Pets help kids learn empathy

Kids & DogHave you ever noticed that the way kids are around animals is like a microcosm of the way they are around everyone? When young people are happy, comfortable, and compassionate, they treat animals with kindness and care. And when they’re upset about something or feeling picked on and powerless, they often take out their aggressions on the family pet.

If you have a pet, pay attention this week to how your children treat the animals in your home. Are they gentle and caring, allowing the pet to come to them? Or do they chase, pull, grab, and harass the family cat or dog?

If your child is treating animals with care, you can develop their empathy skills even further by assigning them responsibilities like feeding the animals and giving them water. Older kids can even help brush and bathe the family pet. By taking the time to care for another, young people can begin to realize that they can have a positive impact on others through their care and hard work.

If on the other hand, your child is treating animals in a less than compassionate way, this is a perfect opportunity for them to learn empathy! By showing your child how to touch a pet in a way that is pleasurable for the animal, you can help your child develop a new awareness of other creatures and their likes and dislikes. When you remind your child that the cat doesn’t like to be chased, but will come and sit on her lap if invited, you’re teaching her patience, kindness, and how to be magnetic and inviting. What a great set of skills!

If you have dogs, you can help your kids learn how to be calm, assertive, and loving toward the family dog. When I was about 7 years old, my grandfather taught me the German commands for his highly trained German Sheppard “Gauner”. I delighted in my ability to command a dog that was as big as I was and Gauner and I quickly became the best of friends.

I’m definitely a pet person, with two dogs, two cats, and a fantasy about getting 4 chickens, I love to care for my pets, enjoy their companionship, and watch them play and enjoy life, learning about them through the bodytalk for animals system.  A message to all dog lovers, along with our own, nutritional supplementation for dogs has made major strides in the direction of progress, dog joint supps these days are nothing like those of old and are worth a look at. If you’re not interested in having such high maintenance pets, you can still teach empathy and compassion with easier pets like a goldfish or turtle, or by going to a local farm, a friends house, or even a park.

As a nanny, I was outside with two boys one summer. We were hunting for bugs and creating insect habitats for them in a plastic container. We were careful with the insects and made sure they had water, dirt, and plant materials similar to the ones we found them in. We observed them with a magnifying glass, drew pictures, and looked them up in an insect book. It was a blast!

Suddenly the older boy got very excited about a spider he had found, he showed it to me and his brother and then proceeded to drop it on the ground and smash it with his foot. I was devastated! I had be enjoying the insects and our care for them so much it was completely surprising and confusing to me that he would want to kill the spider.

I sat down on the ground and cried a little bit. As he saw my reaction, my charge’s empathy and compassion kicked in and he came over to ask me what was wrong. I told him that I was sad that the spider was dead. I shared how much I appreciate spiders because they’re predators and they help plants by eating the insects that infest them. I could see his mind turning over this new information, processing and assessing as we talked. “Oh!” he declared, “I never knew spiders were so valuable! Next time I find a big spider I’ll take care of it, I won’t squish it.”

I was amazed. I hadn’t told him not to kill spiders. I hadn’t even mentioned that he was the one who killed the spider. Yet, by sharing my experience and my own love and compassion for spiders, he was easily able to change his mind from, “spiders are icky and mean” to “spiders are valuable members of the ecosystem”!

So, whether or not you have pets, you can teach your child empathy by connecting with animals. I would love to hear about your own experiences with animals and kids. Have a fantastic week, Shelly


Hey Jackie, That does sound challenging! What about spending a little time each day sitting with your daughter and inviting the animals over (possibly with treats) for some loving gentle touch. I would put her on your lap and then invite the animals to you so that you can show her how to touch the animals and give her immediate feedback in the moment when she's touching them in a way that's not OK.

Then, for the rest of the time, I'd recommend you have a rule that she's not allowed to approach the animals, but must invite them to approach her. Also, she must be gentle with them or you'll have to separate her from them for everyone's safety. When your daughter learns that the only way she gets to interact with her beloved pets is when she's gentle and loving toward them, she'll soon learn a softer touch.

Also, notice WHEN she's rough with them. Is it when she's overly tired or hungry? Is it when they're bothering her? Or when they're not giving her the attention and affection she wants? By identifying what the triggers of her rough behavior are, you have a much better chance of heading them off at the pass and redirecting her to behaviors you prefer.

Lastly, please remember that no matter what dog you might get (whether a puppy or full grown dog) there's no guarantee that the dog will like your daughter and be affectionate with her. The idea of having another dog is almost always easier and more fun than the reality of actually having another dog in the house. Please consider breeds carefully and if there's a way to get to know the dog's personality before inviting him or her into your home, all the better.

Good luck and please don't hesitate to contact me if you need further support! Warmly, Shelly


My daughter is 4 and she is very rough with our animals. We can see how much she loves them, but she is very rough. We've been talking about soft touches and the other things you mentioned for 4 years now lol. We had to put our big dog to sleep a while back. She wants another dog. I want another dog ~ the dog we have now is really my husband's dog and she and I really want her to have a dog that likes her, and would enjoy spending time with her. It's difficult to have a dog in the house that really doesn't like her, but I don't feel comfortable getting another dog until she learns to be a little more gentle with all the animals. (we also have 2 cats). Any ideas?
.-= Jackie´s last blog ..72 Hour Challenge ~ YES! I’m Challenging YOU! =-.


  1. […] an episode that was just them fighting and talking about their relationship. Why is this relevant? Awake Parent and and more recently Psychology Today both talk about how raising a pet in this modern age will […]