Kids and Dogs: Teaching Responsibility Through Pet Ownership
Dog ownership is beneficial to children

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Lisa Pallardy, President - BarkTalk.com  Kids and dogs. Dogs and kids. It seems like a match made in heaven. Think about it…Lassie and Timmie, Old Yeller, Benji, and (for those of the current generation), Air Bud. And the good news is, the bond between a child and a dog actually can be as ideal as it appears in the movies! In fact, the more responsibility a child has in the care of a pet, the deeper and more rewarding the bond can become. And in the end, both the dog and the child benefit.

As most parents are all too aware, dog ownership frequently results from the begging and pleading requests of a child. That child will promise on his own life that he will be completely responsible for the dog. In the end, of course, we know that a child lacks the maturity to undertake complete responsibility for caring for a dog, and as parents we must ultimately be responsible for supervising (and oftentimes enforcing) the proper care of the animal.

The best way to teach your child about the responsibility of owning a dog is to gradually introduce each aspect of the dog’s care slowly, and have the child master each age-appropriate duty one at a time. We all assign our children age-appropriate household chores (ie., dusting, setting the table, etc.), so this should be no different.

In his book The Good Dog Book: Loving Care, author Mordecai Siegal gives the following general guidelines of age appropriate duties your child can undertake.  Keep in mind that when assigning dog care responsibilities to your child, your guidance and supervision is absolutely necessary to insure they are being done correctly.

TODDLERS. A toddler as young as 18 months can help you unload the dog’s food from the grocery store bag and help you put it away. By age 2, your toddler can help you dry your dog’s food and water bowls after you’ve washed them. He may also help you pour or spoon your dog’s food into the dog’s bowl. (Please don’t let a toddler -- or any small child -- actually hand the bowl of food to the dog or get too close to the dog’s feeding area. Dogs may take defensive action and snap, growl, or even bite!). A 2-year old can also help with housekeeping-type chores related to your dog, things like cleaning up the dog’s eating area (when the dog is not there!), crate or kennel, or other sleeping area, using a small broom or a damp cloth. (Here’s a great tip for positive reinforcement: After your child has completed his dog care chores, enthusiastically “tell” your dog, in the presence of your toddler, what a terrific job the toddler did. Your dog will respond to your enthusiasm and will most likely begin wagging his tail and dancing in excitement, which to your young child will appear to be additional praise for his job well done!)

3-5 YEARS. Now it’s time to increase the responsibility a bit. As your child turns 3 and 4, he can now probably take over the task of washing the dog’s dishes, as well as cleaning your dog’s collar and leash. He should also be capable of vacuuming up any fur that’s shed onto furniture, and putting away the dog’s toys. At about age 5, teach your child how to hook the leash onto your dog’s collar before taking the dog outside.

6-10 YEARS. Depending on your particular child’s maturity, by 6 or 7 years, try teaching your child about the proper grooming necessary for your dog, and get him to assist you with weekly bathing and grooming. A 9 or 10 year old should be mature enough (and strong enough) to take your dog on short walks, as long as you teach him about proper toilet areas for the dog (which is NOT on the sidewalks or in the neighbor’s yard!). This is a great age for your child to share in exercise with your dog, such as playing with a ball or stick, or even just good old-fashioned play in the form of running, rolling on the ground, etc. in the family room or backyard. (Tip: this type of play will form the strongest bond of friendship between your child and the dog.)

 11-12 YEARS. With the exception of medical care and obedience training, an 11-12 year  old is mature enough (with supervision) to undertake all aspects of dog care responsibilities.

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        13-16 YEARS. As kids enter their teen years, be aware of their emotions. They tend to vacillate between their assertions of independence, and then quietly revert to their childish ways. It is very important at this age that you continue to stress the importance of caring for the dog properly, and tell your teen that the dog’s life and care are in his hands. Most likely, you will need to frequently remind your teen not to neglect his dog care responsibilities as his social life becomes more active. This is the perfect age for a child to teach a young dog basic obedience skills, so it’s a great idea to find a good book on dog training, or even enroll your teen and dog in an accredited training program. As your teen struggles with the turmoil of his teenage years, both he and your dog will benefit: the dog will learn security through gentle obedience training, while your teen learns lessons in leadership, self-discipline and responsibility.

A dog is an ideal pet for a child. There can be no greater reward for a child than coming home to a dog who is jumping and panting with unbridled joy and excitement at seeing the child, but in exchange for that, a child must learn to be responsible for his dog’s care and well being.

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 Copyright 2009.  Use of this article in either written or electronic form is prohibited without permission of the owner.  Contact Lisap@BarkTalk.com for details.