For some kids, their first friend wasn’t another wobbly, curious toddler they met on the playground — it was the family dog.
And teaching the child to care for the family pet can be a bonding and learning experience.
“Having a dog is a great way to help kids learn to be empathetic to other creatures,” says Kate LaSala, CTC, CBCC-KA, PCBC-A, owner of Rescued By Training. “ [It can] instill a sense of caring and learning how to be a little selfless and take care of something else.”
Kate shares ways your young child can help care for the family dog.
Build a foundation of trust between children and their furry friend
Before giving your kid things to do, it’s important to “train” them on how to treat the dog.
“I usually encourage parents to do things like parent-guided petting, where the parent’s hand is on top of the child’s hand to teach the child now to grab to ears and fur,” Kate says.
Even if the fur and human babies are best friends, parents should still supervise all interactions, just in case something goes awry and your child misses a dog’s cue to stop or vise versa.
“A lot of adults have problems reading dog body language, so we can’t expect kids to be able to,” Kate says.
Let your child help train the family dog
Dogs and kids sometimes like to run after one another, but things can get dicey if the dog jumps up and licks a toddler after he stops. Even though the dog is just being friendly, the toddler could fall. The best way to avoid this is to teach the dog to stop moving when the child does — and the kid can help. Kate calls it a game of freeze tag.
“When the toddler stops moving, that should be the dog’s cue to sit,” Kate says.
Teach your child the hand signal for sit and have them do that whenever they stop moving.
“It builds the relationship with the child and dog and gets the child involved in training the dog,” Kate says.
Young children can help exercise dogs
While your toddler or pre-school-aged child may not be old enough to hold the leash on a walk, they can still help keep Fido fit.
“I usually recommend a game called kibble-fetch,” Kate says. “Let the child have a couple pieces of kibble and throw the food down the hallway. The dog fetches the kibble and comes back.”
This game has multiple benefits: Not only does the dog get some exercise, he gets food and to bond with the child.
“The dog is learning the kid is a good source of food,” Kate says.
Young kids can help feed their dog
In addition to playing kibble-fetch, the child can help with daily feedings. Kate suggests having a scoop that can hold the amount of food you give your dog or a multiple of it (for example, if your dog gets a cup of food, have a full-cup or half-cup scoop). This ensures the pet won’t be over or underfed and doubles as a math lesson for the child.
“It’s a multi-skill thing,” Katesays. “ [They] learn to measure out a dog’s food…If there’s more than one, they can figure that out and count, such as two scoops.”
They can also help refill the water dish.
“They can pick up the water bowl and hand it to mom or dad and put it down once it’s filled,” Kate says.
Anyone who has ever met a toddler knows that allowing a one to pick up or carry a dog’s poop isn’t the best idea. But they can still assist with the task.
“When the family goes on the walk, give the kid a poop bag,” Kate says. “Let them…open it and hand it to mom or dad to pick up the business. They can start to learn that picking up the dog’s waste is an important part of dog ownership.”
Your neighbors will thank you in several years when your kid and dog can go on walks together alone.
Parents typically teach their kids to clean up their toys after playtime. If any of the dog’s toys were involved, Kate encourages them to put those away, too.
“ [This way] they know to clean up after they’ve played with the dog,” she says.