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The Competent Parent: Dog readiness

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dog Readiness

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We’re thinking of getting a dog for the children as a present and wondered how much responsibility to expect of a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old. Two-years ago they shared a gerbil for about six months. But I forgot to check up on it for a few days and it had died from lack of water.

Are We Ready?


Click here to read last week’s column about dealing with a dysfunctional family.

Dear Are We Ready,

While a wonderful learning experience for children, pet responsibility ultimately falls on the adult. At stake here is the life, or quality of life, of a living being. As with many things parents teach their children, skills are guided as needed such that major catastrophe is avoided. But death is part of life – whether by accident, neglect, disease, old age or unknown cause. Hopefully you handled the gerbil tragedy sensitively and without blaming them. As a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, your children should not have borne guilt for the death of the family pet. Your children are two years older now, and perhaps your own demands have lessened such that the family is more ready to shoulder the responsibilities of pet care.

If you’ve never had a dog before, you should read up on what will be required. Thedogbowl.com is a site that covers the basics.

Choosing a vet is your job. Take the children to vet appointments so they can share in learning about dog care from, and can ask questions of the animal care professional. They’ll also learn how to calm a nervous dog and keep their own pet from annoying the other patients in the waiting room. If you are going to get the dog spayed or neutered, this is a convenient learning opportunity to talk with your children about the facts of life and responsible family planning. As questions about your dog’s care arise, your model of “let’s ask the vet” shows them how to defer to the expert for advice. I believe children learn a great deal about taking good care of their own health with our example of how we use health professionals in the care of our pets.

Assign tasks that are appropriate for each child, such as cleaning and refilling the water bowl for the seven-year-old and taking the dog for a daily walk for the ten-year-old. Both can help to pick out toys – perhaps some outgrown stuffed animals and balls of their own (check for dog safety, of course!). An adult will have to be in charge of the housebreaking, with the children assisting as they can. If you have a fenced yard, it’s easy enough for the children to just open the door when the dog signals needing to go out.

Eventually, the dog will be easier to deal with and the children will be more habituated to do their part in including the dog in their daily routines. This could take days, weeks, or years, depending on the interest and maturity of each child. But along the way, they will be gaining invaluable skills that will serve them well as future pet owners and parents.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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