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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

short term.”

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

the tank

• 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.

cover story

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

of ac­tiv­ity

• 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

ro­dent phobia!

As well as a well-ven­ti­lated cage, your pet mouse will need:

• A sleep­ing place filled with nest­ing ma­te­rial that’s a few

cen­time­tres deep

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.

Body lan­guage

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.

Thank you

– 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

Ex­cuse me

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.

Show­ing grat­i­tude

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.

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