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Q. How old should a child be before a dog joins the family? We want our son to take care of the dog.
A. The answer depends on the child, and depends on the dog. But before I get to that, I want to discuss “responsibility” and how that fits in with all the benefits of a pet in a child’s life.
I do agree that pets can teach children responsibility (and I certainly agree it's a good thing), but I don’t like to see families engaged in conflict over pet care. These conflicts can end with a dog that is neglected or needs to find a new home because family members can't stand the nagging, bickering — or worse — that can spring from relying on kids to handle pet care chores. When you bring a pet home, you will be teaching your son responsibility, not demanding it from him. Be extremely careful not to set up an escalating tug-of-war over dog-related chores, and never threaten to get rid of the dog if your son doesn't do his share. Ultimately, your dog's care is your responsibility as the adult, not your son's.
Now, with that out of the way …
I’ve seen a lot of advice that suggests a good time to introduce a dog into the family is when your child is around eight years old (or about the time he's in third grade). That’s probably not a bad general guideline, but I can instantly think of examples of dogs who've been successfully integrated into families with much younger children. My granddaughter, Reagan, is approaching three, and she has never lived in a home without pets. Her mother is my daughter (and Vetstreet pet behavior expert) Mikkel Becker, so it’s no surprise that their dogs are well-cared for and well-trained. (It's also no surprise that one of Reagan’s first words was a bark.)
With a good family framework committed to modeling and teaching attentive and loving pet care, the lessons of responsibility come naturally to children, no matter what age they are when that first pet joins the family.
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