How to make this unpleasant question an excellent learning opportunity - by Kira Harris
This is where most parents start to struggle. You know that within a week you’ll be 100% responsible for anything and everything the new puppy does; but Jr. doesn’t believe you! Jr. insists that you’re wrong! And Jr. feels hurt and betrayed that you don’t trust him with this task. So what do you do? You give Jr. the opportunity to PROVE it! You tell Jr. that if he wants a puppy, it’s going to take some time – as in several years time – and if he can show you that he’s responsible enough, then yes, you will let him have a puppy. Most kids will never get there – and if they do, you really will be able to live with a non-shedding, non-drooling, non-barking, accident-free dog in your house with minimal effort on your part!
Sounds too good to be true, but it really does work. If you’re truly not willing to let Jr. have a dog – EVER – this same process can be used to make Jr. feel better about not getting a dog while teaching him valuable life lessons (I personally believe EVERY child should go through this process, whether they end up with a dog or not). Each of these pets (until you reach “dog”) can be kept in Jr.’s room, where they won’t bother you or other members of the household that may be allergic.
The trick is to start with a small and simple pet (like a beta) and work your way up. The child really does have to do EVERYTHING. First, take him to the library and help him learn how to research in books and online. Next, he must tell you what he has learned (or, if he’s a little older, provide a written report) and make a list of all the supplies he’ll need. Then you help him shop for supplies online until he knows how much money he needs (lessons in shopping and money management). Help him decide the best source for his new pet - is a pet store okay or is a breeder a more responsible option? - and help him develop and carry out a plan to save the money. Depending on his age, this plan may include mom and dad “matching” his earnings or helping out in some other way once he’s done the agreed upon chores, work, etc. Finally, you let him make his purchase. Betas are rather boring pets and if your child can successfully care for a beta for one year, he’s already proven he’s more responsible than you thought he was. If he fails and the beta dies, you don’t have to feel as bad as if he caused the death of a more sentient animal, such as a cat or dog. You may be lenient if the beta dies for reasons outside his control – in this case, you simply replace the beta and don’t make him start his year over.
Once he can keep a fish for a year, you let him move on to a slightly more complicated pet for 1-2 years and start the process over (research, discussion, shopping, saving money, purchasing and keeping the pet). This pet can be a hamster, gerbil, mouse, rabbit or guinea pig. Keep in mind that rabbits and guinea pigs live up to 10 years or more, so you may want to stick with a smaller pet with a 1-4 year lifespan - unless you’re willing to keep this pet its entire life when you can’t find a loving home later. Stay away from birds, ferrets, chinchillas, reptiles, amphibians and other exotic pets; these are far too complicated for a young child to manage properly. And don’t forget about the beta! Betas have varying life spans and some can live for several years. Jr. will now be caring for both the beta and the small pet until the beta dies (next great learning opportunity: dealing with death and loss*).
*If you’re not willing to teach your child to deal with death and loss, you should NEVER bring an animal into the home. I hated seeing parents run to the pet store with Jr.’s dead fish, hamster, bird, etc. and frantically inform me that they had to replace it with an identical animal before Jr. got home from school. I hate to break it to you, but Jr. isn’t stupid. Jr. will notice. And now Jr. has to learn to deal with death AND with losing his trust in his parents – and he has to do it on his own because you’re pretending nothing happened. Don’t do it. Either teach your child to deal with loss or don’t get your child a pet.
At this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether or not Jr. will be able to care for a puppy or adult rescue dog. You may want to add a third pet or move straight to a dog, but in either case, Jr. should be at least 12 years old before moving onto anything more complicated. Rats make a perfect third step, since they are incredibly docile, don’t smell (unless Jr. fails to replace the bedding), keep themselves clean, and are very dog-like. They can be trained to go in a litter box, learn their names and the names of their cage-mates, come when called, and do a variety of tricks (such as standing on their hind legs, turning in circles, running a maze, etc.). Requiring Jr. to get a pair of rats (rats are extremely social and cannot be kept solitary) and to successfully train them to do a variety of tasks can be the perfect “final test” before getting a dog. If Jr. was already older when you began this process, pet rats can be used as the second pet and the third step can be skipped over. Keep in mind that none of these “steps” are set-in-stone; it is up to you as the parent to know your individual children and tailor this process to meet each of their needs.
Finally, Jr. can begin preparing to bring home a dog (unless you’re one of the NO DOGS EVER parents). The research phase of this process should take a very long time. Jr. should read a variety of books on training, socializing, communicating with, feeding and generally caring for a dog. He should look up local trainers and have enough money saved to pay for a socialization class as well as a set of in-home training sessions (most personal trainers offer a “pack-of-four” sessions or something similar). He should take the time to teach the family what he has learned and decide in advance, with the family, what rules the dog will have to follow and how the dog will be trained (any family member who participates in training must follow the exact same training style to avoid confusing the dog). Jr. must then research breeds, breeders, rescue dogs and rescue groups to determine what dog will be the best fit for your family (not just for him!) and where to get a dog from (NEVER get a dog from a pet store). Keep in mind that rescue dogs come with their own set of problems. If you and your family are not familiar with dogs, a rescue may not be a good choice for a first dog. Have Jr. obtain experience with dogs by offering dog walking to neighbors and friends with dogs. Find someone willing to let Jr. practice training simple behaviors with their dog. You can even have Jr. “dog-sit” for a neighbor or friend to get a feel for what it’s like to have a dog in the house. When you actually bring the new dog home, do so at the beginning of summer vacation so Jr. has the entire summer to spend training and housebreaking the dog. If you let Jr. bring the dog home during the school year, you will have to step in and help housebreak the dog when Jr. is at school; so avoid this unless you’re truly willing to help.
The golden rule of bringing home a dog is that you keep the dog! Dogs are incredibly social and view their humans as their “family pack.” Dogs are incredibly intelligent and they understand when they've been abandoned in the same way a child understands when his father disappears and never returns. It is unfair to bring a dog home and let it settle in only to get rid of it because you failed to train it to behave properly. This is the entire reason you've required Jr. to go through this long process. Make sure you've discussed what Jr. will do with the dog when he goes to college because “getting rid of the dog” is NOT an option. Will the dog stay with mom and dad? Will the dog stay with a friend or family member (in this case, the dog should be bonded to this person BEFORE being left with them)? Does Jr. have to find a way to take the dog with him? These questions should be addressed BEFORE the dog comes home. If you’ve followed all these steps, Jr. will bring home the right dog for your family. He will care for him properly and do almost all the work. The rest of the family will still have to participate some in helping the dog understand the rules. For example, if the dog is not allowed to beg at the table, but someone in the family continues feeding the dog from the table, the dog is never going to learn. Still, your participation will be minimal – and you’ll be able to enjoy having a well-behaved dog in the house and you’ll hardly have to do ANYTHING! The best part, however, is that you’ll have a well-adjusted Jr. who knows how to handle money, be responsible, work hard, and learn new things.