As a mom “and” a dog obedience trainer and instructor, I get the question a lot… “My child wants a dog. What is a good breed for a kid? How old should my child be to have a dog?” My first question back to the parents is “do YOU want a dog?” If they tell me that they don’t really want a dog, and it is for the child, my answer is to tell them to get a nice stuffed toy dog. If, however, the parents understand that they will be the ones responsible for selecting, raising, and training a new dog, then we can go forward with some important things to consider.
I don’t think there is any magic age at which a child is able to be responsible for a dog. Many parents tell me they think eight is a good time, but my eight-year-old doesn’t even put away her toys and clothes reliably, so I know I couldn’t trust her to take total charge of any living thing. Although I think of myself as being the perfect dog trainer, and no doubt talented even as a child, my parents were wise. They said I could have a dog at age 21 or whenever I was out of the house!
Kids and dogs can have wonderful relationships. Caring for an animal and experiencing that bond can do great things for kids, and lead to fun hobbies like obedience, flyball, and agility. We all know how owning and training a dog can build self esteem and confidence in our kids, and seeing the pride and satisfaction they feel when they do a good job makes us proud, too. I have three energetic children and three dogs in my household, and we all get along because of the training I do with the dogs and the rules I set down for everyone. Most importantly, I am the one who takes care of the kids AND the animals.
That being said, when parents tell me they are ready to add a dog to a family with kids, I give them a few words of advice.
1. AGE: The age of the kid is important. With young children, I usually recommend a puppy or a rescue from a foster home. It is very important to know the bite inhibition and tolerances of a dog that will be living with small kids.
2. SUPERVISION: This means constant supervision. Small children should never be left alone with a puppy or dog. Good management will help here as well. The kids should know that the dog’s crate is off limits, and likewise, keeping a puppy out of messy kids’ rooms will prevent a lot of damage. Both child and dog must have rules and they should be enforced.
3. TRAINING: Basic training is a given for any new puppy or dog. In my programs the older kids are encouraged to come along to class to watch while mom or dad trains. Basic obedience can make a huge difference in homes with lots of activity, and may make the difference in the dog staying or being passed on. Dogs that aren’t trained are doomed to view family goings-on through the back yard window. Trained dogs, on the other hand, are far more likely to become a real part of the family and not simply a lawn ornament.
4. RESPONSIBILITIES: It is not fair to expect a child to be 100% responsible for the care of a dog. Children can certainly take part in the daily chores of feeding a dog, grooming, letting them in and out, play activities, and picking up the yard. It is also important to let the kids do fun things with the dog, like teaching tricks, or even reading them stories. Kid-dog relationships will grow naturally when the adult encourages them.
5. BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS: If the dog shows any signs of “issues” around the kids, don’t wait to get help with them. Evidence of a bite is way past the time of action. Most parents are quite proactive when their child has a problem at school with their teacher, attitude, or skills. They need to do the same if any “dog problems” arise, and seek help from their obedience instructor.
It goes without saying that for any of these guidelines to work well, the parents should choose a suitable puppy from a breed that will adapt well to family life. Purebred or mixed, a little knowledge of breed characteristics will go a long way in picking a good candidate. Many times an older dog can be a good choice. I am a big advocate of rescue, but at the same time it is hardly fair (and can be unsafe for the kids) to put a dog with “baggage” into a chaotic family with young kids. Make sure you go to a reputable rescue organization, and look for the dog with some history attached to it, so you know more about what you are getting.
How about my own kids? What will I say when they ask for their “own dog?” I will do as my parents did, and tell them they have to wait until they are in their own homes. Until then, we can all share!