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07 February 2010

Realistic Expectations of Kids

This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work, posted here with her permission. Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer). Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.

Only a week or two left until our fostered pups go to their new homes. Many of our dogs join families with kids, in fact Scooby is going to a family whose eldest child is an 11 yo boy who will share responsibility for caring for him as well as playing with and cuddling him. Some people who contact us have unrealistic expectations of what having a dog will teach their children so I thought I'd share this little article as a piece of gentle guidance. 

Realistic Expectations of Kids

People focus a lot on the behaviour that they expect from their dog, or dogs, around children but how about taking a look at what is reasonable to expect from the children themselves. Having seen some stunning examples of great dog training (and on occasion parent training) from some very young children and some stunningly bad examples of kids and dogs in risky situations I wondered just what we should be expecting from that ‘average’ child at each stage of their development. Here’s what I found…and while some of it might sound like common sense – it doesn’t seem that common.

Birth to three years

These children:

·         Require constant supervision when around dogs.

·         Do not understand that what they do to a dog causes pain or might cause aggression – they don’t yet really understand that anyone other than themselves has feelings or thoughts at all.

·         Can be harmed by even friendly interactions.

·         Obviously cannot be expected to help care for or actively participate in training a dog.

Your focus here should be in protecting your baby (and dog) at first. Then as the child develops into a toddler they are also likely to develop a fascination with the dog/s – which may or may not be reciprocated. You toddler may be poking, pushing and prodding the dog – but it is likely to really be an attempt to learn about the animal. Start using touch and feel books and stuffed toys etc before you try and teach your youngster to touch dogs appropriately and gently. Be aware that they can have difficulty telling the difference between living beings and inanimate objects such as stuffed toys – it’s up to you to teach them.

At about 2 you might consider getting your child to help put the dog’s toys away in one box and their toys in another. Alternatively you might want to teach your child to leave all dog toys alone – it’s up to you.

By 3 your child should be starting to understand and accept boundaries including a pet’s boundaries such as how far the child needs to keep or not going onto a dog’s bed or into a dog’s crate.

Three to six years

These children are starting to take responsibility for themselves. They are becoming more independent and are willing to learn and interact with the world in a different way. With children this age you can consider:

·         Allocating one special task to the child so that he has and is rewarded for having an important role in caring for the dog (and yes – reward your children for behaviour you like just the way you do with your dog). Tasks may include filling water bowls from a jug or watering can (filled by an adult); some simple grooming tasks.

·         Working with your child as a partner in training particularly where your dog is already well trained. This gives the child some level of control over the dog and also gives them a sense of achievement that will be written all over their face.

Be warned that children at this stage in their development:

·         Are still cognitively immature and have some quite strange, illogical and entertaining (or frustrating) views of how the world works.

·         Do not have a good grasp of cause and effect so cannot always predict what will happen next if they do something to or with a dog.

·         Have a limited attention span but an even more limited level of self control – many find it impossible to stand or sit still.

·         Are not particularly consistent in the way they do things – so if you are going to have them train with the dog ensure that you supervise, that the dog really knows the behaviour that the child is training and be ready to a) back up the child’s cue with subtle cues from you and b) do some remedial work with the dog to maintain their consistency in regard to the cue – therefore come and other critical (even life saving) cues are not one’s I’d consider doing with a child this young.

·         Believe, really believe that the world is all about them so developing an understanding of others needs, including the dogs, is beneficial but also can be hard work.

Children this age learn a lot from modeling what they see adults and older children do – so beware this really is a case of having to have a good look at what sort of role models your child is mimicking. Demonstration is also a great method of showing the child what to do – what the dog does like in terms of touch for instance – and what they don’t like (but perhaps on a stuffie for this one).

Six to twelve years

Here taking on additional responsibilities successfully helps develop a positive self-concept. They start to really develop logic – understanding things like cause and effect and problem solving.

Here being responsible and being recognised and rewarded for it is very important in developing self confidence and a ‘give it a go’ or ‘I can do it’ attitude.

For these children being responsible for one or more aspect of pet care is a good start. From about 8 they can also increasingly become involved in training, including starting to train tricks and games – all with supervision of course.

A tip for parents and teachers is to use role play and questioning sessions to help the children develop an understanding of dog body language, feelings and needs and also the likely consequences of both dog behaviour and the child’s own behaviour. More on this in a future post.

You can set up family rules and contracts with children of this age if you are realistic, and if you stick with them too! Don’t forget to recognise and reward instances of people who actually stick with the rules.

You need to be really cautious about letting children take responsibility for walking a dog. They need to be able to physically and mentally control the dog and in times of high arousal when something unexpected and exciting or stressful happens.

Otherwise you risk the child witnessing their dog come to untimely and unhappy end and blaming themselves – and by then it’s all just too late.

Some dog training schools will allow children at 8 years of age to participate in dog training classes (with parental supervision – and sometimes with the parent holding the lead).

Twelve +

These children are now developing more complex thinking skills including more complex hypothetical problems. They start to be able to think about options and different possible outcomes. This all means that they can really start to understand and apply (and even modify) basic training principles. With some coaching they can also become able to predict possible problems and redirect or address them before they occur.

Sometimes you need to remember that they are still basically children or adolescents and that you need to be realistic about expectations.

You might be surprised to learn that many teenagers actually rely on time alone with the dog so that they can download, talk and seek comfort from them in a way they often feel they can’t with humans. So if possible give them this space and special time.

Some dog training schools choose to restrict the minimum age of children in class to 12 years of age. This can also be a great age to get the child and dog involved in doggy sports such as flyball or agility (with appropriate supervision) as these can teach self control, focus and a lot of other really useful life skills to both dog and child.

So where do we end up?

Throughout growing up we learn about our dogs (and other animals) and how to treat them and embed some pretty deep convictions about their worth, their feelings and their role through:

·         Trial and error – trying something with the dog and learning from the response from the dog and from other people around you.

·         Observing other children and adults – particularly those you admire or have great affection for – in the way they interact with dogs.

·         Observing what your peer group expect and reward in terms of interactions (not always nice ones).

·         Being taught that the dog is a member of the family deserving of respect and consideration.

·         The media and all its realistic and misleading representations of animals and people’s interactions with them and the value of them in our society.

·         Education experiences – zoo trips, farm visits, school and youth group education activities.

So be careful about what information’s going into your child’s education. More on some useful resources coming soon.

A warning

No matter how well socialised and trained your dog. No matter how well behaved your child. Put the two together and there is risk. No one can guarantee a dog to be ‘child-proof’. They are animals not robots. With both the dog and the child in the mix there are so many things that can go right – and others that can go wrong. So remember the rule – Supervise! Supervise! Supervise!


·         Colleen Pelar – Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind.

·         Andrea McHugh – Your Child’s Dog. How to Help Your Kids Care for Their Pets.

·         Ruth Weston and Dr Catriona Ross – Kids & Dogs. Teaching Them to Live, Play and Learn Together.

·         How Kids Respond to Pets: What to Expect from Your Child by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at

·         How Old Should a Child Be Before S/He is Allowed to Take Care of a Pet by RSPCA Australia at

Brooki is looking for a wonderful new home.

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