Creating Open Mindedness & Acceptance through Kids and Senior Dogs
In a world still struggling with acceptance and inclusivity I find it helpful to look at today's children to better understand what the future holds. I do not have kids of my own other than those of the furry variety, but thanks to both my brothers having kids I am an aunt to three nieces Sova 5 yrs, Freya 5yrs and Matisse 2yrs as well as one nephew, Tadhg 10yrs. They have only known me with senior dogs and for a long time senior dogs were the only dogs they were exposed to on a regular basis. You may think that kids would prefer to play with puppies, but every time my dogs are around, what they want most is to sit beside them and simply pet them. Even at the youngest of ages they recognized the needs of my senior dogs and spent as much time as possible just being with them and showing them a very honest level of love and care. This in and of itself is heartwarming, but what gives me hope that our future is in great hands is their ability to accept and enjoy my dogs regardless of their challenges.
Being exposed to life with my dogs has meant that they have seen my dogs wearing diapers, traction socks, riding in strollers, walking in wheelchairs, using ramps etc. which in their minds is totally normal and I love it. In fact when my dogs aren't wearing a diaper or riding in a stroller they ask why not. They understand my dogs' needs in a way that many adults have yet to grasp. My nieces and nephew expect to see senior dogs using these items because they see them as a very natural part of their lives; they need help to do certain things and these products do just that. Makes sense to me and it makes sense to them. I also feel the more ways that we can expose kids to seeing another living being in need and being able to help them, the better our society will become with accepting the differences in the people around them.
As a pet parent and as the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, it is very important for me to show people that facing the challenges of aging is more than just managing, it can and should be a time filled with joy. When I spend time with my family, together with my dogs, we always find ways to have fun together. The reason for using assistive products is to find ways for everyone involved, dogs and humans, to enjoy this stage of life together and somehow kids naturally adopt this perspective.
With kids they don't see a mobility problem or even an old dog, they just see a dog. If they ask why they are wearing a diaper or riding in a stroller or using a wheelchair and I explain, kids don't feel sorry for my dogs, they just accept it. They never say that my dogs are old, they never ask how long they are going to live for and quite often they refer to my dogs as puppies, which gets us all smiling. If they can learn to accept and appreciate senior dogs and the care they need as something positive, just think of the type of adults they will later become.
Research studies continually prove the benefits to social and emotional development that comes from having a family dog. In a recent report from the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute which surveyed 1,646 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 5, they found that kids who grow up and are actively engaged with dogs were 34% more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors than kids without dogs in their life. This number increased to 74% for those kids who walked their dog at least once a week and played with their dog at least three times a week. Other studies have shown that dogs can help children develop improved emotional understanding and expression as well as build healthy self-esteem.
My nieces and nephew have been exposed to a lot of different situations with my senior dogs. My Bamboo had dementia and they quickly learned that he would find himself stuck around the house, so they would always work together to find and help Bamboo out of his numerous predicaments. When Bamboo declined and we knew the end was near, they spent time putting blankets on him and petting him when he would fuss and would not stop until he was comforted. To be so young and recognize what he needed, gives me hope that when they are faced with situations that require empathy and acceptance, such as a senior person dealing with dementia, they will exhibit this same sense of care and compassion, free from judgement.
I am not alone in seeing the benefits of children caring for a senior dog in need. In fact researchers have alleged that dogs can have a significant impact on children’s development by providing an opportunity for the child to care for a dependent. The explanation is that having an opportunity to care for a dependent fulfills the child’s need to feel important and needed, and to have a purpose.
Children feel a sense of achievement when they have successfully cared for a pet and I have seen this firsthand. I believe this is why I see senior dogs bringing out the best in kids and why I have hope that our future can be filled with open mindedness and acceptance for all.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of innovative assistive products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs and the families that care for them.
Sources:Wanser, Shelby H, et al. Spotlight on the Psychological Basis of Childhood Pet Attachment and Its Implications, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, https://www.dovepress.com/getfile.php?fileID=50746#page=10&zoom=100,406,613
Purewal, Rebecca, et al. Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5369070/
Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) Child Health & Development Research, https://habri.org/research/child-health/