Make it a family affair
Right at this moment, there are probably hundreds of children thinking about the puppy their parents have promised them. Or perhaps there’s already a dog in the family and a youngster has decided that the black Lab or the beagle is really his or her own pet.
More and more dogs are being rescued by kids who have convinced their parents that they will be responsible for feeding, walking, grooming, training — everything — if only they could have a pet of their own: “Please, Mom, can’t we get a dog?”
Jaimee Kelsey, director of training and marketing at Dog Gone Smart, an animal training center in Norwalk, advises, “Never give a child a dog as a pet. Children cannot be held responsible for the life, safety, health, behavior of another living being, like a dog or cat. Yes, a child can have a really close, significant, loving relationship with the family dog, but the child cannot be given the full responsibility of feeding, walking, health, and sociability of an animal. Dog bites and children are a real issue. Many dogs are available for adoption who are fine breeds, attractive, smart, adorable dogs, but they must be identified as the family dog, not the child’s pet.”
Ari Jacobson of the Pet Pantry Warehouse in Greenwich (also in Wilton and New Canaan) has a similar view. “Before a dog is even brought home, children must understand that puppies, like babies, must be on a schedule,” he explains. “Feeding, walking, and playing have to be at specific times. This gives the dog a sense of security, helps with training and makes the dog a part of the family, happier, friendlier and easier to take care of.”
There are special toys that help foster the dog/child relationship, according to Ari. “There’s a toy with a heartbeat for young puppies that imitates the puppy’s mother’s heartbeat. Plush toys are preferable because they feel different from most children’s toys. There are toys that can be stuffed with a sock or some other piece of clothing that has a familiar scent to reassure the dog.”
Ari’s 5-year-old son has already started training his dog, brushing its teeth and grooming it. Ari says that with the right parental support, very young children can be good dog owners.
Even with the best care, nutrition and exercise, pets can become sick or require surgery. Families planning to add a pet to their household should find a veterinarian even before bringing the animal home. South Wilton Veterinary Group, for example, is dedicated to excellence in small animal care, according to co-owners Dr. Nicholas Sitinas VMD and Dr. Stacy Robertson DVM. In addition to dogs and cats, the group treats birds, reptiles and exotics.
Dr. Raina Schunk, a veterinarian with the group, recommends that a newly acquired dog or cat be seen by a vet as soon as possible. “You want to make sure the animal is well, without parasites. You’ll find out about heartworm prevention, what vaccines may be indicated, and about general care for your pet. A good relationship with a vet is important. If any symptoms develop, like respiratory or digestive problems, call your vet. If you see it, don’t ignore it.”
At Park Animal Hospital in Darien, Dr. Damian Battersby DVM and Dr. Shelley Skopit, owners, stress the importance of choosing the right dog, or pet, for your family. “Once you bring your puppy home and it’s ready to be exposed to other dogs, it would be beneficial to sign up for puppy classes, which teach new owners what they need to know, and helps socialize their new dog,” Dr. Battersby explains. “Consistency is key when training. … If one family member lets the dog up on the couch or bed and another doesn’t, it will be confusing for the dog. Everyone in the home needs to be on the same page.”
Cats are generally thought to be more aloof than dogs, but many families say their cats are affectionate. Hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and snakes can be the source of great pleasure and learning. Children are fascinated with different species, and parents have an obligation to explain what owning a living creature entails. The love and care of a living creature can develop character, affection and pride.
According to the ASPCA website, www.aspca.org, approximately 7.6 companion animals enter animal shelters every year. With so many pets in need of homes, families considering bringing a dog or cat into their home may visit one of the many area shelters, including the Connecticut Humane Society in Westport, PAWS in Norwalk, or ROAR in Ridgefield, among others.
The Connecticut Humane Society, a private charity since 1881, operates an animal shelter in Westport from which dogs may be adopted. Usually these dogs are yearning for a new home and family. They are often shy and anxious and need a carefully controlled adjustment time. They may have been mistreated or neglected and are therefore self-protective and require very gentle care. This will evolve into true bonding eventually. That’s where kindness and respect come into play for the child and the family pet.
Ann Graham Gaines’s book, Kids Top 10 Pet Dogs, describes the personalities of different dogs and things to consider when choosing the family’s dog. Size, breed, where to shop, appearance, behavior, adult or puppy, lively and playful or calm and serene? It’s a big decision. You’re increasing the family and you’re giving your children a true good friend.