Q. Our children are seven and nine years old. They’ve been asking us for a dog. How can we tell if our kids are ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog on their own?
A. Your children are at an age when it’s possible for them to help with the care of a pet. Children under six often need more supervision, as well as help with caring for pets. However, children and pets can bond at any age. Some experts advise that kids under six are too young to properly take care of pets. I think even a baby can benefit from having a dog or cat if the parents are willing to role model proper care and teach them how to work with animals. Most experts agree that pets like dogs, cats, birds, and other smaller animals are really the responsibility of the entire family, not just children. As the child gets older, she can take on more responsibility. For example, parents can supervise toddlers and preschoolers in picking up pet toys or helping with feeding.
Having a pet can help children develop empathy, compassion, and practical skills. Sometimes children even experience a reduction in stress. On the other hand, pets can also be expensive, so families should be prepared for a long-term commitment.
Here are some questions to ask to see if your family is ready for a new animal companion:
- Responsibility: Is your child willing to do assigned chores at home such as setting the table or taking out the trash? If a child fusses about doing every chore and postpones doing them, it’s an indicator he may not be ready for the large responsibility of caring for an animal. On the other hand, this may be fertile ground for teaching moments, skill development, and setting expectations.
- Time: You mentioned that your kids are interested in a dog. Does your family have time to commit to the care of a canine pal? Depending on the breed and age of the dog he may require frequent walks and other types of stimulating activities. Also, if your kids have a full schedule of classes, school, and other extracurricular commitments, you may want to consider what type of dog would best suit a busy family schedule.
- Trial Run: How does your child conduct herself around other people’s pets? To prepare a child for the responsibility of caring for a pet, you could borrow a friend’s dog and help your child learn about caring for animals firsthand. You can post a written schedule for water, feeding, walks, and playtime for your visiting pet. This may be a good template for your family’s future companion.
- Experience: If you want to take the “trial run” a bit further, consider volunteering with your kids at a local animal shelter or fostering a dog or a cat. This will help all of you learn about animals’ needs and help you figure out what kind of pet you want. Also, animal experts are available to help walk you through pet options in order to make a good match. Remember, just like people, not every animal is the same. They all have unique personalities, abilities, and needs.
Before getting a dog, help your children understand safety issues such as how to approach animals respectfully and calmly. Children need to know not to touch a dog while it is eating or sleeping, as well as asking permission before petting another person’s pet.
Finally, when choosing a pet, let your children help decide. Never surprise your kids with a pet on a special occasion. This includes Easter! Please resist the urge to surprise your kids with a bunny. One idea is to surprise the child with some pet food or a pet toy, then include your children in meeting animals before bringing one home. You might want to plan to bring the pet home during the weekend so everyone can help the newest member of the family adjust to a new space and new people.
For more information about family volunteer opportunities and fostering pets visit austintexas.gov/content/austin-animal-center; austinhumanesociety.org; austinpetsalive.org; or pawsshelter.org. You may also research independent pet rescue organizations in your area. Many rescue organizations are dedicated to specific breeds and types of animals. Some organizations include weerescue.org; austinpugrescue.org; goldribbonrescue.org; purrfectpalsrescue.org; and rabbitresource.org.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.