Your Kid Wants a Dog. Now What?
Dogs are great additions to the family — but choose your pooch carefully.
Since she could toddle, our now-7-year-old daughter has been obsessed with dogs and fixated on having one of her own. Our two cats did nothing for her. Over time, she wore down her dad, who grew up with dogs and was more amenable to the idea.
With a focus normally saved for research into the best wireless speakers, camping stoves and electronics, he diligently made a study of dog breeds. He settled on whippets, a gentle dog with purportedly catlike qualities, including barking infrequently and snuggling. One more thing: Whippets can run approximately 40 miles per hour — a speed on par with tigers or zebras. Our northwest Seattle house, however, is not on the savannah.
Exercise concerns were put temporarily aside, and last fall, Roxy (so named by our daughter because “she’s fast like a rocket”) sped into our lives.
Here’s what we learned:
- While some breeds might be “catlike,” in truth, dogs are almost nothing like cats.
- People warn that adopting a puppy is like having a baby, but they’re closer to a toddler with a tail. They share a penchant for making messes, putting unspeakable items into their mouths, are high-energy, have accidents and are often adorable and unexpectedly funny.
- Also like a child, they take way more time and energy than you anticipated.
In short, adopting a pooch is not a decision to enter into lightly.
Gene Mueller, a veterinarian and manager of Regional Animal Services of King County, agrees that it’s like having another child: “It’s that same magnitude of thought, and thinking through the implications: Do we have time for this? Can we afford this?
“It’s critical to have everybody involved and enthusiastic about it,” he says.
“It really is integrating a furry family member,” says Wynona Karbo, dog trainer and owner of Ahimsa, a dog obedience school in Seattle. “It’s a lifestyle change.”
If you decide to get a dog, there are numerous factors to consider, including whether to get a puppy, an adult dog, or a rescue puppy or dog, and what breed.
Karbo, who has always adopted rescue dogs, suggests that it can be easier for families to get a puppy because there will likely be fewer behavioral surprises. When adopting a dog, it’s important to learn as much as you can about their background, she says. Also, a dog might display certain traits initially, but aspects of their personality may emerge as they acclimate to their new home.
“Age is a huge factor when getting a dog,” Karbo says, “the kid’s age and the dog’s age as well.”
Some organizations prefer adopting to families with children age 6 or older. Younger kids are less able to read their pet’s body language, such as when they shy away or freeze when upset. It can be hard for small kids to follow directions for safely interacting with their pet. And a key to successful canine training is consistent instruction and feedback, which also can be difficult for children to deliver.
Families with babies and younger kids can successfully welcome a dog or puppy, but it will require more hands-on parental involvement to keep the process on track.
To set your family up with the greatest chance for success, it’s essential to carefully judge a puppy or dog’s temperament.
The best canines for kids have a “strong novelty preference,” Karbo says. If they’re confronted by a new item, they’ll respond with curiosity and want to investigate, versus pulling away. If they’re startled, they recover quickly, maybe shaking it off or yawning. If a child races past or zips by on a skateboard, they’ll placidly watch them go past, as opposed to retreating.
When it comes to breeds, Karbo doesn’t automatically favor one over another. Again, the key is evaluating the individual pup’s personality.
That said, hunting dogs such as labs, pointers, Vizslas and Weimaraners are likely to jump up more, possibly knocking children over. Small dogs can be problematic because children are inclined to handle them too much, picking them up and carrying them around, causing dogs to get frustrated and nippy.
These potential issues don’t rule out the breeds, but merit consideration.
Mueller suggests that families can try fostering a dog to both see if they’re ready for adoption and to test out a particular pooch.
“See how everybody adapts to the pet,” he says. “Often fosters become adopters, and that’s a wonderful match. But it also gives everybody time to think about and experience it.”
Back at our house, Roxy is assimilating well. She and the cats have made their peace, and Roxy has proven herself to be a quick learner, sensitive and sweet. Our daughter is mostly crazy about her — except when she gets into her stuff and chews the nose off her favorite stuffed panda — and she will scoop poop and play fetch with minimal grumbling, if that.
None of us love the frequent trips to the city dog park, but Roxy’s need for speed cannot be denied, and it’s remarkable to watch her Roadrunner-like acceleration in pursuit of a ball. The time commitment is our greatest challenge; Roxy requires regular play breaks, snuggles and exercise during the day and one of us works from home and the other does not.
But as she’s nearing a year old, Roxy is getting easier, and she has staunch supporters.
“She connects the family, so we all get to be more together,” my daughter explains.
“It’s a whole new thing to have a dog and it’s beautiful to have a dog,” she says. “She’s a special thing. I like that she’s gentle, and she tries to comfort you and give you licks. Even when I’m mad at her, I still feel a passionate love.
“She makes me feel so happy. Most of the time.”
There are lots of adoption and training resources; here are a few:
Regional Animal Services of King County, kingcounty.gov/depts/regional-animal-services
Seattle Animal Shelter, seattle.gov/animalshelter
Pasado’s Safe Haven, pasadosafehaven.org
Ahimsa Dog Training, ahimsadogtraining.com
Living with Kids and Dogs website, livingwithkidsanddogs.com, and book Living with Kids and Dogs …. Without Losing Your Mind by Colleen Pelar
Raising Puppies & Kids Together by Pia Sylvani and Lynn Eckhart