By Helen Anne Travis
After the lazy months of summer, life is in full swing again when school starts. Calendars are already filling up with football practices, band rehearsals and PTA meetings.
Everyone has a ton of things to do. Except the family dog.
Suddenly she has the whole house to herself.
“Dogs suffer tremendously at this time of the year,” says Brian Hellwig, co-owner of Priceless Pet Services, a New York City doggie day care and lifestyle center.
It’s not just an anecdote. Studies have proven dogs miss us when we’re too caught up in everyday life to give them the attention they crave.
To help everyone in the family get the most out of the few precious hours not devoted to work, school, homework and commuting, here are eight after-school activities you can do with your children and pets.
“The most important component of all of the activities is spending quality time together,” says Dr. Rachel Barrack of Animal Acupuncture in New York City. “Healthy relationships are based on shared positive experiences.”
Some kids dread reading aloud in class. There’s the fear they’ll mispronounce a word or stumble on a phrase they don’t recognize. Classmates might snicker. Their teachers might grow impatient.
But reading aloud to the family pets? That’s not scary; that’s fun.
“Dogs are very nonjudgmental friends,” says Barrack. “By encouraging them to read to the family pet, kids can practice reading in a safe environment. Added bonus: dogs will love it because they get to be the center of attention.”
The practice is so popular that many schools and libraries around the country have therapy dogs attend their reading and literacy programs. Instructors say the increased confidence that comes from reading aloud to dogs spills over to other aspects of life.
“Any activity that the family engages in at the end of the school or work day that incorporates the dog in a positive manor is great,” says Hellwig. “It can be as simple as going to the grocery store together.”
You might not be able to bring the dog inside the store, but you can split up duties among the family: one person runs inside to grab bread and milk, another can explore the surrounding area with the dogs and kids.
But remember, this is about quality time together. So turn off those phones! And never leave your dog (or young kids) alone in the car. Temperatures can quickly rise to dangerous levels even when it is relatively cool outside.
Taking the dog on a walk, going for a hike or playing catch in the backyard are all great ways to spend quality time together as a family.
But wait. There’s more.
“Not only is exercise a great way to bond with both your children and pets, it promotes physical wellbeing for the entire family,” says Barrack. “It’s also a great stress reliever for kids, parents and pups alike.”
There are plenty of breaks during the fall semester, meaning plenty of opportunities for everyone to sneak away for a quick family vacation.
Sites like BringFido.com help you find pet-friendly lodgings around the country. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you can also use the site to research international destinations and find airlines that will get the entire family there.
Dogs who have undergone basic obedience training make better pets and are less likely to be relinquished to animal shelters, says Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center in New York City.
“Dogs like to know what they’re supposed to do,” she says.
Letting your kids lead (or at least help lead) the training sessions also gives them a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
Plus it teaches everyone that following the rules leads to a reward.
“Positive reinforcement encourages everyone in the family to play nicely,” says Barrack.
If your pup is friendly, obedient and open to new people and new environments, she may be an excellent candidate for therapy dog training.
Therapy dogs work in hospitals, nursing homes and other rehabilitation centers. They brighten up patients’ days, and help occupational therapists with mobility and strength training.
For older children, the volunteer work may help satisfy their school’s community service requirements, says Hohenhaus.
“This can be a fun, feel-good way for the whole family to give back,” says Dr. Barrack.
Encourage the kids to involve the dog in their after school arts and crafts sessions. Photos of the pup can be printed out and decoupaged onto a picture frame or holiday ornament. Children who like to crochet can get the pup ready for the cold weather by knitting her a winter coat.
“This improves kids’ fine motor skills and it’s also a very productive study break,” says Hohenhaus. Just be sure that your pet doesn't ingest any foreign articles from the play session, adds Adam G. Denish, V.M.D.
We get it. Some days it’s hard to squeeze in time after work to volunteer, go for hikes or crochet dog sweaters. Blame your grouchy boss, the traffic jam that extended your commute, or the sheer exhaustion of balancing jobs, kids, life and the million other items on your to-do list.
We won’t judge if you just want to plop down on the couch and relax after a long day. But may we suggest you bring the kids and pets on the couch with you?
“Snuggling up with the family pet can be very soothing for all parties involved,” says Barrack—especially after a long day at work.
“It’s been proven to reduce anxiety,” she says.