Prevent dog bites by assigning age-appropriate pet care chores

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Recently, a friend and I discussed a dog bite incident. The boy, a fifth grader, was bitten while feeding the family pet. The details of the incident were unclear—no adults were present—and my friend said that she believed children should never be allowed to feed the dog. There’s too much potential for danger. I disagreed. Kids should be able to take on pet-care chores, as long as the child and the dog have the appropriate maturity and training for the specific tasks.

Here’s why: Studies have shown over and over again that kids who have a household pet develop compassion and empathy, in addition to learning responsibility. Plus, kids experience a sense of accomplishment by completing basic pet-care chores, like filling a water dish, which helps build self-esteem.

However, dog-related chores need to be consciously determined by the adult in the house based on knowledge of the dog’s behavior and knowledge of the kid’s behavior. Just like every child is different and unique, so is every dog. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about which age performs which chore the best, but here are some general guidelines.

Very young children and toddlers: This age group should never be unsupervised with the family pet.

  • Young children, though, should learn how to appropriately pat the family dog and learn how to ask for permission to approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Around the house, small children can help scoop kibble from a bag into a bowl, and hand the bowl to the adult to feed the dog.

Elementary-aged children: Different maturity levels among school children and the dog’s behavior play a key role in determining appropriate chores at this stage.

  • Supervised feeding might be appropriate, and most children can be responsible for ensuring the dog’s water dish is always full (with oversight from the parents, of course).
  • Even at this age, children should not be responsible for walking the dog alone, though an excellent introduction is to clip two leashes to the dog’s collar.
  • The parent holds one—and maintains control—while the child holds the other to gain experience.
  • Older school-aged kids can even learn how to safely pick up after the dog when out for a walk.

Junior high and beyond: As kids become pre-teens and teenagers, they’re able to take on more responsibility, like walking the family dog, as long as the parent has trained both the kid and the dog to work together and knows it’s safe.

  • For instance, a dog-reactive large dog might not ever be appropriate for kids to walk, but the parent needs to determine that.
  • Kids can take on activities like brushing the dog’s coat, picking up poop from the backyard, and stuffing puzzle toys.

All ages: Every family member from the youngest to the oldest should be involved in positive training with the family pet.

  • Parents should supervise and arrange specific activities to help every member of the family learn how to work safely around the dog.
  • Hiring a trainer who does home visits or taking a family-friendly positive reinforcement training class at a local facility can give parents an idea on how to start.

Ultimately, kids should have responsibilities caring for the family dog. But, the adults in the home need to determine what chores are appropriate based on the child’s maturity level and the dog’s personality, and the parents should supervise interactions to guide the child to appropriate behavior.

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Positively Expert: Maggie Marton

Maggie Marton is an award-winning pet journalist who focuses on the animal-human bond in her writing and her advocacy. She is a freelance writer and the founder of the popular dog blog "Oh My Dog!" She is also the author of "Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup."


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