WHICH PET IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
There are lots of advantages to a pet
Whether it’s furry, feathered or comes with fins, there are lots of advantages to having a pet at home. But what kind is right for you? Hannah Dickson talks to three families about why they love their pet.
The first rule of puppy school is socialise your puppy – and with
that Kevin the miniature schnauzer and the Cook family went
straight to the top of the class.
Kevin’s very first day with his family included a trip to school
to pick up Emma, 10, Abby, 7, and five-year-old Tully, and the
socialisation certainly didn’t stop once the family made it home.
Choosing a family-friendly breed was top of the list when Kelly
and Sherridan decided it was time to get a puppy (initially they
thought they might wait until their cat Bruce passed away, but Bruce
made it very clear he wasn’t going anywhere for a very long time!).
As well as being family-friendly, the couple wanted a dog that
didn’t shed excessively – schnauzers ticked that box as well.
While Kevin knows Kelly is his number one boss, the girls are
learning about how to feed and care for him. They have also played
an important role in his training.
“Another thing you learn at puppy school is that it’s really
important to spend time playing with them,” says Kelly. With three
girls at home there is always someone available to play fetch or
join a wrestling session.
“He’s like the little brother they never had,” she laughs. Kevin’s
arrival has been particularly good for Abby, who used to be a little
wary of dogs. Now’s she great not only with her own dog, but
confident around others they meet at beaches and playgrounds.
Bruce the cat is less enamoured and there is a clear demarcation
of territory. Bruce sticks to the front of the house, spending as
much time as possible asleep on the family beds, while Kevin’s
domain is strictly the living area or outside.
“They are not friends,” says Kelly. “But they seem to a developed a
healthy respect for each other now we have split the house in two.”
Nearly a year after he joined the family, Kelly and Sherridan are
confident they made the right choice and love the dynamic he
has brought to the family. The next step is to head back to puppy
school for a refresher course and to get some extra tips about
dealing with those tricky teenage years.
After a frantic night searching under bushes and behind trees all
around the neighbourhood, Angela Smith could not have been more
delighted to wake up and see the handwritten sign sitting on the
front veranda of the house across the road: Found, one white rabbit.
Happily, it wasn’t long before Sparkles the bunny was reunited
with her friend Oldbee and there was a long conversation about
making sure the hutch was securely closed at night.
There’s been a bit of a revolving door policy in the family’s
backyard hutch ever since. Dan Holder, now 8, has always been
keen on rabbits so it seemed like perfect timing when family
friends needed to find a new home for their two bunnies a couple
of years ago.
The rabbits fitted in to the family’s busy schedule very well.
They needed to be fed and cared for, but didn’t require a massive
commitment of time.
Sparkles and Oldbee were very happy until Oldbee got sick and
had to be put down. Fluffy arrived to keep her company, but now
that Sparkles too has passed away, Fluffy is happy being queen
of the hutch.
Fortunately she gets on very well with the family cat.
“They really do hang out together,” says Angela. “Fluffy quite
likes the neighbour’s Siamese, too.”
But her all-time favourites are Dan and big sister Maia. When the
parents head out to top up her water supply or to bring fresh food,
Fluffy barely gives them the time of day. But when the children
come to visit she bounds across the hutch to see them and is
happy to be petted and played with in the rabbit-proof backyard.
Which is just as well, as the children were the main reason
Angela and Hamish wanted to get pets.
“I grew up with a cat and a dog,” says Angela. “I think it’s a really
important way for children to learn responsibility and empathy.
They learn they have to commit to looking after an animal for its
entire life. That’s important when so much in their lives is about the
There comes a time in every parent’s life when they realise with
joy that their children are getting older and they just might get a
chance to sleep in again. Of course, that all ends if you’re a member
of the Whaley household and decide to adopt two kittens.
“We feed them at about 6 in the morning, because that’s
when we get up on weekdays, but they don’t understand about
weekends, so there are no more sleep-ins – ever,” says Jenny. “The
end of daylight saving caused havoc too. They have such exact
inbuilt clocks that we were getting woken up at 5am. You might
think you can sleep through their attention-seeking, but you
can’t – they know all the right buttons to push to get you out of
bed. They start with purring loudly in your ear, but soon they’re
climbing the curtains, scratching the furniture, trying to kill your
feet through the duvet, and playfighting each other on the bed.”
The Whaleys have always been a cat family. When their elderly
cat Pat died last year they experimented with being pet-free.
While they enjoyed the freedom of being able to go away
without organising someone to look after a cat and not having to
constantly stock up on cat food, it didn’t take long for them to miss
having a furry friend to welcome them home.
Zoe, 10, and Ben, 7, were keen on a puppy, but Jenny and Jeremy
negotiated them down to a kitten.
“We really wanted the kids to have pets around. I think it’s so
good for them to have something smaller than them to cuddle and
care for, and in return pets always listen to kids and their troubles.
At least we sort of knew what we were doing with a kitten as we’d
done it before.”
They hadn’t quite bargained on getting two though. They knew
they wanted a rescue cat rather than a designer breed and the first
kittens they saw were brothers that had been dumped on the side
of the road at just five weeks. Someone had taken them to a local
vet who had checked them over and given them to a lady to foster.
“She preferred they be kept together for company, so we
caved in and changed our minds. They really do enjoy having the
companionship, and do most things together. When one finds
himself alone outside, he’ll miaow for the other until they’re back
As with any new arrival, the first six weeks were intense and
the kittens had to stay inside. But they are far easier now they can
come and go as they please through the cat flap. Part of the deal
with the kittens was that Zoe and Ben would help take care of
them. They now do kitten duty week about.
“Their duties involve cleaning the food bowls each day,
changing their water, feeding wet food at night, and making sure
their biscuits are topped up,” says Jenny. “I encourage them by
reminding them that kittens and cats love the person who feeds
them the best!”
Other pets to consider: Goldfish
Colourful and peaceful, there’s something mesmerising about
watching goldfish swimming around in a tank. They make a great
family pet, as long as you are prepared to provide a tank that’s big
enough for them. The old-fashioned bowl is now generally out of
favour, with a cycled tank preferred. Other advantages are:
• They are easy to maintain – no walking, rushing home to feed
them, or expensive visits to the vet.
• The initial outlay isn’t prohibitively expensive
• Children can easily be taught to feed the fish and clean out
• Studies show watching fish can reduce anxiety (probably
why dentists often have them in waiting rooms!).
• an exercise wheel
• tunnels for playing in and hiding
• to be handled very gently.
When it comes to birds, colourful budgies are a great choice.
With the right care and attention, they will perch on your finger
and mimic words (a skill that’s generally stronger in males).
Budgies are active, social creatures so:
• Make sure their cage is close to the family’s main centre
• Let them out to fly around the room (make sure it’s secure, and
cover windows at first so they don’t get spooked by the glass)
• Consider having more than one – they naturally live in flocks
• Keep them entertained with a few well-chosen toys.
Mice are very social and alert creatures so they can be very
entertaining as pets. Because they are relatively easy to look after,
they are good for children. Just check no one in the house has a
As well as a well-ventilated cage, your pet mouse will need:
• A sleeping place filled with nesting material that’s a few
There’s nothing like going out in public to force the issue of
social skills – and whether or not our kids have the required
– to the surface. What we’re happy to put up with, or
possibly don’t even notice, can be excruciatingly embarrassing
when you’re around guests, at a birthday party, or in front of the
person at the shop counter.
Of course it’s not our kids who are embarrassed, it’s us.
They don’t know what they don’t know and will largely be
blissfully ignorant while we turn several
shades of crimson and pretend to be
someone else’s parent...
It’s easy to forget how complex social
behaviour is; to a child the rules must seem
never-ending and often contradictory.
Some will be born with a natural knack for
it, and others will struggle. There are a lot
of social expectations and traditions that
influence the way we interact with each
other, and our kids will need lots of support
to take these on board.
Here’s a guide to a few essential social
skills worth spending time on while children are small. As with
so many things, they’re much easier to deal with in the real world
if we’ve had some practice in the safety of home first, and from
a young age.
At their most basic, social skills involve the way you hold yourself
in relation to other people around you, or your body language,
before you’ve even said a word. Encourage children to be mindful
of giving others a sufficient amount of physical personal space. You
might have a toddler who loves to cuddle all the other children in
the playground, or a seven year old who thinks nothing of jumping
on their friends’ backs without warning. Both of these children can
be coached to check the other person is OK with being touched
before they do it. “Can I hug you?”, “Do you want to wrestle?”. They
need to know that these questions come before contact,
not during or after.
Similarly, demonstrate to kids how to turn your body and face
towards someone who’s speaking to show that we’re paying
attention and as a sign of respect. Some children will be very wary
of eye contact. If this is true of yours try some silly role-play games
which show them how much nicer it feels to speak to someone
who is looking at you instead of looking away.
Taking a part in the conversation
Some children are more than happy to live by the maxim that
they should be ‘seen and not heard’, even if they’ve never heard
the phrase. They will scoot around the outside of a room full of
adults, ducking under furniture, imagining
themselves invisible and unimportant to
this group of big people, just trying to get
to the food or the door so they can go and
play. Notice this child, and gently draw him
into some short interactions. Don’t let a
gathering of friends or family go by without
making sure that someone creates some
conversational opportunities with him.
“What’s your teacher like this year?”, “How’s
the rugby team getting on?”. It doesn’t
have to be too deep but give them some
practice at stopping, listening, and forming
an appropriate answer. If he mumbles
something under his breath while looking in the other direction,
hopefully the adult will gently explain that they didn’t quite catch
the answer, and coach him to try again. It’s tempting to think that
making any effort is good enough, but the goal is to become more
skilled and more comfortable with conversation: unfortunately no
guidance may equal no progress.
Creating even more conversation
Heres’ something that really keen parents might want to try with
their kids... if someone asks a question, answer them... and then ask
one back – or perhaps just make another relevant comment. The
point is that a really skilled communicator knows how to build a
conversation – how to take it to the next level, you might say! You
can practice this around the dinner table in a light-hearted way, or
act it out with toys, but a nice analogy to use is that of a ball that’s
being passed from person to person. When you have it, it’s your
turn to throw it to someone else. “Yes, I like this dinner, macaroni is
my favourite. What’s your favourite Dad?” You see how it works...
Handling yourself out in the world
So once we’re managing all of this with people we know well,
the next step is strangers. Luckily, they’re all around us so there’s
plenty of opportunity to practice. The next time you’re in a café
or restaurant, make sure your child orders for herself. If it’s not
loud enough, they’ll just have to get louder, or their order won’t
make it through to the kitchen – a useful real-life lesson! They can
check the price of the ice cream they want at
the dairy, but most won’t because they know
you’ll do it for them. If you stop doing the little
things that they can manage for themselves (if
they push themselves a bit) chances are they’ll
grow in competence. If you sense the hurdle is
just too huge for one particular child, break the
task down into more manageable chunks and
be more explicit in your coaching. Perhaps they
can just say a polite thank you as the waiter
delivers the food, or you could gain the adult’s full attention before
your child speaks, which will make it easier for them.
Knowing the words to use
It might seem incredibly old school but there is real power
in three little phrases:
– when you need to get someone’s attention
before asking something.
Please – woven into every polite request.
– to signify appreciation for
something that someone else has done,
no matter how small.
Encouraging kids to use these three can
seem like a losing battle, but if they can
become part of their natural vocabulary, the
way your child speaks will open doors for them
all their life. When people show even these
small signs of respect when they talk with you, you are primed
to want to help them more. This one is really worth the ongoing
effort! Just make sure that you’re not saying the words for them,
because kids are like all of us and won’t waste the energy if we care
more than they do and can be relied upon to speak for them. Wait
patiently until you hear them, rather than jumping in to rescue.
Most of us have drilled it into our kids that they need to say thanks
for the gift (either before or after they tear it open), but how many
go the extra mile and encourage the writing of thank you cards or
emails? Not many, but when you only have one birthday each year,
it’s not really such a huge expectation for our older kids to able to
do. At the very least, a group email to all the families who came to
your party and helped to create the fun is a quick and easy way to
give back. I know that people are scheduled to within an inch of
their lives, and finding the time for chores like this isn’t easy, but
your child’s life is only going to get fuller as they get older. If you
want to establish the unspoken routine of showing gratitude to
guests or gift-givers, you will need to establish it early.
Being a good host
When visitors come into your home, either in person or through
the telephone, how would you like them to be met? Talk to your
kids about this, and give them practice at being a gracious host
or greeter. Some children will need to be ‘strongly encouraged’
to give this a go! Stand with them, if it helps, but let them be
the ones to say “Hi, nice to see you, come in”, or “Sam here, who
would you like to speak to?”. If you’re really keen you can get them
asking guests if they’d like a drink, and then actually seeing it
through by preparing the drink and bringing it to them. They may
not feel capable, so do it with them the first few times, until they
understand it’s not as scary as it seems. I’ve been on the receiving
end of some spectacular hospitality from children and pre-teens
(sadly not my own!), so there is hope for the rest of us...
All of these skills will take time to master, and follow a pretty
patchy learning curve for most children. The most helpful things
that we can do as parents is to model the behaviours we’d like
them to take on board (both within and outside the family),
carry bucketloads of patience along with us, and appreciate the
importance of coaching alongside. Kids don’t need to be shamed
or scolded into ‘behaving nicely’ – in fact those strategies are
highly likely to backfire. Just know what your expectations are,
communicate them clearly, keep them consistent, and find a way
to gently insist on what you know is such an important part of
your child’s social development.