How to Choose (and Train) the Perfect Pet for Your Family

By: Brandon Butler, Guest Writer

Has your child been begging for a pet? As a parent, you’ll have to make some big decisions, like which kind of pet is best for your family, and how to help your child take a hands-on role when it comes to raising your new pet. We consulted San Francisco based certified dog trainer and behaviorist Beverly Ulbrich for tips on how to find the perfect animal companion for your household—and encourage your child to get involved with the training process! 

Lifestyle Factors

Before you jump into bringing home a pet, you need to honestly evaluate your current living situation and how much time you and your child will have to spend with your new furry friend. 

“People don’t realize dogs are closer to being human babies than not, whereas a cat or gerbil doesn’t require as much attention,” Ulbrich says. “Similar to children, the dog has to get enough physical exercise, mental exercise, and know the rules and boundaries. If you’re not tiring them out, they are going to get into trouble.”

Dogs need plenty of attention, exercise, and boundaries—otherwise they will get into trouble.

Do you have a large suburban home with a big backyard? A dog or a rabbit might fit in well with your family. Are you living in a small apartment in a city? Think about getting a cat or a guinea pig. All of these pets generally get along well with kids, so you have a variety of choices to match up with your lifestyle. If you decide on a dog, there is also the consideration of which breed of dog to get, which has to match your lifestyle and be a good fit for your kids.

“If you are a runner, get a higher energy dog you can run with,” Ulbrich suggests. “If you’re a couch potato, don’t get a dog that needs three hours of exercise.”

The Big Decision

Once you’ve figured out which pets would actually be a good fit for your family, think about which animals would require more responsibility. Older children may be mature enough to help out with the training required for a kitten or puppy. 

“It depends on the interest level of your child— you have to know your own kid and their capabilities,” Ulbrich says.

If you know that your kids don’t have the time or capability to work with a frisky puppy or kitten, an older dog or cat from a shelter may be a better choice. And if you have very young children who won’t really be able to help you out with pet care, go for a low-maintenance choice, like fish, a hamster, or a lizard. 

Safety Tips

Before you even bring your new pet home, you’ll need to pet-proof your home and help your child prepare by teaching them some key safety tips for interacting with animals. Nationwide suggests telling your child to avoid playing with your pet while they try to eat, and that teasing or provoking your pet could result in a scratch or bite. Training is crucial during meal times, and Ulbrich says a well-trained dog should not react when their food is taken away.

“This is a catch 22: you should train your dog that they should not do anything but allow your child to take the food or treat,” Ulbrich explains. “You have to make sure your kid won’t do it to anyone else’s dog because that dog may not be trained and hurt them.” 

You should be able to take your dog’s food bowl away without a reaction. Make sure your child knows even if your dog is trained to comply, other dogs may not be.

As far as your pet’s safety goes, you should make sure your yard is safe, particularly if you’re adopting a dog. Check for toxic plants and keep lawn and gardening tools out of reach.  It’s also a good idea to install a fence if you don’t already have one. While adding a wood fence in San Diego averages nearly $2,500, it’s well worth the cost to keep your new pup safely contained.

“It’s also important to train your dog to be safe on walks on-leash and at dog parks,” Ulbrich says. “Train your dog to be friendly and do proper greetings on and off-leash, so it’s really important you know generic dog body language and your own dog’s body language.”

Training and Bonding

Your child will be very excited when you bring your pet home, and they will probably want to spend lots of time playing with their new friend. What’s the best way for your child to get involved with pet care responsibilities? It all depends on how old—and interested—they are. 

“I’ve seen five-year-old kids who are better dog trainers than their parents,” Ulbrich says. “Make sure actual interest there. If your kid isn’t interested they won’t be good at it.” 

Elementary-school-age children can generally help you out as you teach your pet new tricks, and you can let them give out treats for positive reinforcement. Family Education recommends having older children take your dog for walks or clean out the cat’s litter box. Overall, the best way to teach your child how to handle your pet is to lead by example. If you’re an attentive pet owner, your child will learn by watching what you do! 

“You have to be top dog trainer and be sure you aren’t making mistakes so your child doesn’t pick up your mistakes—make sure you do things by the book,” Ulbrich suggests.

The Bottom Line

Pet ownership is a big step for your family. But children are naturally drawn to animals, and your child will likely be happier and healthier with a furry friend in their life. By carefully considering which species and breed is the appropriate choice for your household and encouraging your child to help train and socialize your pet, you can ensure that your child and your new pet will have a loving bond.

Disclaimer: This article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional training or advice.