By Jena Ball of CritterKin
Animals have been tugging at my heart since I was four. That’s when my father tucked a tiny dachshund puppy into the pocket of his winter coat and smuggled her into our house. By the time my mother discovered the little intruder, fast asleep on my pillow, the deed was done. Heidi was part of our family.
Unfortunately, my father hadn’t done his homework. Dachshunds are notoriously nervous dogs, and Heidi was no exception. Being petted, carried upside down, and dressed in doll clothes by three little kids made her terribly anxious. By the time she was a year old, she was hiding beneath the couch whenever we appeared. When she started nipping our fingers, my parents made the heartbreaking decision to return her to the shelter.
Not long after Heidi’s departure, my father went looking for another, kid-proof puppy. He came home with a cocker spaniel/beagle mix whose bright orange coat instantly earned her the name “Ginger.” Ginger’s easygoing, up-for-anything personality made her an ideal playmate. My parents also had the good sense to make feeding, exercising and cleaning up after her part of our chores, so we learned that dogs require constant care. However, the lessons Ginger taught me about being human run much deeper. I firmly believe that I’m a more tolerant, caring and responsible person thanks to Ginger, but I wondered if anyone else felt the same.
“In the get-ahead pressure cooker that is modern childhood, how do kids learn about being kind, caring, and nurturing?” asks Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University and columnist for Psychology Today. “Caring for a pet responsibly may well be an important training ground for children to gain skills in care-giving that will carry into adulthood,” she concludes. Likewise, a quick, informal survey of family and friends revealed that almost everyone thought pets were important teachers. Most also had a story to tell about a family pet. Not all, however, ended as happily as mine.
Les’s story about how his first dog tragically passed away brought me to tears, but it also got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to teach kids and their families about responsible, loving pet care before they adopt?
The answer to that question popped into my head as I was absentmindedly doodling images of puppies on a yellow legal pad. “Critter Kin,” I thought, printing the two words out. “No, CritterKin,” I corrected myself. I liked the way the two words looked when they were combined. The word said exactly what I hoped to do – teach kids that pets (critters) are family (kin).
CritterKin is a story for 6 to 10 year olds about a fun-loving group of mixed breed pups who want to “puppy train” their people. Each dog has practical information about pet care and a larger life lesson to share. For example, Doxie (pictured above) is an energetic fellow who entertains himself by digging up his family’s flower beds.
The story helps kids understand the importance of exercise and how feelings of frustration can result in bad behavior. Doxie is not a bad dog, but he needs understanding, patience and long walks to stop his digging.
The next step in the CritterKin process was to translate the lessons into a mobile app, which is currently in the final stages of production. Versions for cat, bird, horse and reptile lovers are also in the works. However, the thing that continues to inspire and motivate me is how kids and their parents respond to the CritterKin characters and artwork.
I knew I was on the right track when seven-year-old Erin approached me at Starbucks and tried to swipe the drawing of Doxie on my iPad. When nothing happened, he frowned and asked, “Is it broken?” I had to explain that I was still working on the animations, but his slightly embarrassed mom and I exchanged emails so I could let them know when the app was done.
If you’d like to follow our progress, share your stories and join the CritterKin pack visit www.critterkin.com.