A Dog's Life: How to Choose the Perfect Family Dog

"Mom! I want a dog! I'll take care of him all by myself. I promise!" Sooner or later, most parents hear this refrain. (Over and over.) Pets can be great. And dogs, particularly, are known the world over as Man's Best Friend. They can be loyal and trusting and affectionate; but not every dog is good for every household. Here are a few tips and considerations to mull over when next you go looking for a canine companion.

A Natural Affinity. Children turn to dogs to love and be loved, for companionship, fun and comfort. A canine pal (unlike a parent) doesn't complain about loud music, a dirty room, even a bad report card. Dogs often seem drawn to children, in who they may sense kindred playful spirits.

Parents Beware. Despite the promises and the affinity, it is the rare child of any age who can be entrusted with full responsibility for a pet. Children are busier than ever with after-school and weekend activities, summer camp and part-time jobs. A youngster may love her dog and still forget or lose interest in walking, grooming or feeding him.

If you are a parent who is thinking about adding a dog to the family, first be certain that you understand the considerable demands, as well as the joys, of dog ownership; and that you have the desire, time and money to care for this pet throughout his life, which may last 15 years or more.

Selecting a Dog. It has been said that a dog is the only relative you can choose. Capitalize on this advantage by making a careful, thoughtful choice, not an impulsive one. Include all family members, including children, in the decision-making process. Read about dogs, and keep in mind that mixed-breed dogs are every bit as loving, loyal and smart as purebreds.

Choose a dog that fits your family's preferences and resources. Don't choose a Golden Retriever because your son's best friend has one (that family's lifestyle may be entirely different from yours), or a Dalmatian because your daughter saw 101 Dalmatians and thinks they are adorable. (They are, but also independent, stubborn, high-energy, to say nothing of the amount of fur they shed.)

Puppy or Dog? Puppies are especially appealing to children, but far more work for parents. Young puppies and young children are not always an especially good mix. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) advises that if children are under 7 years old, they are usually not developmentally suited for puppies less than six months old.

An advantage to adopting an adult dog is that his personality has already developed, and is a known quantity for you to evaluate. Look for one that is used to being around children. Contrary to a common misconception, a dog adopted as an adult can become just as attached to your family as one raised from a puppy.

Physical Characteristics Affecting Children. A medium-size dog, one weighing between 25 and 50 pounds, is a strong animal. Obviously, larger dogs are even stronger. Many adults, and most children, cannot control a vigorous dog that weighs 50 pounds. Unless your child weighs more than the dog and is physically strong, she will not be able to control a medium or large dog on a leash. There are exceptions with incredibly well-trained, or docile, dogs.

Small dogs, weighing from 2 to 20 pounds, can easily be hurt if they are stepped on or roughly handled. To a 10-pound dog, a 30- or 40-pound child seems large and possibly frightening - and a fearful dog is more likely to lash out than a secure one. The ASPCA advises against dogs under 15 pounds for children under 7.

Personality Traits Affecting Children. Dog personalities, like people personalities, run the gamut: shy, timid, quiet, calm; outgoing, gregarious, noisy, excitable; affectionate, mellow, easy to train; standoffish, independent, stubborn. Study individual dogs and puppies if you are considering a mixed breed or a pure bred; within any breed or litter, there is a range of temperaments. Discover which personality trend is best-suited for your family's lifestyle.

Matching Traits. Think about your children's personalities and physical abilities. If your 10-year-old son will have dog-walking duty, can he control a Boxer on a leash? (Probably not.) If you are considering a Chihuahua, is your 6-year-old daughter so gentle and quiet that she will not inadvertently scare or hurt this tiny creature? (Probably not.)

If you have an active daughter who loves to spend time outdoors, a Labrador mix may work well. If you have a son who is a couch potato, a St. Bernard might be a good match.

Regardless of size, type or breed, look for a dog or puppy that is friendly, gentle, emotionally stable and likes being handled. Avoid extremes - a dog or puppy that is very excitable, aggressive or timid.

Parental Supervision. Regardless of your child's personality, and no matter how well-behaved your pet, children under the age of 6 need adult supervision when interacting with any dog.

Young children are naturally inquisitive and impulsive, given to quick movements and lots of motion - problematic characteristics for a dog to deal with. As one veterinarian commented, Just about every movement a toddler makes toward a dogs seems threatening to the dog: waving hands in front of a dog's face, grabbing, pulling, whacking, poking."

Because a dog can't order a child to stop teasing or call for help, the dog might snap or bite if he feels trapped and cannot escape. Half of all bites to children under the age of 4 are inflicted by their own pets, and 90% of these take place at home.

A dog that is loved, socialized, well-cared-for and well-trained can tolerate a lot of childish behavior; a sick or injured dog will tolerate less. Be vigilant in knowing which one you'll own.

On the other side of the ledger, teach your children not to frighten, stress, hurt or challenge a dog. Trainer and author Brian Kilcommons says, "The basic rule to live by with children and dogs is, "Do not allow your child to do to the dog what you would not allow done to a younger sibling.'"

The quality of the relationship that your children will have with the family dog will depend largely on your ability to teach the dog, and your children, to treat one another with respect.

Children and Dog Care. Children should be encouraged to be responsible for some aspect of the family dog's care. The type of responsibility depends on several factors, including age; size; physical coordination and strength; ability to carry out instructions; and amount of time available.

Evaluate your child's capabilities, and help her choose a well-defined task. Be specific about when, where and how. (Not just to brush Spike, but to brush Spike once a week.) Help or watch your child perform the task several times until you are sure that she understands it and can do it alone, and be sure that she has all the necessary equipment. Review your child's assignment from time to time, and make adjustments to reflect changes in her abilities or schedule.

Mary Jane is the author of "Are You the Pet for Me?: Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family and "The 50+ Dog Owner: Complete Dog Parenting for Baby Boomers and Beyond."

Originally published in AlbemarleFamily Living February 2011. For more great stories be sure to visit More Great Reading online or pick up the newest issue of our magazine at a nearby newsstand.

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