Choosing the right pet: Parents should consider children's maturity before adding furry friend to family

Morgan, Emily and Mitchell Walters with their Boykin spaniel, Jackson, in their Daniel Island home.

Brad Nettles

When Amy Walters added a puppy to her Daniel Island home, she was fulfilling the wishes of her children, Emily, 9, Mitchell, 8, and Morgan, 5.

Almost a year later, she has no doubt that it was a wonderful decision for her family.

Adding a pet to the family takes planning and consideration. It is a step that requires understanding the pet and the children who will be its two-legged siblings.

Jackson, the family's Boykin spaniel, is not only her children's first dog, he is Walters' first dog as well.

'My daughter is an animal lover, and she had always begged for a dog,' Walters says. 'I had never had a dog growing up. I always had cats.'

Walters called on the expertise of Cindy Carter, owner of Mindful Manners Dog Training of Charleston, around the time Jackson became a member of the family.

Carter helped Walters by phone and in person, answering questions about crate training, feeding, house training and more. The support was invaluable.

'It was like somebody gave us an 18-month-old child,' Walters says. 'There was potty training and they chew everything. We had to learn everything all over again like we were new parents. He still chews everything. He's eaten three socks, I think.'

But overall, Jackson's transition has been a rousing success.

Carter credits Walters for 'doing everything right.'

'The biggest issue that I see is that most of us had dogs when we were growing up and parents don't think it through,' Carter says. 'They get the puppy home and discover it is a lot harder than they think.'

Families with children need to consider the children's ages and maturity level before adopting any pet, Carter says. In some cases, that may require waiting a bit for the sake of the pet and the family.

'Toddlers are especially difficult,' Carter says. 'They make sudden moves, they're loud and they do unexpected things. For puppies, toddlers become a play toy if the dogs aren't frightened.'

While Carter doesn't advise parents to wait to adopt until their children reach a specific age, she says families need to consider their child's ability to be responsible.

'I really encourage people to look at the family dynamic,' Carter says. 'Are their children able to follow directions well enough to be around the dog?'

According to the American Pet Products Association, 46.3 million U.S. households own a dog. Cats follow with 38.9 million households. Homes with cats or dogs far outnumber any other type of pet, but often little consideration is given on how to best integrate the animal into the family, according to Carter.

Dr. Dick Patrick of Patrick Veterinary Clinic in Charleston says even elementary school children can learn to help with food and water for their pet.

'They might not be able to do all that, but they can help,' he says. 'As they get older, they might be able to take the dog on walks, keep the dog groomed. Cats don't require as much constant care.'

Other animals, including so-called 'pocket pets' such as guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters, might be a good choice for children who are old enough to handle them responsibly, according to Patrick.

'They do work well in families,' Patrick says. 'They do have a good purpose; they just don't have the ability to do what a dog or cat can do.'

Patrick says pet care chores always should be done under the supervision of a parent.

With dogs, Carter says involving children in pet care begins with training the child and the dog.

'If the child is old enough, with parental supervision, walking the dog is a good thing,' she says.

Dogs first should be trained to walk on a leash, and children should be able to have the dog respond to basic commands: sit, down, stay, leave it, drop it and come.

'Children need to know words to use, hand commands and what to do if the dog doesn't respond,' Carter says.

Patrick tells parents and children that pets are a big responsibility. He says families shouldn't get a pet just to own one: They should become a part of the family.

'I tell them God put these animals on the Earth to be with us and for us to love and take care of them,' Patrick says. 'They are totally devoted to us. Treat them with respect. They need to be aware that these are special animals and they need the respect and love they demand.'

At the Walters' household, that's never a problem.

'I've seen my children grow through having him,' Walters says of Jackson. 'It's been wonderful. I've been anti-dog my whole life. I'm 36, and I'm in love with him.'

Before choosing a dog or cat:

Read books and visit websites to learn more about the animal, its breed and its temperament.

When possible, visit the animal's parents. This may be especially helpful when choosing a dog. If the parents are easygoing, their puppy should be, too.

Visit shelters and rescue groups and ask questions to learn about the animals available for adoption. Get an expert evaluation of the animal's temperament.

Dr. Dick Patrick, Patrick Veterinary Clinic

A few rules of the (dog) house:

Ideally, parents should consult a veterinarian or dog trainer before choosing a dog.

Children should never bother a dog when he's sleeping or eating or try to take something away from a dog. (That should be an adult's responsibility.)

When a baby joins a family that already has a dog, the dog should be introduced in advance to the baby gear and its sounds and motion. Dogs should already know basic commands.

Children should never get in a dog's crate.

Parents should learn to read a dog's signals and teach children how to interact safely with dogs.

Never leave a dog and a baby together without supervision.

As babies grow into toddlers, parents' management of their dog's interaction with their child should increase.

Cindy Carter, owner of Mindful Manners Dog Training

Chris Worthy is a wife, mom and wearer of a few other hats. Visit her online at