Teaching Kids Respect for Animals

By Savy Leiser

Like a lot of dog moms, I was once a dog-obsessed little girl. My family, who loved to adopt rescue dogs, always encouraged me to keep that love and respect I had for animals.

When I was four years old, my first rescue dog, Sam, was afraid of men– that was when I first saw the effects that an early life of abuse can have on a dog. Because of this fear, he was the perfect dog for a single mom and her young daughter. Of course, that meant when my mom got married a few years later, Sam struggled to warm up to my new father.

My dad never forced Sam’s affection. Rather, he spent a lot of time getting to know Sam, and let him approach him when he was ready. Over the years, my dad’s gentle approach helped Sam completely overcome his fear of men. Every Sunday morning for nearly a decade, my dad would sit on the couch and read the Sunday paper, and Sam would snuggle up in his lap, like he’d lived there all his life. There, I saw how a good forever home can help a dog turn his life around.

Talking to Kids About Respect for Animals

My parents talked to me about the horrors that can happen in puppy mills. Though my dad’s side of the family comes from the Philadelphia area, we stopped cheering for the Eagles when they accepted Michael Vick after his dog-fighting scandal. In my household, respect for animals was a given, just like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Kids have so much natural excitement and curiosity about animals, especially dogs. It’s always the kids who stop me when I’m walking Chewie and, with a big smile, shout, “Look! Dog!” It’s the kids who ask me if they can pet him. But it’s the adults who pull their kids away. It’s the adults who run away in fear, who say, “Keep that dog away from me! If he bites, I’ll call the police!”

Now, to be clear, parents should have their kids exercise caution around animals they don’t know. They should tell their kids to ask an owner’s permission before petting a dog. But that doesn’t mean they should teach their kids to fear animals, rather than loving and respecting them.

As an author, I believe in the incredible power of words and stories to change the way people think. That’s why my new children’s picture book series, The Furever Home Friends, shares real dogs’ stories, and teaches kids how to treat animals. The books emphasize the importance of animal shelters, and support the #AdoptDontShop movement. My goal is to get kids thinking about big-picture social issues, and talking about the way those issues affect people and animals alike.

Kids Have Opinions About Animals

Shortly after I graduated from college, I started teaching. I currently teach creative writing workshops to kids ranging from eight to eighteen years old, and I coach middle school debate as well. From spending time with kids in the elementary and middle-school age groups, I’ve found that kids really do want to discuss major social issues when given the opportunity. My sixth graders, who could barely sit still, would write pages flowing with emotion once I had them write about their opinions on ending violence. Kids are smart, and when you let them talk, you’ll find they’re very opinionated.

I want to get kids expressing their feelings and opinions about animals. I want to start a conversation about why animals end up abused, neglected, or homeless, and how we as people can help these animals.

One of my books, “Smile, Chewie!” features a dog who has been abused. I want to show kids the reality of what can happen to some dogs, but also show them the positive effect a forever family can have on that dog’s recovery.

As you may have guessed, this story is based on my own dog, Chewie–a cute, friendly pit bull mix. It’s no secret that it’s often pit bulls who face the stereotypes of being mean and violent. Often, these stereotypes lead to some states banning pit bulls, some shelters overflowing with pit bulls who can’t get adopted, and some pit bulls even facing euthanasia. In Chewie’s book, I really wanted to address these ideas, and help debunk any stereotypes people may have about a dog’s nature based solely on their breed.

In the story, Chewie is afraid to smile for the camera because, after facing abuse as a puppy, he is left with scars on his face, which make him self-conscious. When Chewie learns that pit bulls just like him are often abused out of a place of fear, he decides to stand up against these stereotypes, and learns to smile for the camera. Then, he and his new mom take tons of pictures together, hoping to show the world that pit bulls are sweet, not scary.

If kids– who, for the most part, already love dogs– start thinking early on about how they should treat animals, they’ll never grow up to be the adults who run puppy mills or start dog fights.

And over time, we can put an end to animal abuse.

Savy Leiser is a Chicago children’s and young-adult author and a freelance journalist. She writes about music for Halftime Magazine and Yamaha SupportED, and she teaches creative writing workshops at Open Books and Sacred Heart. Her first young-adult novel, The Making of a Small-Town Beauty King, came out in 2016. In May 2017, Savy raised over $7,000 on Kickstarter to launch The Furever Home Friends picture book series, which tells the stories of real shelter dogs. She is the proud mom of a sweet pit bull mix named Chewie.

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