Can we get a dog, please? I haven’t heard this yet, but it’s familiar to plenty of parents. That and promises from the child to take care of the dog, feed it, walk it and pick up the you-know-what. And plenty of parents are eager, too, to introduce a dog into the family home. Dogs are wonderful playmates and companions for many children, so kids and dogs seem to go together naturally. There are about 74 million dogs here in the United States Ã¢â‚¬â€ almost 45 percent of homes have at least one, according to a 2007 survey by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. But when is the best time for a parent to give in to those pleas? And what can you do to make sure the adoption goes smoothly? To seek an answer to these and other canine questions, I turned to an expert.
TodayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Questions & Parents feature, Q&P for short, is with Yorktown resident Steve Diller, Westchester’s own “dog whisperer.” Steve runs the Center for Animal Behavior and Canine Training in Elmsford, where he trains thousands of dogs and their owners each year. He wrote the book, “Dogs and Their People: Choosing and Training the Best Dog for You.” He’s also the father of two. His 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, will start college at Hofstra University in September and his 16-year-old son, Gavin, will be starting his senior year at Lakeland High School. (In the picture below, Steve is with Jessica just after a performance of “Don Q.”)
Q: When is the right time for a family with children to adopt a dog?
P: While there is no set time to reflect on bringing in a family dog, there are a few criteria to keep in mind, such as the number of children in the home, their ages and gender as well as the breed and age of the potential dog being considered. Research has indicated that the best time to introduce a dog into a family is when the children are over 12 years of age. Younger children may have difficulty dealing with an energetic, mouthy puppy, which in turn makes life more complicated for the parents. Parents who are considering a dog when there are children under 8 should think about getting a breed that is sturdy enough to stand-up to the childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s energy but small enough not to knock them down during play. Safety factors also include having a well socialized and non-aggressive canine as part of the family; breed type is always secondary to good disposition. Parents who are thinking of bringing home a dog for their children must realize that despite the children chanting that they will fully care for the dog, the reality is that the parents will ultimately be responsible for feeding, walking, training and medical care. Older children can walk a dog that is not too powerful for them to handle and feeding responsibilities can also be shared.
Q: What advice do you have for parents choosing a dog? Are there certain breeds that are better than others? What about mixed breeds or designer hybrids?
P: My advice to parents is to research the various breeds of dogs by visiting web sites such as the American Kennel Club for purebred dogs or Petfinder for homeless dogs looking for their forever family. Parents often make mistakes by bringing their children into a puppy store or a shelter and allowing the children to choose the dog. The addition of a dog into a family is serious business. It is not a good idea to let kids think that dogs are disposable items to be disregarded if they get tired of the responsibility. Obtaining the right dog in the first place is extremely important for this and many other reasons. I find it easier to discuss which breed types are not inclined to do well with children versus which might be best. Dogs have been developed to behave in specific ways, we have dogs that are urged to swim and retrieve, breeds that guard people and property, breeds that seek out and destroy vermin, breeds that hunt and breeds produced for pure companionship. Guard breeds would not be my choice for families with children or couples planning on having children. Sporting breeds, while typically social and friendly, may be too energetic for small children. The hound group may have a few possibilities but each breed and individual dog has to be carefully examined for social ability as well as trainability. Breeds that were originally produced for the sport of dog fighting may still possess high fighting drives and would not be on my list of potential candidates. Dogs of mixed heritage can make amazing pets. Darwin felt that random selection produced the hardiest type. Mixed breed dogs are less likely to carry as much genetic disease as their refined purebred cousins. Simply looking at a mixed breed dog canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help you define its heritage. Often times a mixed breed dog looks like a diluted form of a purebred but in actuality have no genetic link to the look-a-like at all.
Q: When it comes to families with children, is it better to adopt a puppy or an adult dog?
P: The real answer to this question is about both nature and nurture. A puppy’s ability to be effectively socialized can only be done up till 18 weeks of age. Developmentally, the neural pathways for social behavior close at 18 weeks of age. Dogs are social beings that do not generalize information well so this means that a puppy should be exposed to infants, toddlers, teenagers, both genders and all colors to be considered well socialized. In terms of nurture, this effort must be done in the first 18 weeks of a puppyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll bet many parents were not thinking about this type of enormous and time-consuming task. In terms of nature, pups with strong nerve thresholds seem to be capable of dealing with stress despite a lack of appropriate social exposure. Puppies that may have threshold issues are noise sensitive and/or touch sensitive and seem shy or fearful without ever being traumatized. When a puppy is being considered, the optimum age to leave its mother and littermates is 8 weeks of age. If an adult dog is being considered, it is ideal if the dog was well socialized with children in its last home, although I have seen stray dogs that become their adoptive familyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Lassie.” I wish there were a simple answer here, but at the end of the day, a dog that behaves well around children is a keeper. Dogs that canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tolerate children may be terrific dogs in strictly adult homes. The magic is in finding that perfect match.
Q: What education do children need about living with a dog?
P: Depending on the age of the children, lessons should include teaching kids that dogs like their own space. Many dogs dislike being constantly lifted and hugged as their legs dangle around. It has been an observation of mine that young children just lunge at their puppies and grab at them as if they were objects. Puppies respond by biting, as they would if assaulted by a littermate. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when we have a crying child and a confused pooch. Teaching children to respect animals is a wonderful Ã¢â‚¬â€ and difficult job. Including children in the training and feeding schedule is helpful. Quiet time is also healthy for both humans and dogs.
Q: What kind of training do you do with children and dogs?
P: I train parents who in turn teach their children. I enjoy having children attend my group obedience classes with their parents. I believe that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s helpful to have the children involved with the dog-training process. Even young children take something away from attending. As long as one parent monitors the children as the other works with the puppy, it tends to work well. Supervision is the key to success with kids and dogs.
Q: What advice do you have to help children avoid being bitten by a dog?
P: Children should never just approach a dog. Dogs that are being held on a leash by an owner can be brought up to a child who wants to make contact. Allowing the dog to approach and smell the child makes it easier on the dog. Hands remain relaxed at your side until it is clear that the dog is comfortable. Always ask an owner if the dog is social and friendly before allowing the dog to get close to the child. Avoid dogs that appear wild and frenetic. After the initial contact, it is always nice when the dog can sit quietly while being stroked. After the contact, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best if the dog walks away from the child first. Just good etiquette in the dog world.
Q: Do you have a dog? What you did you do to help your children establish a positive relationship with it?
P: We have several dogs at home. My children were born into a home with dogs, and, in fact, so was I. My parents had a Boxer before I was born so I was the second child, in a manner of speaking. We had a German Shepherd and a Labrador when Jessica and Gavin were born. Seems like they took to living with dogs as second nature, we only ever saw the love between them. Currently, each of my kids share their beds with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Elliot and Grace. Napoleon, son of Grace, also shares our space and we are all cared for by Bart, our German Shepherd. In my opinion, when children grow up in the presence of dogs, it adds to their humanitarianism as adults.
Thank you very much to Steve for sharing his knowledge by doing a Q&P! I know this will be information I’ll save for the inevitable day when Pumpkin starts asking for a pooch. (As I’ve said before in the blog, she sure loves dogs.) Check back next week for another Q&P. If you know any parents who you think would be great to feature, please comment here on the blog or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, in case you missed them, here are links to earlier Q&P features with a financial planner mom, writer mom, mathematician mom, baker mom, environmentalist mom, pediatric dentist mom and a couple of parents who are bicycle experts.