Kids & Dogs: Building a Positive Connection

By Lela Nargi

With your children’s years-long pleas ringing loudly in your ears, you’ve finally taken a deep breath and agreed: Yes, you will bring home a dog. What on earth have you done? Something marvelous for your whole family! 

Because dogs not only bring life and joy into a household; they teach children the importance of caring for another living creature. And the lasting benefits of that grow and change right along with them.

No matter whether you’re opting to purchase a dog from a breeder or rescue one from a shelter, it’s important to involve kids in choosing a pet from the get-go. “Just like people, not every dog gravitates towards children,” says Dr. Kat Miller, an animal behaviorist with the New York City ASPCA. In advance of your visit, “You’ll want to talk to the staff about which dogs will be good candidates for living with kids, then narrow the choices down to three or four dogs that you can introduce children to.”

Prepare kids as well by teaching them the proper way to meet a dog. Says Miller, “Children should be calm, and offer a hand for the dog to choose to come and sniff—no forcing the dog to interact.” You can also give kids a toy or some treats to put on the floor to lure the dog closer, so the dog knows, “This is going to be something nice!” All meet-and-greets between dogs and children should be supervised by adults—no leaving them alone together.

Crucial as it is to allow kids to take responsibility for pets, it’s important for the primary caretaker of your potential dog to be the adults in the household, with children acting as mentors and helpers. “To give over full responsibility for a dog to your child is a lot to expect,” says Miller. Never fear, though; there are all sorts of opportunities for a child to be involved with a pet, including training the dog and teaching it tricks. But also, says Miller, “If your child is learning to read, have her read to the dog; it’s a great way to make reading a positive experience for her. If she’s learning to write, have her write a couple of sentences about your new pet. The dog can be a catalyst for learning so many other life skills” beyond caretaking.

Think a puppy is the only way to go? Don’t rule out juvenile and adult dogs. Especially if your household is a busy one, an older dog that requires little or no housetraining may be the perfect match for you.

Finally, some tips on how you can involve even very small children in taking care of your new furry friend, from Heidi Ganahl, founder of pet care franchise Camp Bow Wow:

  • Have your children help you feed, brush and bathe your dog. Yes, it teaches responsibility but even more critically, it helps the child and dog bond with each other.
     
  • Take your child with you and your dog to a basic training class, so you can learn training basics together. For safety reasons, it’s important for your pet to learn to listen to commands given by your child, but on the fun (and confidence-building) side of the issue, even small kids can learn to teach Fido to roll over, play dead, and shake hands.
     
  • If your child is old enough to take your dog on a walk, start short and build up to longer walks. Only use a leather or nylon leash—never a retractable one, which offers little control and can result in children being pulled over.
     
  • Engage your child in rewarding your dog: when he comes when called, when finds her when she’s hiding during a game of hide and seek, when he executes a trick. By reinforcing obedience, you set your child up for more and continued success as a dog owner!

Photograph by Matthew Weibe via Unplash