Dogs earned the title of "man's best friend" for a reason. They bring so much to our lives: love, companionship, and daily opportunities for fun (not to mention exercise).
Having a pet is good for our kids, too. Dogs help children form strong bonds and build self-esteem. Some studies have found that they might even help protect kids against health conditions like asthma and anxiety.
"There are so many wonderful benefits to adopting a dog when you have children! Dogs teach children empathy and the responsibility of caring for someone else," says Emily Whitehouse, head of training and behavior at Wags and Walks, a Los Angeles-based group that works to promote shelter dogs.
"Owning a dog can be a great bonding experience for the whole family."
What Dogs Teach Kids
A sense of responsibility is one of the biggest lessons that kids can learn from a dog. Pets need food, water, daily walks, and grooming. Letting kids handle some of these tasks (supervised, if they're under age 10) teaches them skills they'll need to care for themselves as they grow up. It also gives them valuable lessons in structure and routine, Whitehouse says.
"Children can also learn about trust and respect as they build a friendship with their new family member," she says. And teaching a dog tricks like "sit" or "roll over" builds confidence.
How to Choose the Right Dog for Your Family
Before you adopt a dog, think about your situation. Do you have the time to care for a puppy or a high-energy dog? Do you have a yard? Is it fenced? Does anyone in your family have allergies?
"Before visiting a shelter, have a discussion with your family about the kind of dog that would fit your lifestyle, and make sure everyone is on the same page," Whitehouse says.
Ask your vet, and shelter or rescue staff, about what size, age, and type of dog might be a good fit for you.
If you're interested in a particular breed, do enough homework to answer some questions: “How much exercise do they need? How much intellectual stimulation do they need? Do they tend to be friendly toward many people, or do they choose one or two people to bond with? How much do they shed?” says Angela Logsdon-Hoover, regional technician director for VCA Animal Hospitals and a certified dog trainer.
You can even find online tools that match you with a breed based on your type of home, activity level, and other things.
If you have a particular pooch in mind, ask the shelter staff whether the dog has any behavior problems or medical issues, Logsdon-Hoover says.
Bring the whole family along for a visit to make sure everyone's on board with your choice.
“Observe the dog without interacting first, then play with the dog, sit with the dog, and pet the dog,” Logsdon-Hoover says. “If you feel good about the connection, have your children meet the dog.”
Getting Kids Used to Your New Pet
Any new situation brings uncertainty for an adopted dog. Imagine that you just moved into a new home. You'd need time to adjust. So does your dog. Even a dog who seemed happy or calm in the shelter can become frightened or skittish in new surroundings.
"Encouraging your children to be as calm as possible is very important," Whitehouse says. "This allows your new dog and your children time to get used to each other, build trust, and become friends calmly and safely."
Don't give your dog the run of the house right away. Keep some rooms off-limits. Make others pooch-friendly safe spaces where kids can't bother them. That's what Drew Bigda of Los Angeles did for his two pups, Mr. Big and Savi B, after his son, Ranger, was born.
"We made sure to keep one area of the house free from baby stuff and baby takeover," he says. "We turned our back bedroom into their little sanctuary, so when things got a little overwhelming with all the people (or the crying!) they could kind of escape and have their space that they felt safe and comfortable in."
Bigda also stuck to his normal walk routine and took the dogs everywhere the family went.
"I think that really gave them the feeling that the arrival of the baby was just a fun addition of more love in the house, rather than them becoming less of a priority," he says
Remember that it can take time for kids to adjust to a new dog, and vice versa. If the transition doesn't go as smoothly as you'd like, hire a dog trainer to guide you through, Whitehouse suggests.
Getting Kids Involved in Dog Care
Kids can, and should, play an active part in caring for your pet, but in a way that’s right for their age. Children under 4 always need an adult present when they're around the dog. Those under age 10 will need some help with tasks like feeding, walking, and grooming.
"If you have young children, they may not be ready to walk the dog right away, but they can help out with care by putting water out for your pup," Whitehouse says.
Gradually move up to letting them brush or walk the dog. But "consider the dog's size compared to the child before allowing them to walk the dog without assistance," Logsdon-Hoover says.
Some dogs take longer than others to get used to a new home. Allow them at least a few days to adjust. Once you get through the get-to-know-you period, your pet should start to feel like part of the family.
It shouldn't be long before you start to see the benefits of adopting for both dog and children.
"The idea of Ranger growing up with these two best buddies, protectors, and endless sources of entertainment truly warms my heart," Bigda says.