Dog Meets Family: Hooray or Oy Vay?

When it’s good, it’s really good!

Your dog has to suit your family, and vice versa.  No matter how irresistible your kids find that puppy, you need some preparation before getting a dog.

Knowing about breeds, and thinking about your family make-up and lifestyle, go a long way toward making the right choice in the first place.  If you make a not-quite-right choice, understanding your dog’s temperament and thinking about who you are and how you live  can help address the issues.  The first step is to go online and search the breed (or breeds, if you’re thinking about a mix).  Read everything you can find on specialized websites like the American Kennel Club.  The second step is to sit down with your family and talk about your lifestyle.

  1. What about breeds?

Dogs are individuals, and there is considerable variation in temperament and personality within any breed.  Still, understanding a breed’s original purpose helps you plan for how to live with him or her.  Once you understand that Golden Retrievers were bred to work outdoors as hunting partners, you know your dog will need stimulation and outdoor exercise.  You’re not going to be able to just let him or her into the yard alone a few times a day.  Your Golden will need to interact with you, preferably with regard to a job, like fetching a ball and returning it. He or she will need lots of exercise to avoid nervous habits like excessive barking, chewing on herself, or indulging in destructive behavior.  If your lifestyle doesn’t permit you to exercise daily with your Golden, then you need to put him into dog daycare where he can be stimulated and exercised while you work.

When choosing a family dog, you want to think about size, strength, ease of training, health issues, a docile nature, and – if you’re adopting an adult dog – what the dog has experienced.  You’re looking for an overview of the dog’s “nature and nurture”.  Large boisterous breeds, or high strung breeds like setters are poor choices if you have small children.  On the other hand, Labrador Retrievers are excellent with kids, though while they’re puppies you have to supervise carefully to avoid unintended injuries due to high energy.  In fact, dogs and kids should never be left alone together, because it’s just not worth the risk: no animal is 100% safe.

In general it’s not a good idea to get a dog if you have a special needs child. It’s very tempting, especially since special needs children often love dogs and want to be around them. But, depending on their issues, such kids require lots of care and focus, and the dog will end up without enough training or discipline to live well with your family. I was recently called into a situation where a family that included an autistic 13 year old had adopted 2 Yorkie/Pug mixes and the dogs had become aggressive.  The family completed an obedience class and things improved for a while.  Then one of the dogs bit a child.  The mom felt things could not continue as they were, since the dogs became more and more aggressive, yet she could not bear to deprive her sometimes suicidal autistic child of their company.  I strongly advised re-homing the dogs, but to no avail. The story did not end well; and sadly, there are many more such stories.

Smaller dogs vary greatly in their suitability for life with children.  Avoid toy dogs if you have small children, though they’re fine with preteens and older kids.  Because they’re so small, the toy breeds, like Yorkies, Malteses and Chihuahuas, can quickly get fearful and aggressive around high energy children who move suddenly or unpredictably.  Older children can be taught about the tiny guys’ need for safety and gentleness.

Some small dogs, like Cocker Spaniels, Beagles and Bassets are known for their tolerance of small children when well socialized.  For a list of such breeds, check out Dog Training Central online.  If you’re rescuing an adult dog of a child-friendly small breed, find out all you can about his or her behavior from the rescue organization.  Good rescue groups leave potential adoptees with foster families before adopting them out, so ask lots of questions.  You want to know about the dog’s daily routine, what he likes to eat, what he likes to do, whether he’s ok being alone and lots of other stuff.  Make a list of things pertinent to your lifestyle before going to see a puppy or an adoptable adult.

2.  What about your family?

Have a family discussion and take some notes.  Here are some important questions:

  • What does each family member want and expect from a dog?
  • What is each person like and what’s their daily life like?
  • What will each person’s automatic, natural interactions with the dog be like?  Frequency?
  • Realistically, how ready is each person to help establish and maintain a routine of care for the dog: feeding, play, exercise, training, brushing, clean-up of accidents?
  • What rules are important to teach the dog: On or off furniture? Ok in kids’ rooms? Allowed under the table when people are eating?

Exploring such questions in open discussion will help parents decide if the family has the time, space, patience, and attention units to live with a dog, and if so, what sort of dog.

Once you get the dog, it’s important to teach kids of all ages about boundaries.  Some behaviors that come naturally to children can end in tragic injuries to them and/or their dog: pulling ears, jumping on sleeping dogs, poking them with various objects, teasing the dog while it’s eating, even running at them are all off limits.  Model the behavior you want your kids to adopt with the dog; if you tease the dog they will too.  Show them how to pet, hug, and play with the dog.

Begin socializing your dog as soon as you get her.  Expose her to all kinds of places, event, sights, sounds and smells.  Remember to keep her safe and confident during initial exposure, and keep things light.  If your dog’s having fun when they hear a loud noise, they’re less likely to be frightened.  Puppy kindergarten and doggie daycare are excellent ways to further socialization.

Also begin obedience training right away, if your new dog is 10 weeks old or older.  Make sure the children participate in training sessions!  Start with the basics like sit, stay, down, and come.  Then go on to multiword commands like “fetch it!” “leave it!” and “go to your spot”.  The most frequent problem that dog owners complain about is bad behavior like jumping up or playing keep away when called.  And most bad behavior can be prevented or ameliorated with persistent, consistent training.  You’ll rarely find a well trained, well socialized dog that’s been given up for adoption

A final word of wisdom: you and your family are never done training the dog.  Make training a natural part of play and activity throughout your dog’s life.  Dogs are prey to their own impulses.  They can only remember what to do if the right behavior is continually reinforced.  And they remember especially well if good behavior is fun!

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