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Animals as Teachers

A book cover for Zane and the Hurriane

August 10th, 2016
Caroline · Staff Recommendations

Digital literacy is essential for moving children forward from their earliest years at school to becoming successful adults, contributing to the world and making a positive impact. But, in this environment of interactive arcades and virtual realities that serve as attractors, or some might say, distractors, it is heartwarming to see how the power of a good story can captivate a child’s attention while at the same time, teach them about love, loyalty, and responsibility.

I love animals. Always have. Growing up in my family, we only had dogs. To this day, I still shed a tear over the first one we lost. Gretel, as we named her, is still fresh in my memory. At that time, I thought I would never travel to the animal shelter again to break another beauty out of her cold cage to the soft quilt on top of my bed.

How wrong I was. I got over the loss of my first hound without forgetting the love. I remember asking my mother why dogs lived only a short time. It didn’t seem fair, particularly when a great white shark, which feasts off of cute little seals, can live decades.

My mother’s answer at the time consoled me a bit. She said that dogs were angels and were needed up in heaven after they did their good work down on earth. And now, our family would be ready to free another one from the shelter. We would treat the second one like the first. We would treat this new puppy like the angel she was.

Dogs not only return your affection one hundred times over, but they give whether you do or not. As I have since discovered, so too are most creatures, “great and small.” As Eckhart Tolle believes in his heartwarming book of a similar title, “They are the guardians of being.” I didn’t know this when I was growing up. The idea of having a cat, or gerbil, or bird just didn’t make sense to me. They couldn’t bark at an intruder, protect you from the bogeyman, or lick your tears a way. Again, how wrong I was. There is evidence that associating with animals enhances a child’s overall learning beyond their “abc’s.”

“Growing Up with Pets,” by Lynn Buzhardt in the May 1, 2010 issue of USA Today Magazine, discusses the advantages of having a pet in the development and growth of a child. Caring and loving a pet cultivates a child’s sense of responsibility, empathy, and selflessness.

Also, more than the emotional and psychological benefits are the physical health benefits. Alice Park, staff writer for Time reported on a study done by the journal Pediatrics. It described how a child’s immune system receives a boost the more contact he or she has with a pet, such as a cat or a dog (, July 19, 2012).

In the 1996 May/June issue of Animals magazine, Bradford Swift, D.V.M., discusses the lessons that children can learn from growing up with pets and how these loyal companions help them grow into smarter, more successful, better-adjusted, and more responsible adults. He cites a study in the Wall Street Journal, which profiled many successful Fortune 500 executives. Ninety-four percent of them grew up with pets and 75 percent still owned a pet. The national average by the way was only 53 percent.  Swift wrote : “Many of the executives said their pets had taught them responsibility, empathy, and sharing, as well as providing valuable companionship.”

And when you combine the healthy association that one has with their pet with a good story about the loving bond between humans and animals the learning experience is organic and stress free, yielding a powerfully positive outcome. “Showing toddlers how to respect animals, and your pets in particular, is a valuable lesson that will serve them across many aspects of life…Read books about animals to your toddler to help the youngster understand that animals have feelings too.” (Buzhardt, USA Today).

Here are a few examples of some chapter books that may enhance a child’s understanding of commitment, love, friendship, and possibly help them mature into not just successful professionals, but also caring and strong adults, a truly awesome character trait society as a whole can always use more of.

Zane and the Hurricane
by Rodman Philbrick

describes in graphic detail the struggle to survive one of the greatest natural disasters to have hit a city. It proves that loyal friendship between humans and our pets can get you through just about anything and move you beyond to a full appreciation of life.

A Dog Called Homeless
by Sarah Lean

An emotionally moving story that shows how the loyalty of a shaggy dog can help us through our biggest losses.

White Fur Flying
by Patricia MacLachlan

Speaks to the healing powers of rescuing dogs in need of a loving home.

by Lucy Christopher

Tells the story of a young girl who reunites a lost swan with his flock while helping her father return home from the hospital.

Tiger Boy
by Mitali Perkins

Shows how a young boy’s education involves not just books and studying for a prestigious exam but saving a young tiger cub from poachers.

by Gordon Korman

A zany way of revealing the bad side of animal captivity and the good side of finding a better place for them to roam.

Rain Reign
by Ann Martin

A story about a young girl with Asperger’s who develops a strong bond with a dog she presumes has been abandoned; only to find out that there is an owner.

by Kirby Larson

Weaves together the historic internment of Japanese Americans during World War II with the strong love a young girl has for her dog, a dog she may have to give up when she enters the camps.

The Tale of Rescue
by Michael Rosen

Shows the unconditional love and courage a dog shows to a family in need.

by Caroline McKinley

After sixteen-year old Casey Riley seeks revenge for her friend and ends up sentenced by juvenile court to community service, it appears that her summer is ruined. There she discovers that anger, for those on two legs and four, often comes from a place where only the strength of love can heal. Does Casey have enough strength to make a difference?

Of course, don’t forget these classics: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

by Phyllis Reynolds
Black Beauty
by Anna Sewell
Because of Winn Dixie
by Kate DiCamillo

Also, don’t miss these books based on real life events for any child young and old.

It is hard for me to pick a favorite, but the Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson is a story that can introduce young readers to the beauty of survival when the love of a loyal friendship overcomes fear and danger. I smiled through my tears.

Tuesday Tucks Me In, by Luis Carlos Montalvan and Saving Audie by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent about a pit bull puppy who was rescued from Michael Vick’s infamous dog fighting business. Audie proved that with love and care, anything is possible.

Two Bobbies
by Kirby Larson
Tuesday Tucks Me In
by Carlos Montalvan
Saving Audie
by Dorothy Hinshaw

And finally, some picture books that can inspire us all.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee
by Philip C. Stead
Sparrow Girl
by Sara Pennypacker
I Can Hear the Sun
by Patricia Polacco

And lastly, The Velveteen Rabbit needs no explanation. No other story best illustrates how the power of love carries transformative powers turning the stuffing of a toy rabbit into the flesh and blood of a live animal.

The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams
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