“If you stop bickering with your brother then maybe just maybe, we can talk about getting a puppy.” In the list of shameless bribes used by my exasperated parents, this one definitely had the most resounding effect on me as a child.
The promise of a pet is universally known as a parenting golden ticket. Encouraging angelic-like behaviour in children, the possibility of an animal companion rarely fails, but why? What is so magical about growing up with pets? And are kids better off with pets than without?
Despite painting them as the villains, it turns out that my parents’ promises weren’t empty. I arrived home from school one wet April day, a bedraggled 7-year-old, to meet Pepper, a gorgeous speckled German Pointer puppy.
To say that my brother and I adored Pepper would be an understatement. We had been desperate for a dog for what seemed like forever and, as we begged our parents to let us sleep downstairs next to her, I think I remember promising that we’d never argue again. Our delight was to continue as, in spite of my father’s initial reluctance, Pepper was soon to be followed by a rescue dog, a plodding golden retriever called Max, and my childhood suddenly became dog-filled. I couldn’t have been happier.
Whilst the novelty of picking up dog poo and cleaning muddy paw prints wore off almost instantaneously, the companionship of a pet was unrivalled. I grew up alongside Pepper and Max, they were there for every birthday, for my first day at senior school and outside of the milestones, their constancy was unwavering. They were willing sounding boards, eternal sources of entertainment and always there to offer comfort no matter how trivial the problem.
Mine and my brother’s devotion to our dogs was reciprocated ten times over, but beyond my personal, and admittedly incredibly biased, experience of pets, it is widely supported that growing up with pets is linked to higher self-esteem, better cognitive development and improved social skills.
Extensive research has corroborated a multitude of benefits including; better general health, obedience, higher engagement with physical activity, fewer behavioural problems and fewer learning problems. Moreover, among answers to the question “what is it about living with pets that makes kids better off?” Psychologists have established several reasons that include the impact of pets on reducing stress, providing social support and improving children’s communication skills.
My childhood with Max and Pepper certainly stands as testament to these proposed benefits but I am aware that I was incredibly lucky. Firstly because both of my childhood dogs were wonderful, you do hear tales of nightmare pets – I know a dog that once ate the entire contents of a fridge the night before Christmas – and secondly, that I was lucky enough to have a pet in the first place. Not everyone is in that position and sometimes a larger pet, like a dog, just isn’t feasible. But whether it’s a dog, cat, hamster, snake or even a stick insect, it would seem that having a pet can do far more than temporarily suspending the bickering.