What to consider before adopting a pet
Text and Photography By Kim J. Gifford
“I want a puppy!” These words are almost inevitable. As a concept these small creatures — kids and dogs — seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. But what is good in theory doesn’t always work in practice, leaving many pets, parents and children frustrated and an ever-increasing number of dogs in animal shelters.
“A pet can be invasive to a family,” says David Cranage, a longtime border collie owner in Grantham, N.H. “A single person, couple or empty nester might be better able to adapt to the challenges, but when a child is involved there are additional complications. When something goes wrong, you end up frustrated, the dog ends up frustrated, and the next thing you know it’s bit someone, run away, or been hit by a car and you have to explain that to your kid.”
Avoiding scenarios such as this and even minor pitfalls, such as quarrels over who takes Fido out at night, requires determining when your children are actually ready for a dog and choosing the proper addition to your family. Most dog experts agree that once children reach ages 10 to 12, they are mature enough for parents to begin assessing whether they are ready for dog ownership.
“Ten to twelve is a neat age. Children are physically and mentally capable then of handling the day-to-day requirements, such as scooping poop, changing water, using a brush, etc. Pet ownership can be a great responsibility for children of this age to take on as long as they understand there is a lot of responsibility and incorporate this into a routine,” says Jackie Stanley, shelter manager at Lucy Mackenzie Humane Society in West Windsor, Vt.
Certified dog trainer Amanda Regan of Bethel, Vt., suggests parents first look at whether children are responsible in other areas of their lives. “Are they doing other things in the house — washing dishes, helping you clean up, consistently doing chores and doing them well?” she asks.
Introducing a dog into a family can have a number of benefits for children. “Dogs teach responsibility, caring for another individual and putting others’ needs above your own,” says Jessica Jones, DVM and owner of Country Animal Hospital in Bethel, Vt.
Carmen Lezama of Grantham, N.H., recently introduced a Havanese puppy into her family after years of urging by her daughters Astrid, 13, and Andrea, 11. She notes that the dog, Havana, has been helpful in getting the girls outside and moving. “There are benefits to the family. We are more active. The kids are more considerate of what they do,” she says. “They now ask themselves, ‘Do we want to go to that sleepover? Will Havana be by herself too long?’”
Proper timing seems to be key when choosing to add a pet to the home. Not only do the children need to be mature enough, but also every one in the family needs to be in agreement. “This is a full family decision,” says Cranage. “When it comes to families, if the whole family isn’t committed, if there is one adult who isn’t on board, then it’s not going to work,” adds his wife, Amy. The couple, along with their daughter, Emma, 11, recently added border collie sisters Tessa and Ellie to the family.
Lezama waited years before deciding she was ready to have a dog in her home. Growing up in Venezuela, she was accustomed to animals being outside. Embracing a pet indoors and ultimately being responsible for its care was not something she relished. When Astrid first asked for a puppy six years ago, she purchased a stuffed one instead. She eventually concluded that her family was ready for a pet through a series of baby steps — first fish, then birds, a neighbor’s hamster and, finally, a neighbor’s dog.
A Personal Stake
Leah Gifford and her husband, Paul, of East Randolph, Vt., also waited six years before introducing a small Pomeranian-Shih Tzu mix named Jasmine into their family. Their daughter Catherine, now 10, began asking for a small puppy to cuddle and take with her everywhere after seeing a Maltese when picking out the family’s larger breed dog years ago. The Giffords realized that since the family would potentially have two dogs at once, Catherine would need to assume some of the care of the smaller animal. To ensure she was ready, Gifford asked Catherine to save half the money to purchase her pet. “We wanted to instill in her a feeling of pride and a sense of ownership and responsibility,” she says. “There were no rules for her saving. She wanted to spend money at times, but would hesitate. Occasionally, I would tell her it was okay to spend some. She is a great saver.”
Jones agrees that getting a dog is a great time to talk to children about finances. “Pets are expensive — they eat cellphones. Even a cut paw can cost $200 to $300 to treat. It’s huge. This is a good time to have a discussion about everything owning a dog involves, including finances. Knowing a kid probably isn’t going to be completely responsible, you can still talk to them about whether they might have to contribute to its care,” she says.
Assuming everyone is on board with owning a dog, the next step is to do the research and have a support system in place. “You need to find the right dog, the right breeder and the right trainer to set your family up for success,” says Cranage.
In addition to babysitting a neighbor’s dog ahead of time, Lezama and her family also researched various breeds through books, Internet videos and television shows. While Jones doesn’t like to pigeonhole any breeds, there are some that are generally considered more kid-friendly — such as golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and poodles — though experts agree that what is crucial is finding a dog that fits the lifestyle of each particular family.
Train the Trainer
Stanley notes that families can also find excellent matches at shelters. Information is key when going this route; they gather as much as possible in order to make an informed match. There are numerous issues to take into consideration. For example, even if the children in a family are mature and knowledgeable about interacting with pets, do they have an active group of friends that comes over each day and makes a lot of noise? “This is good information for us to know ahead of time to make the right match,” Stanley says.
The initial introduction is important as well. When visiting a shelter, Stanley suggests that kids and parents take adoptable dogs for walks and get to know them. Jones stresses teaching children proper dog etiquette even before considering getting a dog.
“It’s important to teach good dog manners to your kids — such as never approach a strange dog without asking permission to pet it, never approach a dog from behind and start petting from its tail, don’t play with its feet until you know the dog, etc. Teaching kids how to be around dogs in general will make them better owners,” emphasizes Regan.
Regan encourages families not only to set up training classes for their new pet, but to have children come along as well. Making sure everyone is consistent and knowledgeable in training sets everyone up to succeed.
“You’re either all in or you’re out,” says Cranage. “If parents find themselves telling a child, ‘this is your dog and you are the one who is solely going to be responsible for it,’ you shouldn’t get the dog….ultimately the dog is part of a family and, as parents, we become the default caregivers.”
That said, there will always seem to be something precious about a child’s relationship with a pet. “It’s a beautiful relationship,” says Gifford. “Kids should have the experience of taking care of a real being and learning to be responsible for someone else.”
Parent Tip: Paws to Consider
So, your kids want a puppy. Here are a few things you can do to ensure a successful experience for the whole family.
- Be Fido Friendly Don’t wait until it’s time to get a dog to teach your children how to act around one.
- Do Your Homework Research, research and research some more. What are you looking for in a dog? Consider your family’s lifestyle. Are you active? Do you spend most of your time at home? Find a dog that fits in with the family’s activities and needs.
- Consult the Experts Talk to your vet, the local animal shelter and respectable breeders. Ask questions and offer information about your family to ensure the best match.
- Choose the Route that’s Right for You Humane societies and animal shelters are full of great dogs in need of a good home. Breeders are another alternative, especially when looking for a specific breed.
- Start Small Not sure if your family is quite ready for a puppy? If your kids forget to feed the goldfish, they may not be prepared to take Spot out for a walk. Try a lower-maintenance pet and then work up to a dog.
- Be Prepared Find a trainer, dog sitter and veterinarian. Puppy proof the house. Know where your dog will sleep and what rooms should be cordoned off ahead of time. Buy chew toys. Set your pup up for success.
- Assign Tasks Talk to your kids beforehand. Decide who will be responsible for various jobs from feeding the dog to letting it outdoors. Have a plan and make sure each family member knows his or her role.
- Be Responsible Dogs can teach children a lot about empathy and nurturing, but ultimately you are the parent and the success of bringing a puppy into your family lies with you.
Kim J. Gifford is a writer, photographer/artist, avid dog lover and blogger at pugsandpics.com. Her Bethel, Vt., home is always filled with nieces and nephews and her two pug dogs, Alfie and Waffles.
Originally published in the April-May 2015 issue of Kid Stuff