It usually goes something like this… ”Mom, can we get a dog, PLEASE!”. Mom’s reply, “Well, if we get a dog you’ll need to take care of the dog; this means walking, feeding, picking up the poop, blah, blah, blah.” The reality is that if mom is truly thinking that the child will learn responsibility and be able to be the caretaker of the family dog, she most likely will end up being frustrated and disappointed, not to mention there can be issues of safety to consider.
Besides Mom’s disappointment your child will end up feeling frustrated too because dogs generally don’t listen to kids.
Dogs follow leaders and will gravitate to the most reliable, consistent person in the family who provides what they need in life to be happy and safe.
Children, since they are still developing, can be more emotional, unpredictable, unreliable and energetic. These qualities communicate to the dog that the child is not in charge, and therefore, the dog generally will not listen to the child.
So now that we know that children usually can not be successful at being “in charge” of the dog, can we still help our child to learn to be a responsible dog owner and help care for the family dog? Absolutely!
Here are a few suggestions to help parents encourage good and safe interactions, helping create a lasting bond between your child and family dog.
Include your child whenever you can with daily care, but you must lay the ground work first. Every task that pertains to your dog, such as daily feeding, providing fresh water, walking, grooming, and basic training, needs to be done first by an adult to understand how you want your child to help, and if they can assist with these daily tasks. You also need to learn about your dog’s personality to find out how they will respond to new things. An example might be that some dogs are overly excited to be fed and may jump into the air knocking the food bowl out of a child’s hands. In this case, you’d first train the dog to keep all four feet on the floor when feeding before having your child take over.
It’s great to have children help with care, but be sure to demonstrate how you want things done. Furthermore, if you want to get them to be less reliant on you telling them when something needs to be done, set up a dog task chart and have your child indicate when the job is accomplished. Obviously, you still need to supervise when and if a task is completed so the dog doesn’t pay the penalty of lack of care.
Be sure to create situations where your child and dog can have fun together. Even though the dog may not see the child as a leader, your dog will be more likely to respond positively to your child if he sees that good things happen when the child is around! Playing fetch, hide and seek, searching games for kibble, are all great ways to bond, and also get the child and dog to learn mutual respect while having fun. Even something as simple as having your child read to the dog can be a quiet time activity for both.
Supervise all interactions, especially with young children. As a parent, you need to give immediate feedback to your child when you see your dog does not want to interact, and may be trying to move away from the situation. Likewise, if the dog is getting too excited or overly stimulated, you need to intervene to deescalate the situation. Even if everyone is playing and having fun, supervise, because things can go wrong in a heart beat! It’s important to understand that if a dog doesn’t see the child as a leader, and wants to communicate that it doesn’t like something your child is doing, the dog may feel it has the “right” to give a correction. This correction may be in the form of a bark, nip or bite. This is because dogs see everyone in a hierarchy, and children are not usually at the top.
Hire a Professional. A professional dog trainer will not only help you with training, but also can advise you on some fun ways that your dog and child can play and interact with basic training techniques.
Even though most children can’t be a reliable leader or primary caretaker for the dog, they can still help and begin to learn the responsibilities of caring for the family dog.
I first published this article in the Pediatric Safety site on April 30, 2018