"I promise I'll take care of him!" Children mean well, but they cannot accurately gauge what is involved in taking care of a dog. Though you should encourage your children to participate in pet care, do not assume that they will be able to manage that responsibility on their own. Even teens may not be completely reliable.
Every dog and every child are different, of course, so be sure you've carefully assessed the situation before putting a kid in charge of an animal. Keep in mind that most children will need adult supervision while caring for their dog, most of the time.
As the parent, you have to determine which dog-care tasks your children can handle. Here's what you can reasonably expect:
- Starting at around age 3, young kids can help with feeding, watering, grooming, and walking. And, of course, playing with your dog is a great job for preschoolers -- often the family dog is the only one who can keep up with them!
- By the time they're starting school, children can be assigned some dog-care chores to do on their own, such as filling water bowls or giving the dog a daily brushing. A chore chart or other reminder system will go a long way toward making sure these tasks get accomplished.
- Elementary-school kids can feed, water, groom, and play with a dog on their own, but under age 12 they should not generally be allowed to walk a dog without an adult. Although it may depend on the size and age of the dog, for the most part preteens do not have the maturity to deal with the unexpected -- such as another dog who may be aggressive, or what to do if the dog slips its lead. A 10-year-old may be able to handle walking a 15-pound miniature poodle or even a slightly larger pet who's old and docile, but not a 100-pound German Shepherd. Base your decision on the dog-to-child size ratio and your child's personal maturity level.
- Some teenagers can handle full responsibility for a pet, from cleanup to vet care. Any responsibility a teen is willing and able to take on should be encouraged and supported.