By Cheryl Lock
Getting your kid a puppy to call her own as she grows up is a good idea for so many reasons. Not only are they likely to become the best of friends, but taking care of a dog will help your child learn responsibility and patience, among other important values.
When the topic comes up about getting a pet dog for little kids, there’s a lot to consider. While it’s true that every kid matures at different rates, in general, you can have a pretty good idea of when your child might be ready to take on the responsibility of handling certain duties that are necessary to take care of a furry friend. Kay Cox, known as The Pet Counselor, is an animal psychologist and teacher. “I think it’s extremely important to teach and train both children and animals how to interact with each other,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been helping people do for years.”
We asked Cox to break down some of the different responsibilities that come with owning a dog into the age groups when some kids might be ready to take them on. Here’s what she had to say. Keep in mind, of course, that even the best trained dogs can sometimes become aggressive, even when they believe they're just playing. That's why it's essential that an adult always be present when young kids are around dogs, and any animals, for that matter.
Babies: If you have a new baby, obviously your baby won’t be in charge of taking care of an animal—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. “Your dog will need to feel like she is still part of this big change in your family,” said Cox. She suggests a five-step process including:
1. Before the baby arrives, begin setting aside what will be “baby time” so that your dog becomes used to it and won’t feel pushed out.
2. Once the baby arrives, introduce your dog to the baby carefully. Excited or jealous animals can become hostile, so it’s super important to use caution, be calm and soothing.
3. When your dog reacts positively with the baby, use lots of praise.
4. Don’t forget to still spend time with your dog. They’re your “fur” kids, says Cox, and they still need attention, too.
5. When people come to visit you and the baby, Cox suggests keeping small treats at the door for the dog so she feels like she’s part of the celebration.
Toddlers: Remember that young children do not have control of their arms, hands and feet, so you must control their movements to ensure they are gentle with the dog. It will also be important to teach your dog to allow little ones to reach into their food bowls and water or to touch their toys. “No matter how hard you try to keep young children away from these things, children will always venture to check them out,” says Cox. To do so, train your dog with your own actions. Get him used to the words ‘gentle,’ and never leave a child in the same room with a dog unattended. Even the most docile of dogs need to have their behavior monitored around small children.
Three- to six-year-olds: By the time your child is 3, if you’ve been working with your dog and your child all along, they will probably have built a strong bond by now. This means your child can probably start helping out with your dog’s care at around this time. Young kids can help feed, water, brush and play, with supervision of course. Don’t expect children this young to remember that your dog needs to be fed and given water or played with every day, but allowing safe pet care training helps foster responsibility, even at this young age.
By 6-years-old, specifically, most parents start to consider giving their children chores, and taking care of the family dog can be part of that. “Chores such as giving treats for tricks, feeding one of the meals, cleaning the water or food bowls are all relatively easy, and good beginning pet chores for children,” says Cox. “Make it a happy interaction and both the child and the pet will love it.”
While it’s true that it takes a little time and effort in the early years of any child’s life to help get them used to and prepared to take care of an animal, at the end of the day it’ll be one of the best things you can do for both your kid and your dog – and you’ll know that when you see how close the two of them grow to become.