program, helping other at-risk children turn their lives around.

The children spend a month working with shelter dogs, teaching them basic obedience and giving them attention and companionship. They also learn about conflict resolution, anger management, coping skills, tolerance, and teamwork. For many children, it stops the cycle of violence and helps them become productive citizens.

Teaching children to respect animals helps them learn to respect people - others and themselves. By tuning in to an animal's feelings of wanting attention, love, food, companionship and respect, a child can grow up into a caring adult who can more intuitively tune in to other people's feelings as well.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V. M. D.
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