UCB Parents Advice about Pets

What's the right age to get a puppy?

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March 2001

Recently my husband stated that our son will be getting a dog on his third birthday (this year). He wants to get an Australian Sheppard. Personally, I want to wait another year or two at least before we condsider getting a dog (I hope I will have a say in this matter!). We have 2 cats at the moment, which our son just recently started to take an interest in. I'd like advice/shared experience on when folks got their first family dog -how old was the child/children, and what kind. How are Australian Sheppards? thanks


Three is awfully young for a dog. Three-year-olds can have difficulty being gentle, and in understanding and respecting a dog's cues to back off. Even a sweet dog can nip when being harassed. Also, if you are thinking about getting a puppy, they need a lot of attention and consistency for effective training. That can be hard to provide when you have a small child. Kids love to order dogs (and parents) around, and it can be very confusing (from the dog's point of view) to hear commands when they are not meant or appropriate for the circumstances. As to breeds, Aussies are nice dogs, and smart, but have lots of energy and need ample exercise.

Here is an alternative way to get a perfect dog: We had an old German Shepherd when our kids were little, and remained dog-less for two years after she died. When our youngest was almost five, we adopted a "career change" dog (a black Lab) from Guide Dogs for the Blind -- i.e., a dog who flunked out of training. This was one of our family's all-time great decisions. We adore this dog! He was bred for an even temperament, and although he flunked out, he is superbly trained. (He even heels for our five-year-old!) Guide Dogs requires adopters to have a fenced-in yard (they check) and generally prefers to place dogs with families with children over 6. (I think they gave us the benefit of the doubt because we are experienced dog people and our little one had had a dog (albeit one more like a throw rug) before.) There is often a long (several year) wait for one of their dogs. If you have a fenced-in yard and would like the best dog you'll even have, I would recommend submitting an application now; they probably will call you about the time your child is old enough to be reasonable with a dog. If you have questions, feel free to call me about how to apply to Guide Dogs. Leslie


Children of any ages can have dogs as pets; infants (such as my son) can be born into households with pet dogs. But they are a huge responsibility. Obviously, it's going to be up to you and your husband to feed them, provide them with water, keep them groomed and flea-free, and keep up their shots--as a minimum. They'll also need exercise and teeth-brushing and a lot of love. And you'll need to pick up their leavings. Australian shepherds are great pets, but they may not be good for households with such a young child. They are smart and can be high-strung. They can bond to one or two people in the household, rather than a whole family. And they'll herd the dickens out of you all. (One of our dogs is a Shetland-sheepdog mix, and he has yet to let my 15-month-old son touch him. On the other hand, he herds him throughout the house and barks at him constantly, part of the herding routine. It can get pretty chaotic and noisy.)

You may wish to get a pet who is a bit mellower, such as a golden retriever. Be prepared to take your dog to obedience school immediately, especially to train him or her to get used to ear- and tail-pulling--which toddlers love to do to dogs. Be sure to have a place where the dog can go to get away from your toddler (such as a crate or an off-limits room), but otherwise, you'll want to be able to have your pet in the same areas as the rest of the family.

A dog needs a lot more attention than a cat does. So you and your husband should really ask yourselves if you're prepared to spend the time giving the dog the love and care he or she needs while you're raising a child. Plus, you're going to want to spend time conditioning the cats to the dog and vice-versa. (You may want to start with a puppy, to make life easier for your cats; a full-grown dog who has not been raised with cats will probably chase them. On the other hand, puppies are very demanding.) I love dogs and have had them since I was 8, but they can be overwhelming, so unless you're willing to give it a lot of effort, you may want to talk your husband out of this for a while. Gwynne


I think the right age for a pet dog does vary enormously. The truth is, though, if the child is less than seven or eight, the dog will be your dog (or your husband's) and the child just another member of the family. We had had a border collie when my daughter was a baby, and she loved it, but for various reasons (disintegrating fence, howling, cat flea plagues of incredible ferocity, my allergies to the long fur) we had to find another home for it when she was about three. From that dog she learned a lot of important things like not poking it in the eyes or pulling its tail, but she certainly didn't have the same relationship to it that she does to her current dog. She still talks about the way "Lucy used to guard my pram and herd away any other dangerous toddlers that tried to come near", though. As an eight year old she was able to be responsible for feeding, walking, and we arranged for her to go to obedience cl! as! ses with the new puppy and so on. We actually drew a line in the sand and said that if she didn't feed the dog, it would be sent to a home that didn't starve it, and we never feed it ourselves- so she is one of the few so called "dog-owning" children I know who does actually take responsibility for it. Training a puppy really makes an extraordinary and special bond, that's just not available between a toddler and a dog (even though they can have a lovely time together) That puppy grew up and had a litter of her own a couple of years later - and we kept one of them for my younger son. It was a very different situation for a six year old. He simply wasn't able to handle the relationship in the same way as an eight year old could, and in fact the dog obedience people when I asked them said that ten was a more likely age. It was a much bigger struggle to have him take any responsibility, and he didn't have such a cl! ea! r idea of the dog's rights in the situation either.

As a child myself, we always had various dogs, although they were really my mother's. I had and trained a puppy myself when I was eleven and, again, it was a trully wonderful experience. I loved all the other dogs, too, of course, just they weren't mine. My husband's experience was that he was given a dog when he was ten, in the teeth of his mother's objections (to fur, I think), and she broke his heart getting rid of it within six months. It sounded like a painful and unnecessary situation to me. Overall, getting a dog is a family thing - not something one member of the family should foist on the others without consultation. If your husband wants a dog - is he really going to look after it? Fiona


Just last week we adopted a 3 year old girl Aussie via an Australian Shepherd rescue group. She is an absolutely delightful dog. However, not all Aussies are as easy as she is. We were on the lookout for a smaller, mellow, girl Aussie who was tolerant of children, was smart but not hyper or anxious. We had a friend who had such a dog, and she asked her connection at the rescue group to keep an eye out for us. It took nearly a year to find the right dog. We had also been visiting the folks at the Milo Foundation regularly. I really recommend going through a rescue group, particularly if you're looking for a dog past the puppy stage, whether purebred or not (some groups specialize in particular breeds - some, like Milo, will rescue adoptable dogs of all kinds from shelters). The rescue people will foster the dog for at least a few weeks and get to know his/her traits. They'll be able to give you a pretty good idea of whether the dog will be good with children and match your family's lifestyle. Of course, if you're really up for a puppy, you should go to a good breeder.

We decided to wait until our youngest was at least 4...and as it turned out, we didn't find the right dog until she was five and her older sister was 8. I'm glad we waited. A child under the age of 5 just doesn't get safety rules and should never be left unsupervised with a pet. My five year old occasionally slips up and sticks her face in front of the dog's, for example. (We got a book called "How to Talk to Your Dog" by J.C. George which really made sense to her.) A three year old will probably want to poke and pull at the dog in inappropriate ways. You'll need to think about whether you and your husband are willing to always supervise the dog and your child. An older child can participate in obedience classes and help take real responsibility for the dog (my girls feed her, give her water, take her out.) Best of luck in your decision and your search. Natasha


My husband and I took home an eight week old puppy when my daughter was not quite ten weeks old. Despite the extra work, we were very happy with our Bernese Mountain Dog and managed to raise both members of the "litter" with moderate success. I am very glad that we had our dog, both as a puppy and as an adult. But Bernese are a larger dog than Australian Shepherds, less active, and much more mellow. Bernese are not as friendly and mellow as Labs or Golden Retrievers, but Bernese are more like them in temperament than like Australian Shepherds who are active, bossy and very smart.

My friend has a wonderful Australian Shepherd, but since both my daughter and I have been "corrected" by an attempted nip from this dog, I asked my friend what she thought of an Australian Shepherd living with a three year old. My (anonymous) friend's response follows:

"I have an Australian Shepherd who I adore; however, I would not recommend the breed for families with young children. My dog views youngsters as being the equivalent of sheep in need of herding. That means she may dart at children and nip or pretend to nip them. Not surprisingly, this can be alarming to both the child and parent. These are extremely smart work dogs and that means that they can easily get bored. They need a lot of attention and if you have a three year old, you may not be able to give them the attention they need. If your husband really wants an Australian Shepherd (which I can easily understand), I'd wait until your child is at least eight." Martha


Feb 2000

My nephew, aged 3 and a half, is begging my sister for a puppy. He says he will take care of it. both she and I think he's too young now, but what is the right age (knowing that no child is ever going to do ALL of the caretaking). fyi, he is one of twins (the other is a girl). and, maybe I should also mention, he is Deaf (we have heard about "hearing dogs" and are interested in this too).


I am writing as a child who once had a puppy who I dearly loved but as a child, one is unable to fully care for such an animal, without major support and help from parents. I would say that even as a 15 year old I couldn't have cared for the dog alone. However, I believe there is no child too young to learn to love one of Man's Best Friends, with help from parents. I did not have parent help and support and found a new home for my dog, which broke my heart.
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