If you listen carefully to stories and tales told by older adults, many involve a beloved member – the family pet! The unconditional love and affection of a four-legged friend is powerful. Millions of American households own at least one pet. You’ll want to spend some time reminiscing about family pets with your group. Pet owners love talking about their animals! Ask: Did your “family” include a pet? What are some good first-time family pets? How did you select the right pet for your family? What are the benefits of owning a pet? What are some reasons pets make such good companions?

Invite participants to share a funny story about a childhood pet – fin, fur, or feathers! Here are some questions to consider with your group: How old were you when you got your first pet? What kind was it? How did you choose a name? What was the most unusual pet you or a neighbor/friend ever owned? Did you include your pet in holiday celebrations and other special occasions of family life – for example, did you ever buy your pet a Christmas gift? Did you celebrate your pet’s birthday? Did you include your pet in family portraits? Did you carry your pet’s picture in your wallet or purse? Did you ever travel with your pet? Have you ever been a pet sitter for a neighbor or relative? Did you buy clothes for your pet? What kind of tricks did you teach your pet? Did your pet eat special foods? What about a pet burial? Did your family ever attend a Blessing of the Animals ceremony, inspired by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi?

Most family pets are cats and dogs, but smaller varieties such as fish, birds, and gerbils are welcome additions to a home. Pets have even lived on the White House grounds as part of the First Family. Talk about well-known presidential pets, such as FDR’s Scottish terrier Fala, Caroline Kennedy’s pony named Macaroni, or LBJ’s beagles Him and Her. Show photographs of Theodore Roosevelt’s large collection of pets at the White House. Chat about some of Calvin Coolidge’s unusual pets.

Evoke memories of four-legged friends with some vintage photos: young boy with old farm collie dog or tom cat; suburban family with miniature poodle; Norman Rockwell prints of “A Boy and His Dog” collection; pictures of Rin Tin Tin or Lassie; photographs of World War II K-9 Corps Dog Program; society dog shows of the 1930s and 1940s; classic photos of dogs from the archives of Life magazine or from the American Kennel Club.

A 1960s bestseller by Charles Schulz is titled Happiness is a Warm Puppy. Families with young children often choose a puppy or a kitten for a pet. After all, we all like to enjoy the “small” things in life. Talk about the reasons why dogs and cats are such a familiar part of the American family. Ask your participants whether they prefer cats or dogs and why. For props, display leashes, collars, bowls, chewing toys, rawhide, and more. Chat about how to train puppies and dogs. Invite a speaker from a dog obedience school to talk about methods of training in basic behavior. Have the methods changed over the years?

Delight your group with some heartwarming canine tales. Read James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories (St. Martin’s Press) or listen to the audio version.

You can also spend some time on show dogs and working dogs. Talk about purebred dogs and the history of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City. List jobs that are performed by dogs, e.g., seeing eye dog, police dog, guard dog, hunting dog, rescue dog, etc. Can participants name any heroic pets–for example, Balto and the Alaska diphtheria outbreak in 1925?

For feline fun, ask participants to guess the number of cat treats in a plastic jar. Read some poems for cat lovers. Example: T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a book of poems on which the stage musical Cats is based. Share cat quotes (see Mark Twain) with your group and talk about the cat as a favorite house pet.

Here are more suggestions for exploring the topic of family pets with your group:

  • Display books/magazines about caring for dogs and cats.
  • Study folk sayings and proverbs that contain the words dog or cat, e.g., “curiosity killed the cat” or “let sleeping dogs lie.”
  • Watch funny pet tricks or animal antics videos.
  • Work pet jigsaw puzzles.
  • Investigate careers related to animals and pets, e.g., veterinarian, animal shelter professional, animal control officer, animal trainer or handler, dog breeder, animal writer or photographer, pet therapist, kennel owner, pet sitter.
  • Discuss pets used in advertising, e.g., Taco Bell’s Chihuahua mascot, the RCA Victor dog named Nipper, or Morris the Cat.
  • Invite a speaker from the Humane Society to address the topic of animal adoption.
  • View samples of gifts for pet lovers, e.g., paw print mugs, pet calendars, pet T-shirts, animal greeting cards.
  • Tell jokes about dogs and cats.
  • Look at pet photography and pet portraits.
  • Craft a frame for a favorite pet picture.
  • Plan a pet lovers’ party.
  • Consult The Guinness Book of World Records for information about cats and dogs, e.g., the world’s oldest cat or biggest dog.
  • Read some folktales about cats and dogs.
  • Display pet collectibles such as prints, figurines, pins, and plates.
  • Read books about dogs and cats with young children. Invite children to bring their favorite stuffed toy.
  • Laugh at dog and cat cartoons, e.g., Garfield and Peanuts.
  • Compile a list of tips for being a responsible pet caregiver.
  • Plan pet visits to your facility.

For the finale: Serve a bone-shaped cake or paw print cake. Watch two classic films from Walt Disney: the 1957 version of Old Yeller, starring Fess Parker and Dorothy McGuire and the 1965 film That Darn Cat!, with Haley Mills and Dean Jones.


Dogs have been the main characters in stories. They even show up on the screen and in television shows. Have some fun reminiscing about these famous canines.

  1. The sheepdog in the TV show My Three Sons – Tramp
  2. The German shepherd in The Roy Rogers Show – Bullet
  3. A German shepherd who was the first dog TV star – Rin Tin Tin
  4. The mutt in the comic strip Dennis the Menace – Ruff
  5. The terrier in the TV show Frasier – Eddie
  6. The sled dog in the book about the North, The Call of the Wild – Buck
  7. The dog in the comic strip Little Orphan Annie – Sandy
  8. The bloodhound in the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies – Duke
  9. The terrier in the Lil’ Rascals films – Pete the Pup
  10. The terrier in the film The Wizard of Oz – Toto


“A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.” ~ William Arthur Ward

“PETS” written by Sue Hansen. © 2006 ElderSong Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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