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Pets help kids connect to the earth and other living things

Animals, says Shawnie Lee, give families "an opportunity to touch life in healthy ways. I want my children to connect to the earth, to understand gardens and growing things, but I also want the animals. They play so many roles, both emotionally and physically."

The Lees, who live on the outskirts of Salem in Utah County, have a Rottweiler and a German shepherd. "I didn't really intend on having two big dogs. But Smokey (the Rottweiler, named for Smokey the Bear) was getting older and not doing well, and we didn't think he'd be here long. An opportunity came to get a German shepherd puppy (Will, named for a character in "Braveheart"), so we did. Then we got Smokey on thyroid medicine, and he picked right up. So we have the two."

The dogs have both been great with the kids, she says. Shawnie and Blaine Lee have 12 children; six of whom are married and one of whom is on an LDS mission. One of her married daughters is currently living at home while they build a house, so the grandchildren get to interact with the dogs, as well.

"My 1-year-old granddaughter has fallen in love with the dogs," says Shawnie. "She wakes up from her naps barking."

The other kids enjoy the dogs, too. "The funnest thing is to play ball with Will," says 5-year-old Isaac. "They're really fun to be around," adds 10-year-old Celeste. "It's funny to watch how they both try to get the most attention. I love them. They are really great dogs."

"And they are smart," says 13-year-old Gabe. "Will has figured out how to open the door. When he's inside I like to lay by him. I LOVE my dogs!"

The Lees have always had dogs, says Shawnie, and they have been integrated into the family. "You can't just put a dog on a chain in the back yard."

Even though these were big dogs, "I knew we wanted them to be able to come in the house. So they had to know how to behave in the house. That training starts the minute you get them."

She enlisted the help of a professional trainer. "But I'm the 'doggy mother,' " she laughs. "We have a ritual every morning when we go out to feed the horses. Will stays right with me the whole time. Smokey's getting a little old now, so he doesn't always participate in the ritual. But he stays by my side a lot during the day." She recently took the dogs hiking, and "it was fun to see how they tried to help me up the steep parts, how protective they were."

Some people are afraid of big dogs, she says. "But these guys are very gentle. I believe that dogs are totally, innately man's friend. That's just the way they are."

Yes, they play a watch dog role. "An intruder would think twice if he heard Smokey growl," she says. "But they really live for love."

And there will always be room — in her house and in her heart — for dogs.

The Gubler family, too, feels that way about animals. Evan and Myrta, who live in North Salt Lake, have nine children; Evan's a vet, so it's not surprising that they've always had pets. Right now there are two cats: Tiger and Duncan. Their dog, Freckles, was hit by a car and killed last September, so he has left a big hole. But there are also birds and gerbils. And at various times in the past, there have also been chickens, fish, snakes, lizards and even a tarantula.

"They are fun to watch, to interact with," says Jacob, who has mostly been the keeper of the exotic species.

"The more you do for them, the more you get attached," adds Emily.

That was especially true of Kyle and Freckles. "I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him. He felt like one of the kids. He would smash his face up against the window and make me laugh. It was hard when we lost him," says Kyle.

That is one of the difficult things about pets, says Evan. Given their life-span, you know you are going to outlive them. "Losing them is not fun. But it is a learning experience." And he says, the joy they bring more than makes up for any sadness.

"Taking care of pets has helped us bond as a family," adds Myrta. "I can't imagine what it would be like without them."