Parents with Older Children

Parents With Children 4-11 Years Old Who Currently Own a Pet

Elementary school age children—especially ones in the upper end of the age group, 9, 10, and 11-year olds—may have mastered a lot of things, but often responsible pet ownership is not one of them. Children learn what they are told, but also what they see. So the best way to teach your children how to be a responsible pet owner is to be one yourself.

Pets are a big responsibility, but the benefits of raising your children with pets far outweigh the negatives. Pets can ease the transition of suddenly having to share mom or dad's attention with a new sibling. Pets can also help kids learn to deal with medical issues and illnesses as they are exposed to their pet's routine veterinarian check-ups and the treatments for various ailments. Children raised with pets are apt to be more emotionally and physically healthy. Walking or playing with the family pet can serve as fun study breaks for kids and a replacement for TV programs or video games.

Child-pet interaction

Your child's involvement with a pet varies by age, even in the elementary school age years. By 4–6 years old, a child has mastered quite a lot of language and can understand more about how to interact with another living being, but a firm eye on the situation is still needed. By 6–10 years old, your child can help look after a pet, feed, clean up, walk and play with a dog.

Involve your children in dog care and training activities. It makes your pet a more well-mannered family member and teaches your child humane treatment and effective communication. Often, just the presence of your child in the same room while your dog is receiving his favorite things or activities can help build a positive association with your children. Here are some easy ways to involve your child in your dog's care:

  • Have your child help you feed the dog—they can give the dog the "sit" command before you put the bowl down. Small children can be taught to scoop food into the dog's food dish.
  • Let your child help brush the dog—as you hold the collar and feed him a few treats.
  • If the dog is small enough, teach your child how to properly pick him up.
  • Even younger elementary age children can help walk the dog—attach two leashes to your dog so your child holds one and you keep control with the main one.


The best way for a child of elementary school age to interact with pets in a positive way is through play. Allow your child to play supervised games that foster cooperation and control—games such as fetch with a football or Frisbee, blowing bubbles, hide and seek (with your dog finding the kids for a toy or treat), kicking a soccer ball around or learning fun tricks.

Some dogs may become overly excited and dominant during games such as tug-of-war or wrestling, accidentally injuring your child in the process. Teach your child not to play these kinds of games with the dog. If your dog is high-energy, exercise him yourself through jogging, biking or a hard game of fetch before he interacts with the children. If your dog becomes too excited during play, end the game immediately and try again later when your dog is calmer. Some dogs get excited and may even become more dangerous when children scream and run. Teach your child appropriate safety behaviors around dogs.

Ensuring the safety of your children and pets

Even older children need to be taught basic dog safety rules. They might never have to use them with their own pet, but neighborhood and other strange dogs are never guaranteed to be child-friendly.

Teach your children the possum stance. Children are small, move erratically, yell, and generally act unpredictably. Most dogs either would like to chase them or become fearful of them. Teach your children that if a dog is chasing them, and possibly even barking, growling or nipping, to immediately stand still. Arms should be folded across their chest or over their face. Their voice should become soft or completely quiet. By doing this, your child instantly becomes a lot less interesting to the dog. Odds are the dog will calm down and go off to do something else in a matter of moments.

Teach your children to report to you whenever they hear the dog growling and it is clearly not during play. A growl is a warning that your pet is not okay with the immediate situation at hand. Unless your child understands to back away immediately, they could be bitten. If you hear your dog growling at any time other than playtime, consult a professional immediately. Aggression problems, unless addressed quickly, tend to get worse.

Teach your child to respect their pet's sense of security for their own safety. Your child should be taught never to chase or corner a dog. Dogs can become fearful and harm your child out of self-defense.

Teach your child how to safely reward your pet with a treat. Children tend to become fearful or anxious when a dog tries to take a treat from their hand. The child often jerks their hand away at the last second. The dog may jump up or lunge to get the treat, which can result in the child being injured. Have your child place the treat in an open palm rather than holding it in their fingers. You may want to place a hand underneath your child's hand to help guide him.

To ensure the safety of your children and your pet, hire babysitters that have experience with pets and carefully instruct them on how the child and the pet are allowed to interact.

The importance of parental supervision

Never leave any child 12 and under unattended with a dog. Every dog bites under the right circumstances. So keep supervision a strict rule in your household. Your children's friends should also be monitored when your pet is nearby.

Teaching your children to treat a pet respectfully

Beyond teaching your child the basics of pet care, you should teach them how to treat pets with respect. It is a great way to introduce some very adult concepts to children in a way they will easily understand:

Teach your children that:

  • Pets need space and may not always welcome human attention, especially when eating, playing with their toys or resting. Teach your children not to bother pets when they are sleeping or eating. You should give your dog a place to retreat to when he has had enough human interaction or you cannot provide supervision. Your dog will need some daily time off from your children. Use an indoor crate that is off limits to the children or baby gate your dog into a safe room such as a kitchen or bedroom.
  • Pets may become upset by too much petting or stimulation. Teach your child to heed warning signs, like retreating and growling, by backing away slowly and leaving the pet alone.
  • Pets have feelings and sense pain just like humans do. Help your child see the world through your pet's eyes. Ask your child how he would feel if someone poked at his eyes or pulled his ears. Explain that even the most docile pet has limits and that all animals must be treated with caution and respect.
  • Other people's pets may feel and display discomfort if your child touches or even approaches them. Teach them to get permission before touching another pet. Explain that some pets may feel threatened when stared at, cornered or hugged.


Child-pet respect is a two-way street. As much as your child is being taught to give respect, the pet must be taught to give it as well. The best way to ensure that your pet respects the family hierarchy (with the pet at the bottom) is to give your dog his own bed, on the floor and out of your child's bedroom. Letting your dog sleep with your children is not only unsanitary—it increases the risk of zoonosis—it also relays a message to the dog that your child is a littermate. Littermates sleep together. Littermates get bossed around by being jumped on, pushed over, growled at, snapped at and finally bitten. You can protect your child by preventing your pet from viewing them as an equal. If your child insists on having the dog in their room, crate train your pet and put the crate in your child's room for sleeping only.

How your children can become responsible pet owners

Children can learn the importance of responsibility at an early age by acting as a caretaker for a pet. A dog can present an ideal opportunity for parent and child to bond while caring for the pet together. Teaching kids what it means to be responsible for another creature's survival can result in understanding life lessons such as discipline, patience, kindness and attentiveness. Also, allowing children to help care for a pet instills a feeling of competency and accomplishment.

It is unrealistic to expect a child of any age to have sole responsibility of caring for a dog. Teaching a dog the rules of the house and helping him become a good companion is too overwhelming of a task for an elementary school age child. And even though preteens and adolescents may be up to the task, they may not be willing to spend adequate time with the dog. Choose tasks appropriate for the age of your child. Even very young children can be involved in some aspect of caring for an animal—selecting a new collar or toy, assisting with grooming or carrying a food can. In the end, each parent is the best judge of the amount of responsibility that their individual child can handle when it comes to caring for a pet. And of course, the best way to teach your children to be responsible pet caregivers is to be one yourself.

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