The bond between dogs and humans is strongest and most precious in childhood, when playfulness, imagination and emotions rule.
Studies have shown that kids benefit just as much from dog ownership as adults do. The unconditional love that a dog gives relieves stress and loneliness. Enjoying the company of a pet raises self-esteem and teaches empathy in youngsters. Dogs also help children become more aware of non-verbal communication. At least one study has shown that family members interact more once they bring home a pet.
Ideally, animal professionals advise you to wait until your children are between seven and nine before you adopt a dog. But the reality is that your oldest child is 10 and your youngest, two. Or maybe you've owned your dog for many years before the baby was born. Is this a recipe for disaster?
Of course not. But that doesn't mean that the adults in the family won't have their work cut out for them. It's a parent's responsibility to educate children about how to treat dogs humanely so that they can love and enjoy their pets from puppyhood through old age. It's also a parent's job to mediate between children and dogs, so that nobody gets hurt.
Certain breeds are believed to mix better with children than others. The golden retriever, Labrador retriever, greyhound, Basset hound and bichon frisé are among those that have good reputations as family dogs. But everything depends on the individual dog and the child's personality. One thing is for sure: If a breeder or shelter professional recommends against adopting a certain dog, listen to him.
Mouths of Babes
Like dogs, children are endlessly curious and determined to stick inappropriate or dangerous things in their mouths. Devise a system for keeping dog food out of reach of babies and toddlers: Pellets and treats can lodge in a child's throat. On the other hand, don't panic if your child dips into the canned dog food. It's actually nutritious and will usually do no harm.
Teach your child to wash her hands after playing with the dog. You don't know what your dog may have picked up when he sat on the sidewalk or grass. Furthermore, dog feces can transmit infections or worms to children, which could cause severe digestive problems and require medical care.
Don't let an unsupervised child give food treats to your pets. Many a family dog has developed quite a tummy ache due to a child's gleeful generosity.
Watch out for toy sharing. When you have little humans and animals in the same house, it's no longer enough to check whether a dog toy is safe for your dog or if the toy is age-appropriate for your child. You've got to consider both.
Losing a Pet
It's not unusual for a pet to die or disappear as a child is growing up. But it is a serious matter and it's important that you handle the situation with care. Usually the first loss of a loved one that your child will experience, it could impact the way your child faces future losses. If your child has already dealt with death or divorce or has recently been through a major change, like moving to a new neighborhood, a dog's death may stir up the memory of that loss, too.
Don't lie to your child, hoping to spare her pain. Instead, use this opportunity to let her express her feelings and to learn that adults can offer comfort and reassurance in hard times. Assure her that she is not responsible just because she yelled at the dog or forgot to give him water one day. Using metaphors like "Fluffy is asleep" or "Fluffy is with God" can create fear and conflict in a child's mind between something that is supposed to be good and something that feels bad.
Children react differently to loss of a pet at different ages. A family-planned memorial ritual helps everyone. But if a child has trouble sleeping or eating, if moodiness persists or school habits suffer, consult a book on children's reactions to death and discuss the problem with your pediatrician.