- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

Hannah Wallin, age 11, and mom Robin Wallin are spending yet another afternoon at the Washington Humane Society shelter on the District’s New York Avenue NE. Peering determinedly into the dog runs, they manage to weather the whimpers, barks, wags and pleading looks of the occupants.

The pair are looking for that “perfect” dog — ideally, one that is “smallish, with long hair and a smushed-in face and preferably house trained,” says Hannah, of Alexandria. They have been searching since February.

“Our eyes are open,” says Mrs. Wallin, a school nurse. “We need to make sure this is the right one.”

Great approach to a big decision, says Rebecca French, adoptions coordinator at the WHS, a nonprofit animal-welfare organization that contracts with the Department of Health to provide the city’s animal-control services.

It’s a big step to bring an animal into a family, Ms. French and other animal advocates say. Pet ownership requires a pledge of time and money from parents — not just children — they say.

Cats, which can live into their early 20s, require an average annual upkeep of about $500, says Stephen Zawistowski, senior vice president and science director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an animal-welfare organization based in New York City. Annual dog upkeep is estimated at $400 a year for a small animal to $700 for a large one.

The commitment is balanced by the benefits of ownership, advocates say: Animal companionship teaches children compassion and sensitivity, boosts self-esteem and prompts responsible and controlled behavior.

In fact, more than 58 percent of the nation’s homes contained at least one pet in 2001, says American Veterinary Medical Association spokesman Michael Walters. That number includes 61.6 million dogs and 68.9 million cats.

At the WHS, Ms. French and her colleagues see 3,600 to 4,000 adoption applications per year for cats and dogs and process about 120 adoptions each month. The shelter also adopts out other small pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and reptiles.

“Most of the applicants are very, very excited,” she says, “but only half of them know what they’re getting into: They’re adding a new family member who will take a lot of time, effort and love.”

Children and pets

Thanks to Hannah, the Wallins are well aware of the ins and outs of pet ownership. Hannah says she began begging for a dog about a year ago.

“But she wasn’t really ready,” her mother says. The elder Wallins needed to be convinced that their daughter was serious.

So Hannah wrote poems and stories about dogs. She demonstrated that she is a responsible person by tending the dogs of friends and neighbors. She videotaped several “news shows” about dog ownership. She also did research — lots of it — to learn about dog care and to determine what kind of breed and type of dog would be best for the family, which also includes her 14-year-old brother.

Her efforts paid off, and the mother and daughter visit the shelter two and three times weekly, determined to find their dream dog.

It takes just the right combination of children and dogs to make a perfect match, Ms. French says.

“If I see a family come in with kids who are well-behaved but are happy and excited, then I get excited about the possibility of a great family dog finding a great family,” she says. “The kids have to learn how to handle a dog, the parents have to be patient and good teachers, and the dog has to be happy and gentle and easygoing.”

Some parents decide to obtain a pet for their child to teach the child responsibility, says Holly Quaglia, a humane educator at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, an international animal-rights organization based in Norfolk. However, there are other ways to teach that trait, such as homework completion, money management and household chores, she says.

“We don’t want to use animals as a tool for the purpose of teaching children responsibility,” she says. “However, one way of learning empathy is through compassionate interaction with companion animals in the home. Children aren’t born knowing right from wrong. Empathy is a learned behavior. More and more states these days are mandating character education in schools, which are beginning to incorporate compassionate education in the classroom.”

FBI profilers, psychological associations, law enforcement professionals and child-advocacy organizations all cite animal abuse as a precursor in people who eventually direct violence toward humans.

“In every single case of school shootings during the last decade, there’s been a consistent warning sign — all the young killers abused or killed animals before turning on their classmates,” Ms. Quaglia says. “If you can teach a child to value the life of an animal, he or she will be more likely to value one another because the ability to empathize and the capacity for compassion are required for humans to treat each other with respect, dignity and gentleness.”

The role of the parents

The American Academy of Pediatrics generally advocates animal companionship as healthy and positive for children. However, members stress that parents must exercise caution in the pet-child mix, regardless of how much the animal appears to enjoy the relationship.

Wait until a child is mature enough to handle and care for an animal — usually around age 5 or 6, academy doctors recommend in “Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5,” a child care book published by the organization.

“Younger children have difficulty distinguishing an animal from a toy, so they may inadvertently provoke a bite through teasing or mistreatment. Remember that you have ultimate responsibility for your child’s safety around any animal.”

Never leave a young child alone with an animal — many bites occur during periods of playful roughhousing when the child may not realize the animal is getting overexcited. Teach children not to put their faces close to an animal, and be sure children don’t disturb an eating or sleeping animal, says the AAP.

Parental oversight and management define the animal-family relationship, says Jacque Schultz, director of special projects at the ASPCA. She says a rough rule of thumb is that most children are ready to care for a pet around age 7 or 8.

A good introduction to pet care might be via a small mammal such as a guinea pig, she says. Guinea pigs enjoy stroking and affection, especially if they have been raised to enjoy it, and can be good for children.

“The important part is, does the child want a pet he or she can cuddle with? If so, hamsters and budgies won’t fill the bill,” she says. “However, since the parent will be in charge of most of the upkeep and the animal will spend most of its time in a protective container, you could probably get a hamster or budgie when a child is younger because he or she can’t get to the animal to harm it. How young? If the child isn’t going to lay hands on the animal, age is irrelevant.”

Her other tips include:

• Gerbils and hamsters are relatively small drains on time and energy because they’re mainly cage-based. However, they do not particularly like to be handled, she says; in fact, hamsters can be biters.

• Budgies, otherwise known as parakeets, can be taught to enjoy handling. They and their larger cousins, cockatiels, can mimic noises and speech. These birds represent a good opportunity for parents to become involved in educating their children about proper diet and shelter for the animals. They’re flock animals and are more comfortable in pairs — perhaps a little-known fact, Ms. Schultz says.

• Rabbits make good, quiet pets for children ages 7 and older. Parents should keep in mind that rabbits are harmed more easily than some other pets and can be more dangerous. Children often want to lift pet rabbits by the ears, which will hurt them, Ms. Schultz says.

In addition, as prey animals, rabbits can hear a noise or see something and react with a startle effect, which is to kick out and run. Last, parents should understand that a rabbit is not an animal that can be contained and forgotten in a hutch in the back yard; rabbits are social creatures.

mAlthough a cat is a fine pet for a well-supervised home, parents should realize that most cats will avoid children who are noisy and unpredictable. If cornered under a coffee table, many will come out with four sets of claws and a mouthful of teeth, Ms. Schultz says. The more average cats will, at times, scratch and do some light biting when held too long or, in adolescence (until 18 months of age or so), use human ankles to scratch as sport.

mA dog is the most difficult animal to introduce into the home because significant training is involved, she says, and care should be made in the choice of the individual animal.

“Many people think if I have a small child then I should get a small dog, but that’s the worst possible choice,” Ms. Schultz says. “Small dogs have very little tolerance for rough handling. You want a touch-insensitive dog if you have a child. They will be tripping and falling on the dog and pet them too hard. A Lab will accept some clumsy handling, a Chihuahua will not. Part of their self-protectiveness is to react more quickly because they are more easy to hurt.”

Medium to large dogs are the best to bring into a house with children, she says. Giant dogs can be a good choice, as well, as they are generally less active and bouncy.

The Phillips family of Mount Pleasant decided upon a cat “even though we’re more dog people,” says Sirianna Phillips, a stay-at-home mother. Husband Dean works in diplomatic security, and the family, which includes daughter Eila, 3, needed to adopt an animal small enough to be shipped abroad when the need arises.

“But I wanted to get a pet while Eila was a child — someone for her to love. We started researching cats, and I became obsessed,” Mrs. Phillips says.

The ideal feline would be a social, playful lap cat, not one that “lurks,” or skulks around at the fringes of family life, she says. Rebecca French of the WHS kept a lookout for a suitable match. They found one in Romeo, a fluffy black kitty with white paws and a white face. He went home with the Phillipses a couple of months ago and since has been dubbed “Catty-Cat” until just the right moniker is determined.

Sure enough, the family members became cat people, Mrs. Phillips says, adding, “even my husband. He’s gaga. And Eila is very happy. She loooooves him.”

Pets represent a safe haven and a sanctuary for children, says Diane Pomerance, author of “Animal Companions: Your Friends, Teachers & Guides.”

“They’re good for children for so many reasons,” she says. “They are loyal, unconditionally loving and accepting, nonjudgmental, and they serve as trusted friends and confidants with whom children share their secrets. We all have a need to nurture and take care of other living creatures. This brings out the best in children.”

SUGGESTIONS

THE FOLLOWING SUGGESTIONS ARE FOR FAMILIES WITH A YOUNG CHILD AND A PET:

• PROVIDE CONSTANT SUPERVISION: NO INFANT OR CHILD YOUNGER THAN 4 SHOULD BE LEFT ALONE WITH AN ANIMAL. EVEN THE MOST MILD-MANNERED DOG OR CAT IS CAPABLE OF AGGRESSION IF PROVOKED OR UNDER STRESS. IF A CHILD SCREAMS IN A DOG’S EAR OR PULLS A CAT’S TAIL, IT IS UNCERTAIN HOW AGITATED THE ANIMAL WILL BECOME.

• MODEL RESPECTFUL INTERACTIONS WITH YOUR PET: TREATING YOUR CAT AND DOG WITH RESPECT AND LOVE IS CRUCIAL WHEN TEACHING YOUR CHILD HOW TO INTERACT WITH YOUR PET.

• TEACH APPROPRIATE PETTING BEHAVIOR: TEACH THE CHILD HOW TO PET THE ANIMAL WITH GENTLE STROKES. SHOW HOW TO PET WITH THE FUR, NOT AGAINST IT. ALSO, SHOW WHERE THE ANIMAL LIKES TO BE TOUCHED.

MANY ANIMALS DISLIKE BEING THUMPED ON TOP OF THE HEAD OR ARE SENSITIVE TO HAVING HIPS OR BELLIES TOUCHED. TODDLERS WILL BE PARTICULARLY DRAWN TO OUTSTANDING OR DISTINCT BODY PARTS, SUCH AS A CURLY TAIL OR FLOPPY EARS.

• MONITOR PLAYTIME: CHILDREN MIGHT LOOK TO THE FAMILY PET AS A PLAYMATE, SO IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ANY PLAY INTERACTION IS SAFE FOR BOTH YOUR CHILD AND THE PET.

IF PLAYTIME BECOMES TOO OVERWHELMING FOR EITHER YOUR CHILD OR PET, IT IS IMPORTANT TO GIVE A TIME OUT TO COOL DOWN. REDIRECT THE BEHAVIOR TO SOMETHING THAT IS MORE PLEASANT FOR THE ANIMAL, SUCH AS GAMES OF FETCH OR HIDE THE TREATS.

• STAY AWAY DURING MEALTIME: AN ANIMAL CAN GET AGGRESSIVE IF IT FEELS SOMEONE IS TRYING TO TAKE AWAY ITS FOOD.

• KEEP A DOG’S TOYS SEPARATE FROM CHILD’S TOYS. DOGS CAN BE VERY POSSESSIVE OF TOYS, ESPECIALLY CHEW TOYS, SUCH AS RAWHIDES, PIG’S EARS OR BONES. A TODDLER MAY NOT UNDERSTAND THAT THE DOG’S TOY IS NOT HIS OR HERS TO SHARE, SO TRY TO KEEP THEM SEPARATE. PERHAPS GIVE CHEW TOYS ONLY WHEN THE CHILD IS SLEEPING OR THE DOG IS IN A CRATE OR SEPARATE ROOM.

• CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE PET: IF YOU WANT TO BRING AN ANIMAL INTO YOUR HOME WITH A TODDLER OR INFANT, IT IS IMPORTANT TO CHOOSE A PET THAT WILL BE SAFE FOR EVERYONE.

A PUPPY OR KITTEN YOUNGER THAN 4 MONTHS OLD IS NOT IDEAL FOR A TODDLER OR AN INFANT, AS THE ANIMAL IS IN SIMILAR LEARNING STAGES. A YOUNG PUPPY OR KITTEN IS LEARNING HOW TO INTERACT WITH OTHERS, JUST LIKE A TODDLER AND AN INFANT, AND THEY BOTH MAY OVERSTEP THEIR BOUNDARIES.

THE BABY TEETH AND CLAWS OF YOUNG ANIMALS ARE NEEDLE-SHARP AND CAN DO INADVERTENT DAMAGE.

SOURCE: AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS

MORE INFO

BOOKS

M”ANIMAL COMPANIONS: YOUR FRIENDS, TEACHERS & GUIDES,” BY DIANE POMERANCE, POLAIRE PUBLICATIONS, 2003. THIS BOOK, WRITTEN TO SHARE WITH CHILDREN, IS AIMED AT EARLY EDUCATION IN DEVELOPING UNDERSTANDING, ACCEPTANCE AND COMPASSION.

M”A KID’S BEST FRIEND (IT’S A KID’S WORLD),” BY MAYA AJMERA AND ALEX FISHER, CHARLESBRIDGE PUBLISHING, 2002. USING RICH COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS, THE BOOK INTRODUCES CHILDREN TO THE WAYS OTHER CHILDREN AROUND THE WORLD CARE FOR AND ENJOY THEIR DOGS. THE LAST SEVERAL PAGES CONTAIN MANY BASIC FACTS ABOUT DOGS, WHICH PARENTS AND CHILDREN CAN EXPLORE TOGETHER. THIS BOOK IS ONE OF SEVERAL WINNERS OF THE 2002 AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS HENRY BERGH BOOKS AWARD, ESTABLISHED TO HONOR BOOKS THAT PROMOTE COMPASSION AND RESPECT FOR ALL LIVING THINGS TO YOUNG READERS. OTHER 2002 AWARD WINNERS ARE “HORSE CARE FOR KIDS,” BY CHERRY HILL, STOREY BOOKS, 2002, AGES 8 TO 12; “STRAYDOG,” BY KATHE KOJA, FRANCES FOSTER PUBLISHING, 2002, YOUNG ADULT; AND “LITTLE FLOWER,” BY GLORIA RAND, HENRY HOLT & CO., 2002, AGES 4 TO 8.

ASSOCIATIONS

• THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES, 2100 L ST. NW, WASHINGTON, DC 20037. PHONE: 202/452-1100. WEB SITE: WWW.HSUS.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION OFFERS INFORMATION ABOUT ADOPTING A NEW PET AND THE EXPECTATIONS FOR CHILDREN.

• WASHINGTON HUMANE SOCIETY, 1201 NEW YORK AVE. NE, WASHINGTON, DC 20002. PHONE: 202/576-6664. WEB SITE: WWW.WASHHUMANE.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT GROUP, THE OLDEST ANIMAL PROTECTION AGENCY IN THE DISTRICT, PROVIDES SERVICES SUCH AS CAREFULLY SUPERVISED ADOPTIONS AND HUMANE EDUCATION.

OTHER LOCAL ANIMAL SHELTERS AND ADOPTING SERVICES INCLUDE:

WASHINGTON ANIMAL RESCUE LEAGUE: 202/726-2556

THE SPCA OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, ARLINGTON: 703/799-9390

HUMANE SOCIETY OF FAIRFAX COUNTY: 703/385-7387

THE SHILOH PROJECT, FAIRFAX: 703/591-3600

ANIMAL WELFARE LEAGUE OF ALEXANDRIA: 703/838-4774

ANIMAL WELFARE LEAGUE OF ARLINGTON: 703/931-9241

LOUDOUN COUNTY ANIMAL CARE AND CONTROL: 703/777-0406 OR 540/882-3211

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY ANIMAL SHELTER: 703/792-6465

FRIENDS OF HOMELESS ANIMALS, MERRIFIELD: SEND E-MAIL TO [email protected]

METROPETS ONLINE, SILVER SPRING: 301/873-0846

HOWARD COUNTY ANIMAL SHELTER, ELLICOTT CITY: 410/880-2488

MONTGOMERY COUNTY HUMANE SOCIETY, ROCKVILLE: 240/773-5960

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY SPCA, BOWIE: 301/262-5625

MONTGOMERY COUNTY SPCA, WASHINGTON GROVE: 301/948-4266

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