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Getting a family pet is a big step — not only for children but for parents as well. A dog is a huge responsibility for an adult to take on, so things can get a little murky when trying to determine if a child is in fact ready for that kind of a commitment. If you didn’t already have a pet when your child was born and are now considering it, how do you know if it’s the right time?

“Every child is different,” says Amity Hook-Sopko, Editor in Chief of Green Child Magazine, “but the sweet spot for wanting a pet seems to be between the ages of 5 and 7.” It’s true that a dog will add another layer to your daily to-dos, but the gifts they’ll give back to your family will be tenfold. A child can learn many things from having a pet—and caring for a dog may even aid in making them a better person overall.

The work that goes into a new pet will surely be worthwhile, but don’t rush it. Make sure that your child—and the adults in the house—are ready. Take a look at seven signals below that can help determine if now is the right time:

7 Signs That Your Child Is Ready for a Pet

  1. Your child is already physically able and mentally willing to handle some age-appropriate chores around the house.
  2. Your child shows signs of empathy.
  3. They show genuine interest in the idea of caring for a pet and are curious about dogs when you encounter them outside of the house.
  4. They know what’s required for a pet to survive, including food, water, and shelter.
  5. Your child also understands what a dog needs to be happy, including socialization, toys, and exercise.
  6. They understand the need to be gentle at times and you have seen them practice this with young babies or other people’s pets.
  7. They also need to understand permanence. You can say, “Once we make this dog a member of the family, he’s here for good, just like your little brother.”

“Take a trial run if you can,” says Hook-Sopko. “Offer to dog-sit for a friend or family member.” Or spend a few hours at your local shelter or with a local breeder to allow your child time with the type of dog you’re considering.

young girl running outdoors with a german shepherd dog

Family Pet Care Responsibilities: Expectations Vs. Reality

No matter what agreements are made prior to bringing home a dog, ultimately the adults will be responsible for everything. “It’s best to keep your expectations realistic from the start,” recommends Hook-Sopko. “Even if your child has begged and sworn to handle everything, you’ll still be the one scheduling and driving to vet appointments and buying things like food, bedding, and toys. And while they can certainly help with house-training a puppy, that takes a degree of consistency most kids just don’t have.”

So what pet care tasks can you realistically expect your child to help take care of on a regular basis? Here are some age-related chores that a child can actually follow through on:

Appropriate Age-Related Pet Care Tasks

  • Ages 3-4: Hook-Sopko believes that preschoolers can be fun little pet parents. “They should still be supervised around pets, but these little helpers can scoop food and refill water bowls. Give them a soft brush that fits in their hands, and they’ll be happy to groom their dog. They can also pick up and put away pet toys.”
  • Ages 5-9: “At this age, kids can take on a little more responsibility, like being the primary one who feeds the dog. You could also give them the job of cleaning up any spilled water or food around the pet’s bowls.” Depending on your dog’s size and your living situation, they may be able to take the dog outside to play. If your child will be picking up waste, be sure to teach them proper hygiene and make sure they wash their hands.
  • Ages 10 and up: “Tweens are typically capable of most day-to-day pet care like feeding, play, exercising, potty duty, and grooming.” Hook-Sopko suggests helping them set a schedule to be sure they meet their agreed-upon chores.

And finally, Hook Sopko warns that as tempting as it may be when there’s an accident because your child forgot to take the dog out in time, never threaten to give your pet away. “This can be traumatic to a child. And when you threaten things you don’t follow through on, they get mixed signals on consequences and the value of your words.”

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Related article: Five Common Questions New Puppy Owners Have
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