Kid and Dog

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.

The Responsibility Is Yours

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.

Keep Pet Care Chores Age-Appropriate

Even very young children can be asked to assist with basic pet care, although of course very young children should never be left alone with a puppy or dog. Your preschooler can bring a near-empty water bowl to your attention and can help to fill and replace it. But don’t expect these little ones to remember a daily task on their own. (Be sure to teach your child proper hand-washing habits, and commit to taking your dog in to the vet for preventive care including parasite control; this protects your child's heath and your dog's.)

School-age children can be asked to take on more day-to-day responsibility, such as simple tasks like filling food and water bowls, which can be accomplished with your oversight (rather than your direct involvement). This is also a wonderful age to get your child involved in dog training, especially the fun stuff like trick-training with a clicker. Ask around: There may be a local trainer who offers classes just for kids. Or your child may be allowed to work with your dog alongside you in a more traditional class. Either way, it’s a great experience — for you, for your child, and for your dog.

Kids in junior high and older can handle more and more complex levels of care, including taking the initiative to feed, groom, walk and pick up after a dog. These are the years when some children start losing interest in pets, but for others a pet is never more important. That nonjudgmental, always-attentive, always-approving aspect of a pet has gotten many a young person over the bumps along the road of adolescence.

Find the Right Dog

Finally, a word about choosing a dog: People love the idea of getting a puppy for the kids, but that is often not the best option. Adult dogs are often less stress on the family, and can be more tolerant of children. Larger dogs (30 to 40 pounds and up) are also frequently a better choice, particularly with smaller kids, in part because they're more confident that they won't be hurt by accident. However, a bigger dog can easily knock a small child over, so again, don't leave your dog and your child together unsupervised.

Think of the pet's welfare as well; puppies and tiny dogs are often too fragile for young children, and can be injured easily, even with good adult supervision. (The same is true of dogs with protruding eyes, such as the Pekingese.) Take some time to explore the breed profiles here on Vetstreet for an idea of the kind of dog who will best fit in with your family.

I truly believe that having pets in the family is one of the best things parents can provide their children. I wish you the very best going forward with your new family member.