We want our children to grow up to be kind, thoughtful, and caring. Did it ever occur to you that you may already have one of the best teaching tools in your household? That’s right – Fido and Fluffy!

“One of the best ways I know of to teach gentleness, kindness, patience and compassion is through interaction with an animal,” says Donna Forst, former education coordinator for the Hawaii Dog Foundation. She believes that teaching your child how to interact with and care for an animal is “a priceless opportunity to teach values that will extend not only to future relationships with animals but to the human community.”

The research backs her up. According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal cruelty by children can be a sign of serious problems, including abusive home situations or mental health issues. All children must learn how to take care of someone – or something – more vulnerable than they are.

Claudia Henemyre-Harris, Hawaii Dog Foundation volunteer and mom of a six-year-old-son, believes these lessons are important for children who don’t have siblings. “We have one cat and one dog,” she says. “[My son] sees me interacting with the animals with love and respect, and even discipline at times.I try to set a good example. … I want him to learn to treat animals with respect.”

Forst suggests even children as young as five can help care for family pets: “Ask them to check the pets’ water bowls so fresh water is replenished daily, or have them feed the pets (under supervision) and clean the bowls afterward.” Harris agrees: “I always invite [my son] to walk the dog with me. I ask him to serve our cat her meals.”

Still, children with pets have things to learn. Harris says, “My son has no fear of dogs since ours is so gentle. I wanted him … to learn how to safely interact with strange dogs.” In fact, Harris first got involved with the Hawaii Dog Foundation when she arranged for their humane education team, led by Forst, to come to her son’s after-school program to teach a lesson on animal care and the proper way to approach a strange dog.

Forst points out, “Local humane societies frequently offer classes to educate adoptive families in the care of their new pet.” These programs may include a certified therapy dog that is safe for children to handle. Forst says a high-quality program will provide opportunities for students to interact with the dog, and flexibility for those who may be less comfortable around the animal. Lessons are also designed to meet state teaching standards and include written activities or assignments.

How can a parent find such a program? If they don’t have their own program, “local chapters of the Humane Society, county shelter, or animal rescue groups … can sometimes offer information about the nearest opportunities,” suggests Forst. She also recommends that you “become an advocate by requesting [this type of program] at your child’s school. If you help by volunteering in the classroom that day or making a poster to advertise the event, the teacher may be more inclined to pursue such a suggestion.” The Humane Society, ASPCA, or American Kennel Club offer educational materials.

Whether or not you sponsor a program at your child’s school, “try to set the example,” says Harris. “My son has seen me pull over the van to get a turtle out of the middle of the road.” Forst agrees: “Spending time with pets is the best way I know to teach compassion. If they’re well-treated, animals will provide not only loyalty but unconditional love. What better way for a child to learn what love is all about?”