The introduction of the new First Dog, Bo Obama, into the national spotlight generated many contingent discussions about adopting shelter dogs vs. purebreds and what hypoallergenic breeds are best. This has been a topic of some relief amid the more looming concerns facing the country. But when the question comes up in your own house - "Can we get a dog...or a cat or a turtle or a parakeet?" - it's as serious a topic as any.
And whether or not your family decides to get a pet, there are plenty of animals around in day-to-day life that children should learn to relate to. Behaving well around animals can have a positive impact on how children relate to people, too.
These are topics often touched on by Dane County Humane Society shelter educator Emily Steinwehe. Her office, a large open room at the Dane County Humane Society shelter on Voges Road, contains a couple of cages, home to several curious mice and a shy hamster. Often her own dog is on hand to serve as teacher, too.
Steinwehe, whose background is in biology and environmental education, makes frequent classroom visits. She speaks on staying safe around animals and how kids can be good pet owners; she'll also tailor specialized presentations to other topics a class may be studying. She recently spoke to one class on the history of pets, finding out the countries the students' pets originated from and when the species became domesticated.
At the elementary school level, she finds that "most of the time kids are pretty knowledgeable about animals," although for whatever reason they are "way too worried about rabies."
One of the topics Steinwehe addresses is animal behaviors that children should be aware of, expressions and postures that signal a pet, usually a dog, is not particularly friendly.
After making sure your child knows how to behave around other people's animals, how can you tell when it's time to introduce a pet into the family? Small children are fascinated by them - "Doggie!" being a frequent squeal of delight - but that doesn't mean that a dog is necessarily a good first pet or that puppies and little children are a good mix.
A good time to think about adding a pet to the family is when kids start showing responsibility, Steinwehe says: "If they're doing chores you ask them to do and are having positive interactions with other people's pets." She suggests kids can pet-sit a friend or relative's animal, too.
Children will model their reactions to animals on their parents'. When encountering a dog while out on a walk, approach is important. Parents can instill fears or teach good, cautious behaviors.
For kids who have allergies, Steinwehe suggests taking them out to observe wild animals, or having fish, a hermit crab or a gecko at home.
Fish or hermit crabs are also a good way to introduce kids to pet care. Slightly more care-intensive are hamsters, rats and mice. Birds and rabbits take more care than many people realize (and Steinwehe doesn't recommend parrots for kids at all). Cats and then dogs are at the high end of responsibility. She also mentions chickens as positive possible pets.
What to avoid? "A water turtle does not make a good pet," she says without hesitation. "They're messy, and you have to change the water every day." They're also prone to disease. Plus, the child's interest level can wane - turtles don't cuddle, and you can't teach them tricks.
Any pet that needs a large space and lots of mental stimulation, like a parrot or a monkey, is not a good pick, and obviously, wild animals never make good pets.
Additionally, the Humane Society does not recommend kittens for children younger than five, because kittens often scratch; plus, they are easily stepped on or hurt. Puppies, too, are best for children older than five.
If you're interested in adopting an older dog, the Humane Society has specific age recommendations depending on the dog. But it usually does not send older dogs home to families with children younger than eight because they don't know "what the dog's experiences have been," says Steinwehe. Each dog is given a "canine-ality" rating of purple (appropriate for younger kids), orange or green (only appropriate for older kids).
Another way to introduce kids to responsible behavior around pets is Camp Pawprint, the Humane Society's summer day camp. Activities include animal games, crafts, making and baking treats for animals, plus learning how to take care of animals by helping out at the Humane Society. The camp serves about 40 kids a week.
The popularity of Camp Pawprint prompted DCHS to start a new kids volunteer club, Humane Society Heroes, that meets every two months. Kids ages 7-15 are welcome. Kids have to be eight before they can take care of "critters," as Steinwehe calls the rabbits, hamsters, reptiles and the like; 12 before they can help with the cats; and 16 before they graduate to dogs. The group of a dozen kids will put in an hour and a half of volunteer work, then do a craft or game. A DCHS volunteer has also begun a story and craft group for preschoolers ages two to four that meets the third Sunday of the month.
It's also important to teach your pet about your kids. A new class offered by the Humane Society is "Baby-Ready Pets." Sadly and too frequently, the reason given for an animal being surrendered is that it's not taking to life with a new baby. "We wanted to prevent that," says Steinwehe, "by encouraging people to prepare ahead of time." Pets can be prepared gradually for the new arrival.
"Introduce the presence of the baby by getting a doll, wrapping it in a blanket and scenting it with the lotion you'll be using on the baby," Steinwehe suggests. Parents-to-be should reward the pet with treats when it comes up to the bundle (and behaves nicely). Steinwehe also instructs class members on gradually changing the pet's routine before the baby arrives, decreasing the amount of time spent with the pet but increasing the quality with walks and games. She also recommends challenging toys for the dog. These are usually puzzles that have to be "solved" before the dog can get at a treat.
Sleep-deprived with a new baby, new parents might find working these toys challenging as well. As with your pet, your mental stimulation is very important - and preparation is key.
Dane County Humane Society
5132 Voges Rd., 608-838-0413, giveshelter.org
Baby-Ready Pets will be held June 4 from 4 to 6 pm at the UW Health West Clinic, Madison.
Camp Pawprint themed sessions include Animal Detectives, during which campers learn about pet responsibility, animal communication and animal empathy (four different sessions, two for kids 7-9 years and two for 9-11 years); Animal Careers, which includes observing a veterinarian and caring for DCHS animals, including dogs, cats and goats (two sessions, one for kids 9-11 and one for 11-14); and Dog Lovers, which includes learning about dog training and doing other shelter care (two sessions, one for kids 9-11 and one for 11-14). Sessions: June 15-Aug. 28.