Kids, Dogs and Timing

Tricia Breen

Most of my cherished and salient memories of my childhood involve those that revolve around the many animals we had in our family. We had dogs, cats, rabbits, chinchillas, horses, snakes, rats, birds, mice. It was a family of four kids, me being the one most obsessed with the animal companions. I just had to get the book to look through all the breeds of dogs, I had my heart set on a kitten, I loved getting up early before school to feed the horses, always thinking it would be better to stay home and go for a ride rather than go to school. I never left the obsession behind.

When I was in high school, my summer job was to be the assistant riding instructor at a local weekday program for kids ages 5 and up. I loved the kids, loved watching them develop, seeing them take an interest in caring for the horses, listen to their stories and dramas, coach them on interacting with the horses. In fact, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher at this point, so intrigued by human development and so fond of kids.

This all brings me to my experiences in the world of dog consulting and matching families to dogs. At the shelter, we often heard from families complaining that we didn't have enough dogs that were suggested for young kids. I explained that the ones that we knew were good for families with young kids didn't last but a day or two, were adopted very quickly. And we did tend to err in favor of being conservative, for the sake of the kids, those little faces so close to the mouths with teeth. If we had a dog that was suggested for families with older kids, but a family with young children was interested, I was always happy to go out with the dog and the kids to see if it was a match. If the parents had the time and energy to be expert supervisors, the dog was tolerant and friendly with the little ones, it was definitely worth a shot.  

Of course also at the shelter, there was no shortage of people who didn't like kids, didn't approve of us sending dogs and cats home to families with young kids. There was a tendency for some to be very protective of the animals, assume that kids had no idea how to treat the animals. It was a constant puzzle to put together.

Parents with young kids will say that they want to get a puppy so they can bring each other up, they can mold the puppy, ensure that the pup will love the kids, the kids will have a friend to grow up with. If they know that they are adding another toddler to the household, and one with very sharp teeth, they might wisely rethink it. And some who insist on doing it do come to their senses within a week or two, suffering from fatigue and stress, and return the pup so that he can find another loving home. "The kids don't want to have anything to do with him. He bites them, jumps on them and knocks them over. It's exhausting."

There is an age at which kids don't really comprehend, don't know that there is a sentient other looking them in the eye. Toddlers explore the world with their hands, they readily stick pencils in their mouths, fingers in electric sockets, fingers in eyes. Pretty much anything that is novel and interesting is something to explore and learn about. If there is a dog within reach, let's grab some fur, try that pencil in his mouth, pull on an ear, bite an ear! This is just their way of finding out about the world around them. And a dog might be liable to bite or scratch. Puppies don't know that chewing on the screaming little child is not just part of the fun and excitement of being a puppy.

On the other hand, I recently had a client family that I wish I could clone. They introduced a pup into their family. In this family is a sensitive young girl of 12. She is fearful of dogs, having been attacked by a large breed dog when she was 4. The wise family is not pushing her, not insisting that she instantly love this little pup. She has initially been tentative, reserved, but is now opening up to the joy and wonder of the very sweet and trainable puppy. This is opening up a whole new world for her, one that will bring so many rewards. She will be able to share confidences with this dog as she goes through this difficult age, stories about the boy she has a crush on, the teacher that picks on her, the girls that she has fun gossiping with, the parents that don't understand her. It will be a wonderful and lasting memory for her when she reaches adulthood.

Timing is critical when adding a pet to your household. Toddlers need some time to become more cognizant of the world, able to accept instruction and guidance, able to understand that their dog has feelings and reactions. If it is done too soon, rushed to complete the family, it can result in sadness and stress for all.  And when the child is ready for a companion, it can be the greatest thing ever.

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Gail Flaherty (Thursday, 02 May 2013 08:37)

    I am so happy to have read this blog, I have been feeling a bit like a grinch lately and filled with anxiety, with so many families with young toddlers and babies coming in and me telling them that the dog they want is not suitable for them and that we have "no dogs" suitable for them at this time. Your statement of "not enough dogs for people with young children" has run so true to my experience at our shelter, and it is SO TRUE that these dogs last 1 or 2 days, often we don't even have to advertise as we have someone in mind.