My first dog was when I was about 10 years old. Our family adopted a puppy. He lived with us for about a year before my parents gave him up to be rehomed.
The reality of life with a rambunctious puppy and four young children was too much, I guess.
The experience of losing my dog was incredibly painful—and still is 30 years later. It completely influenced my relationship with subsequent animals in my life.
When we adopted Baxter five years ago, I was very thoughtful and careful. I was making a forever commitment, so I wanted to find the right dog for us.
For families with children who are looking to adopt a dog, thought and care are even more important. Kids and dogs are incredible, wonderful and challenging.
If you’re thinking of adopting a dog when you have kids, it is important to reflect, prepare and plan to make sure everyone—kids, parents and dog—live happily ever after.
How dogs benefit children—adopting a dog
Animals bring many benefits to children.
For our 1-year-old Ellie, her relationship is mainly about the joy and enrichment she gets from sharing her life with her pets. She gasps with delight when she first sees Baxter in the morning or spots our barncat Ralph outside.
Education. The experience of living with dogs is also highly educational for children, as they see how dogs learn and behave. Training is an obvious example of a learning opportunity for both children and dogs, but there are many more.
Where to start when you’re thinking of getting a dog
Anyone who is considering adopting a dog should be thoughtful, whether you have kids or not.
However, children bring some extra considerations and make it especially important to think things through.
Age is the first consideration. Puppies can grow with your family and usually adjust very well to being around children and the dynamics of your family. However, puppies come with particular training and developmental challenges.
An older dog may have some training and more stable energy levels than a puppy. But some dogs who have not been exposed to children may need time to adjust to living with kids 24/7. See my post: Why I didn’t want a puppy.
Characteristics of the dog
Think about the characteristics of a dog that would work best for your family. Everything from size to coat to health considerations. This process may lead you to a particular breed, but be open to mixes or mutts. Sites like Petfinder allow you to customize your search based on a number of qualities, so that you can find dogs suited to your family.
Energy of the dog
For me, energy level is the most important consideration if you’re adopting a dog when you have kids. Most kids are pretty energetic, so you might be drawn to an energetic dog who will play with them. But frolicking in the backyard may not be enough of a release for certain dogs.
You have to be prepared to meet your dog’s energy needs, whether it’s a simple walk in the neighborhood or going for long runs, attending agility classes or other activities. Research breeds to figure out what dogs may be an energy match for your family. See our post: How to tire out a hyper dog.
Depending on the age of your children, all of the questions above should be answered through a family discussion. You’re adding a dog to your family, so the decision of what type of a dog will fit best should be made jointly.
Surprising your kids with a dog
I do not recommend surprising your kids with a dog. The preparation and consideration is really important to help make sure all of the family members are on the same page. You can still connect a dog to a special occasion like a birthday or Christmas, but be open about your plans and involve your kids in the process.
See our post: Dogs as Christmas presents.
Stepping stone to a dog
If you don’t feel completely ready for a dog, consider another type of pet as a stepping stone. A rabbit, hamster, lizard, fish or other small animals can introduce children to pet ownership with slightly less commitment.
The companionship from these animals can be very meaningful, but the amount of care they need may be slightly less than a dog. Children will learn the importance of feeding, cleaning and playing with the animal.
Watching your children interact with their pet can enlighten you to how they might behave with a dog. You can see if there are any shortcomings that you can address, or maybe your kids surprise you and you feel ready for a dog sooner than you expected.
How to choose the right dog to adopt for your children
Once you have an idea of what type of dog and characteristics will work best for your family, start your search. Visit your local shelter, find a breeder, connect with a rescue group, look online. There are many responsible ways to adopt a dog.
Be prepared to spend some time on your search. It’s easy to fall in love with every dog you meet—puppy dog eyes work—but remember your priorities and make sure the dog aligns with your family.
Questions to ask before you adopt a dog
The best resource to get to know a dog is the dog’s caregiver. Ask your breeder, foster family or shelter staff lots of questions about the dog.
Try to understand his needs, what he most likes to do, any situations that have made him uneasy, how he likes to spend his time, what specific care he needs.
Be up front about your family dynamics and what you’re looking for in a dog. Ask lots of questions and share lots of information about yourself and your kids.
Shelter staff, rescue volunteers and breeders all share the goal of finding happy, loving homes for their dogs. They want to make sure you are a fit for the dog, just like you want to make sure the dog is a fit for you and your children.
When you go to meet a prospective dog, bring your kids. Watch how they interact with the dog and how he interacts with them. Try to do a few different activities or visit some different environments with the dog. Take him for a short walk on leash. Play with him outside on the grass. See how he reacts to different situations.
Prepare the house – adopting a dog when you have kids
As you begin your search for a dog, you should also begin to set up your home for our new family member.
The first step is the simplest. Talk about the dog.
This conversation will look different depending on the age of your children. This is an opportunity to build excitement in the family and also prepare everyone for the responsibility of a dog.
Talk about the attention the dog will need and how you’re going to meet his needs. Discuss how each of you are going to take care of the dog, what some of the house rules will be, and plan some of the fun activities you’re going to do together.
Doggie chore chart
A doggie chore chart may be helpful to lay out who is going to walk, feed, groom or train the dog. A chart can help to diffuse squabbles over whose turn it is to play with the dog. Or, in case the novelty wears off, whose turn it is to take it out to the bathroom.
Figure out where the dog is going to sleep, eat and go to the bathroom. Buy some basic equipment, like a crate or bed, bowls and leash. I suggest holding off buying food until you actually adopt your dog. Feeding your dog a food he is used to can help to prevent an upset stomach and ease his transition to your home.
If your kids need reminders to pick up toys or keep their rooms tidy, this is the time to practice. Toys, cords, socks, or numerous other things can easily become hazards for a dog–especially if you’re adopting a puppy who may chew. Work with your kids to develop good dog-friendly habits.
The other basics you need to sort out in advance are a vet, trainer, and, depending on your needs, groomer or dog walker.
Bring your new dog home
Finally, all of your preparation has paid off. You’ve found the right dog for your family. The house is ready. The kids are ready. You’re ready. It’s time to bring your dog home.
This is a very exciting time for your family. Continue the conversations you’ve been having with your kids to remind them that the dog could easily be overwhelmed by all of the attention and changes he’s about to go through. Remind them to be gentle and calm and talk about the plan for the first hours or days that the dog joins your family.
Our post about how to help your dog adjust to a new home has lots of great tips for day one and the first few weeks with your new dog, whether you’re adopting a rescue or a puppy or an older dog.
My favourite advice is to take your dog for a walk before you get in the car to bring him home. Barbara writes, it’s “a polite way of introducing myself rather than just putting him into my car right away and driving off with him.”
Slowly help your new dog adjust
Take it slow and give your dog lots of time to adjust at each stage of his transition.
This post from Lindsay about bringing home a foster dog includes some more good tips about bringing a dog home and how to make sure he has some quiet time to decompress.
Another helpful tip is to keep your new dog on a leash at first, even inside the house. This gives you more control if you need to redirect the dog—especially important around small children—or quickly run him outside if he needs a bathroom break.
When he first comes home, watch your dog. Do not leave your children alone with the dog. Monitor how he reacts to his new environment and various family members. Watch your children as well and make sure they’re interacting politely.
Remember our earlier point about how much children will learn from their dog? You can use every teaching opportunity that comes along. As you get to know your dog and his body language, help your children understand what their dog may be saying.
Your initial focus should be on establishing a strong routine for all of the family members—dog and human. Start training training your dog right away and involving your kids as much as possible.
Happily ever after
Most parents hear the question at least once in their lives. “Mom? Dad? Can we get a dog?”
If your answer is “Yes” or even if your answer is “Maybe” these tips for adopting a dog when you have kids may be helpful.
The bond between a child and dog is very special. Animals can bring so much fulfillment to our lives no matter how old we are.
While I started this article with a story of an adoption that didn’t work out, the time I had with my first dog was extremely influential. I still carry it with me and it affects how I care for Baxter, Ralph and how I think about future animals like ducks and chickens that will hopefully someday join our farm.
I hope that this article helps other families to create healthy, loving, long-lasting relationships with dogs.
How have your kids benefited from having a dog in their lives?