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April 26th is National Kids & Pets Day, an event created by pet lifestyle expert Colleen Paige, dedicated to furthering the bond between children and animals, raising awareness about shelter animals, and educating parents and children about pet safety.

Children and pets naturally go together, especially dogs, and I’m all for any opportunity to teach children how to be safe around them and to make them better Pack Leaders, too — but there’s one other aspect about the day that I haven’t mentioned yet.

As with adults, dogs can be fantastic teachers for children. There’s so much we can learn from them, and it’s not just limited to how to train them. By learning how our dogs communicate and then listening, we can improve ourselves, and there’s no better time to start doing that than as a child. Here are just three of the things that dogs can teach our children.

Self-confidence
Dogs accept us for who we are and are non-judgmental. They can’t tell the difference between a homeless man and a billionaire because all they’re looking at is energy.

Because of this, a lot of schools and libraries have started using dogs to help children become comfortable with reading out loud. In this situation, if the child makes a mistake or stumbles over a word, the dog isn’t going to laugh. It’s just going to sit there and pay attention quietly.

These programs have proven that using dogs helps children learn to read because the children think that they’re teaching the dogs, so it improves their own abilities. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new skill, you may have noticed that one of the best ways to reinforce what you’ve learned is to explain it to somebody who doesn’t know it. This is exactly what happens when kids read out loud to their canine audience.

But this goes beyond just learning to read, which is why I wrote self-confidence. Without the possibility of embarrassing themselves in front of a dog, these children learn to trust their own abilities, and this comes back into their life in the classroom with other students watching.

Once they’re reading out loud in front of other humans, their skills continue to develop and self-confidence helps to build self-esteem. And dogs give this to children just by being dogs and quietly listening.

Empathy
Very young children are naturally self-centered because they don’t know any better. The world revolves around them and their needs. This leads to problems as soon as they encounter another child with their own conflicting needs — for example, both of them want the same toy.

When children get older, the ones who don’t develop empathy become the bullies. They aren’t aware of or don’t care about other people’s feelings. Empathy is figuratively “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” and seeing their point of view. Bullies literally cannot do this.

This is why I, via the Cesar Millan Foundation, teamed up with North Shore Animal League and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century to support their Mutt-i-grees® program, which began in September of 2009.

The program focuses on dogs, particularly shelter dogs, to teach children social and emotional skills. A big focus is humane education. By teaching children how to treat animals with compassion, we also teach them how to do the same for other human beings.

The focus of the curriculum is to create calm, confident, and caring kids, and it’s working. Results have shown significantly higher understanding of shelter dogs and dog behavior, significantly higher levels of empathy and pro-social behaviors among students, and significantly higher levels of positive school climate through the prevention of bullying.

That’s quite a lot that these kids have learned from dogs.

Responsibility
Pet ownership in general is one of those rites of passage that a lot of us go through as kids, whether it’s taking care of the class hamster for a weekend, having your first goldfish, or adopting a dog or cat. But out of those, dogs are probably the best at teaching responsibility because they are the ones most emotionally attached to their human pack.

If you aren’t fulfilling a dog’s needs, she’ll let you know through her behavior. Forget to fill the water bowl? Expect her to start bothering you when she gets thirsty. Not giving her enough exercise? Her over-excitement will remind you that it’s walk time. Neglect to provide a mentally challenging environment? That’s when you come home to find your shoes in pieces.

But it’s also the emotional connection that humans have with dogs that makes them great teachers of responsibility to children. We consider them members of our families, and we like to see them happy. It’s this happy-go-lucky side of a balanced dog that provides positive feedback and makes children want to remember to do what they have to in order to keep the dog fulfilled.

So let today be a reminder of how much good our dogs can do for our children, and for us. But let’s also remember it every single day. The human-dog connection is the most beneficial inter-species relationship there is.

Stay calm, and learn from your dog!

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