Some of the most common questions I hear these days are from parents who want to know when is the right time to add a dog to their family. There is no easy answer, but there are many things to consider before adding more responsibility and expense to what may already be a stress-filled life.
There's little doubt a dog -- indeed, any pet -- is good for a child. More academic studies than I could list here tout the benefits of the constant, non-judgmental affection an animal can provide a child. A friendly dog is an ice-breaker for adults and children alike. And for special-needs children such as wheelchair users, a specially trained dog is as important for its social duties as its service ones. The right dog in the right family at the right time is an important and delightful addition.
But for some families, there never is a "right" combination. Caring for a dog can be expensive and time-consuming, a real drain on families that are short of time, money or both. Adding a dog to a family that can't handle it can breed resentment and anger. If you acknowledge that a dog is not right for your family, you will
save a lot of time, money and, especially, heartache, and possibly spare some animal a trip to the shelter.
Are you ready for a family dog? Here are some things to consider:
*Can you afford it? Children are expensive and, if your budget is stretched to the limit already, a dog could snap it. Food and routine veterinary care for any dog can run hundreds of dollars a year, and the costs start piling up soon after you take home a puppy. Tests, deworming, vaccination and spaying or neutering for a puppy can easily run more than $300 in the first six months. Of course, these are "best-case" scenarios that don't take the occasional illness or accident into account.
*Have you the time and patience to raise a puppy? An investment of time and energy in the first year of a dog's life pays off handsomely for years to come. Socialization and good ** manners are top prior
ity for a family dog, and the best way for your dog to gain them is in a class. Puppy classes start at 12 weeks and training continues throughout the animal's first year. It all takes time and patience, as does house-training.
If you have the time to care for a dog but not to raise one, consider adopting a grown dog. The shelters are full of pets that have been abandoned for the most inane of reasons, and breed-rescue organizations exist that can provide healthy adult purebreds at a minimal cost. For many working parents and singles -- as well as retired people who don't want to hassle with raising a puppy -- a grown dog is a better choice.
*Are you willing to fit more responsibilities into your life? Who's going to feed the dog, groom it, clean up after it and take it to the vet? You may insist your child will handle routine care, but the final responsibility must always fall on the parents. Too often, pets adopted to teach responsibility to children end up at the center of a tug of war between a child too young to shoulder the burden of care and a parent determined to force it on them. In such cases, the pet often ends up both poorly cared for and resented by both parent and child.
*Will you teach your children to respect the pet? Children must learn that dogs shouldn't be poked, prodded and pulled on. It's ** natural for young children to behave that way, but it cannot be allowed. Not only is it cruel to the dog, but such behavior
may put the child at risk of a bite when the dog attempts to defend itself. Teaching children that the helpless are not to be victimized is an important lesson a pet can help provide.
*Can you offer the "quality time" a dog requires to be happy? A dog is not a toy that can be switched on when wanted and put away when not. It's a living, feeling thing that needs to be a part of a pack to be happy, and is miserable alone. If you don't care about the dog's feelings, consider that a bored, lonely dog is more likely to be noisy and destructive.
Dogs need daily attention and exercise. Welcome your dog into the house and into your life, and the attention requirement will be taken care of automatically. But even the most pampered house dog needs a vigorous walk or a ball-throwing session three to five times a week.
What are your options if you flunk this informal quiz? Consider another pet, including America's most popular one, the cat. Compared to dogs, cats are easy keepers, clean, quiet and affectionate. Indeed, most experts think the cat's spectacular rise in popularity in the '80s can be credited to the fact they are a near-perfect fit with many of today's households -- singles and dual-income couples alike. And a cat can also provide the companionship so important to a child.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.