Puppy Love and Learning


My son wanted a puppy more than anything for his 13th birthday.

Our dog Jack, a member of our family for 14 years, had recently died, so we couldn’t say no.  Even though I’m more a cat than a dog person, we now have a new “Sugardoddle” puppy.

Lucy is a ton of work, and all the extra worries are putting me on edge. I’m trying to find ways to connect and bond with her and to focus on the joy a puppy brings. I’m reminding myself that as with a baby or toddler, the most important part is the connection. Maturity comes later.

I’m also reminding myself of how beneficial a pet can be in a child’s life. The pet can give love and companionship and be a source of social emotional learning. In my book Make Social Learning Stick! I offer tips to help your child build social emotional skills through the experience of caring for a pet: 

  1. Observing & Naming: Help your child increase their social observing skills by noticing and describing the animal. Take your time before naming a new pet. Is the pet silly, sweet, playful, spotted, or cuddly? Your child can use descriptions she comes up with to find a name that suits.
  2. Tricks for Better Language: Teaching a dog to do tricks like sit, stay, or roll and demonstrating these tricks to others can help build a child’s expressive language and confidence. Check in with your child about his mood (mood meter page 72)  after he communicates with the pet and leads it in performing a new trick for family members or friends.
  3. Pet Care: Encourage your child to think about all the care your pet might need. With your child, brainstorm a list: feeding, walking, bathing, going to the bathroom, etc. Create a weekly schedule of tasks and workers to help your child take responsibility and build dependability for the pet’s care.  
  4. Pet Love: Help your child “step into the shoes” (paws) of the pet and take perspective by imagining all of the things that would make the animal feel happy, healthy, and comfortable:  walking, snuggling, petting, praising, getting treats and toys, etc.  Make a list and support your child in making their pet “feel the love.”
  5. A Best Friend: If your child is lonely or blue, encourage him to spend time with her furry friend. Petting, hugging and talking to a pet can relieve stress, offer comfort, and help your child understand her own thoughts more clearly.
  6. Building Empathy:  Not only can a furry friend provide comfort to a child, but a child can provide comfort to a furry friend as well. Help your child realize that a pet needs love and attention and brainstorm ways to make the animal feel comfortable and cared for emotionally (spending time, using a nice tone, gentle hands, etc.).
  7. Reading a Pet’s Emotions: Go even deeper with building empathy and perspective taking by encouraging your child to tune in to how his pet is feeling. Have your child watch and observe the pet and try to make a guess about what it might be feeling or needing in that moment. Is the dog standing near the back door where it usually goes out to go to the bathroom?  Front door where it goes out for a walk? Perhaps the cat is licking the sink and needs a drink of water, or maybe the dog is bored and wants to play or run outside. The ability to imagine a pet’s needs and desires will help your child to imagine those of another person.

Now it’s back to puppy training for me. Lucy and I are getting to know one another, and I’m trying to focus on the positive aspects of a new pet and being grateful for those aspects on this new adventure. My son has been stepping up to feed Lucy, help with the training, and take her on walks.  She is on his top list of self-regulation tools (e.g., snuggling and playing with her provides a lot of comfort to him). His actions show me that he is stepping up to embrace this new challenge, which builds responsibility as well as social and emotional skills that will serve him in many parts of his life.


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