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I love dogs. My husband loves dogs. Yet we have had trouble convincing our many canine-less friends to add a dog to their families. Paramount among their concerns are time, money and integrating a dog into their children’s lives.
In our case, the dogs came first, so we didn’t have to choose a dog. However, we knew that adding a baby to a canine family could be difficult, and we were right.
Five years have passed since then, and we have endured the euthanasia of one beloved but extremely aggressive dog, the death of a 17-year-old beagle, and the addition of a stray Akita mix to our two lab mixes.
Now all that remains for us is to answer our friends’ concerns and add them to the ranks of dog-owning families. And why not? Many families consider the dog-child bonding experience a rite of passage, and for them, the decision to get a dog comes from the heart.
Children benefit in many ways from owning a dog, says Betsy Waterman, chair of the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at SUNY Oswego. Dogs can help build confidence, reduce stress, and they can even help children cope with the serious illness or death of an important family member.
“One important thing to remember, though, is that a parent should not expect a child to assume a major part of the responsibility for the care of the dog,” Waterman says. “Many children, who desperately want a dog, will promise (and actually mean it at the time) to manage all of the care for the dog. This is not a reasonable expectation and can leave the child feeling incompetent, guilty, angry or sad if an adult becomes upset when the child does not assume the responsibility they promised.”
Another perk of dog ownership cited by Waterman is one that would benefit both children and adults: Having a dog may increase the family’s activity level.
Our friends’ hesitation is warranted, however. Experts caution that adding a puppy or dog to the family requires as much research as it does love.
There is no ideal time for families with children to acquire a dog, but the family must know what it can handle and what the dog needs before they make that first step, says Dr. Eve Ryan of Beaver Lake Animal Hospital in Baldwinsville.
“Certainly if there’s a baby in the household, that’s going to cause a lot of divided attention of the caregiver. If (a family is) going to get a puppy, they may want to wait until the child is older,” she says. “Or, if they want a dog now, they may want to choose an adult dog.”
When a family decides to get a dog, the breed should also be a consideration, Ryan says. “All dogs require some level of training. There is no perfect dog out there, but some will need more training than others. Some, like retrievers and Labs, are genetically more prone to being better dogs for families. As for smaller dogs, a Maltese is a calmer dog than a Jack Russell terrier, which is more high-energy.”
Prospective dog owners should keep in mind the time to walk and care for the dog, the space they have, and th erequirements of the breed. “If they have an apartment, it would be unfair to get a Great Dane, or a high-energy dog, like a husky or border collie, which needs more room to run,” Ryan says.
Kelly Liberati of Syracuse said her family’s decision to get a Bernese mountain dog was made in an instant but not carried out until they had researched the breed.
“We didn’t have a dog when the kids were younger. We waited until we had a big yard before we started thinking about getting a dog.” Then, a chance meeting with a neighbor’s out-of-town guests introduced them to the Bernese mountain dog. “It was the most laid-back, friendly, gentle dog,” Liberati says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get one of those!’”
She and her husband, John, then did a lot of research. “We really studied up on the breed to make sure,” she says. “One day in June of 2005, we didn’t tell the kids where we were going. We drove all the way to Delta, Pa., to the breeder while the kids were trying to guess where we were going.” Johnny and Maggie, then 11 and 8, were delighted with their new family member.
Liberati had only guessed at the commitment that a dog would require, however. When their new puppy, Bella, was only 9 weeks old, she coughed, spun around, stiffened, then collapsed. Without any preparation for such an incident, Liberati performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the puppy and saved her life. An apparent lung infection caused the dog’s ailment, and, with quick treatment at the animal hospital, Bella returned to health and is now a vibrant 3-year-old. “She’s like another sibling, another kid. She’s definitely not a watchdog—she’s one of the family,” Liberati says.
Marita Len of Skaneateles was already the owner of three dogs when her daughter McKenna, now 5, was born. Len, however, was faced with the agonizing decision to have one of the dogs put down. “He was biting my husband, biting other dogs,” she says. “He had issues that I didn’t think were resolvable. . . I couldn’t risk that.”
An active member of the national Siberian husky rescue movement, Len had frequently removed dogs from abusive situations, evaluated them, and helped to place them in nurturing settings. “The thing is, some dogs are not family-compatible,” Len says. “Some dogs, if they see an opportunity to become the alpha dog, they will go after the weak link, and children are the weak link.”
Len, too, recommends researching the breed. She is concerned about fads and families choosing dogs based on how they look. “Dalmatians were very popular after the 101 Dalmatians movie came out, but they’re not the best family dogs,” she says. “Then the shelters were full of them for a while.”
Len’s family has two Siberian huskies, older dogs that she knew well and felt comfortable with when adding a baby to the family. “We brought home one of the baby blankets from the hospital, so they could get used to her smell,” she says, “but they couldn’t have cared less.”
Len attributes the smooth transition in part to the dogs’ age, and in part to her awareness of the dogs’ needs. “Huskies are often not good family dogs and they need a lot of exercise.” Hers get daily exercise in a large yard and have one another for playing and exercising. She believes that knowing their needs, and accommodating them, has been critical to their successful fit in her family.
Rather than relying on breed-specific traits when choosing a dog, veterinarian Ryan suggests families adopt dogs from shelters.
“Shelters are a great place to get a pet,” she says. “You can go back many times, visit with a pet, see how it interacts with your family,” she says. “It gives you a lot more opportunity than a pet shop, for instance, where you see a dog in a cage and have to decide whether to buy it or not. And when you adopt, you free up a kennel to get another animal off the street.”
I can’t imagine not having a dog. They are a major commitment, but for us the joy has outweighed any drawbacks. They are excellent watchdogs, protective, gentle playmates for our daughter—and the food our daughter once flung from the high chair never had a chance to hit the floor.
With a little forethought, a family can figure out whether a dog is the right fit for them, and if so, what type of dog might work out best
Dog owners and experts seem to agree on the point emphasized by Ryan: “Go into it being prepared. This is not where you make an impulse buy.”