I couldn’t relate.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Most of my experience with dogs was limited to running from gruff barking on the other side of dilapidated wooden fences as my sisters and I walked home from school or detouring on my bike to avoid “Beware of dog” signs.
Over the years and through an autism diagnosis, I watched as my son struggled to express his emotions and make connections with people. I would have done anything to help him, and so I folded. I decided it was time to adopt a dog. We kept an eye on the local Humane Society’s website for months, looking to meet the dog that would become the newest addition to our family. It wasn’t a decision we took lightly. Many dogs are rehomed and end up back in shelters because families find they aren’t a good fit.
In a stroke of good luck, we saw Matt, as the shelter called him, on the website the very day he arrived. We met him soon after, and two days before my son’s ninth birthday, we brought him home after a thorough process. The rest is history. Winston, as we named him, became a part of our family. A very important part, it turns out.
“Dogs can provide a safe haven and emotional support for children who may not always know how they feel or where they fit into the world around them,” said Christy Pennison, board-certified licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with children and families. “There is something special to be found between the connection a child can develop with a dog.”
Our family dog provided refuge and was an important comfort for my son, who, as an autistic child, struggled to find his place in school among his peers. We worked on many emotional regulation strategies and tools he could use at home on his own: naming the emotion, deep breathing, counting. It ended up that the most effective strategy for him was sitting in peace and quiet while petting our 19-pound schnauzer mix.
“Although dogs can’t verbalize a response through human language, often their presence can provide comfort and calm in the midst of a child’s distress or overwhelming emotions,” Pennison said. “This can be helpful in teaching a child ways to regulate their emotions. They can also provide support and attention when others may not be attuned to the emotions a child is experiencing.”
Research shows that having a family pet can help children learn to display empathy, teach responsibility and boost self-esteem — just some of the necessary equipment black boys, especially, need when moving about in a country whose very systems and institutions were designed to keep them oppressed. Out in public spaces, black boys face discrimination. Emotional harm against them is normalized under the guise of discipline and tough love. In school, they are criminalized — treated like problems needing mitigation. The negative images they see of themselves in the media tell them they aren’t good enough or smart enough, limiting who they think they are and who they think they can be.
But at home, my now 15-year-old son is responsible for an entire living being. He feeds his dog. He walks his dog. He teaches his dog, and he nurtures his dog. In return, his dog is a loyal companion to him and my 4-year-old son.
I am raising nurturing, emotionally intelligent black boys against a societal backdrop that tries to tell them they cannot be these things. Our family pet being a part of this equation was not planned, but the outcome deserves acknowledgment.
Once upon a time, a boy whose future I worried about but greatly believed in wanted and needed a dog so much that he willed it to happen. He loved the dog and was so responsible for the dog that his confidence grew. And now, there isn’t much you can tell him he can’t do.
A dog that we rescued actually helped rescue my son. Winston gives him the opportunity to develop emotionally, despite what is expected of him, both because he is black and because he is an autistic boy. Now he’s a boy who can nurture another being, and that being provides nothing but unconditional love.
Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race, and diversity. A city girl at heart, she currently lives in a smaller Illinois college town with her brilliant autistic teenage son and an ambitious preschooler. Follow her on Twitter.