Dear Old Trainer: My family has never had a dog, but my 7-year-old daughter, Laura, begs me for one every day. We have decided to adopt one, but I need advice. Is she too young to have a dog, and what breed do you recommend for young children?
-- Allison, Stockton
Answer: If Laura is begging for a dog, she is old enough to have one. There is no precise age when a child is ready for a dog, but if she is hounding you every day -- no pun intended -- she is ready.
Children know when they will be good at something. Parents see it all the time when a child wants to play a sport and turns out to be good at it. Same thing with dogs. Kids know when they are meant for a dog, and every child needs a dog. When no one else understands, your dog is always there, loving and loyal. That's magic for any child.
For many kids -- and I was one of them -- getting a dog is the most important event of their youth. The first song the young Elvis Presley ever performed in public was "Old Shep," the story of a boy and his dog.
Take Laura to the local shelter and tell the people in charge what she wants in a dog. Tell them about your family and your lifestyle. They know the personalities of the dogs and will know which ones to show you.
I don't recommend a specific breed. Instead, evaluate the attributes of each dog and see how that fits with your lifestyle. Let Laura play with the dogs that interest her and the dogs they recommend. There is no hurry, so take your time. Watch for the dog that forms an instant bond with the two of you. Dogs know when they are a good fit for a family.
Consider the characteristics that make a good family dog. Does it love on you? Does it like to play? Will it chase a ball? Which dog is your daughter attracted to? Don't worry whether it is trained. That's the easy part. Let Laura make the choice, but apply your wisdom to make sure the dog she chooses fits your family profile.
Two things to keep in mind: First, a puppy is a lot more trouble than an older dog, and can be a problem if the parents and the children are gone all day. A dog 10-months-old or older is past the puppy stage and ready to be trained.
Second, the most common mistake a parent can make is choosing a small dog merely because the child is small. That is fine while Laura is young, but by the time the dog matures, Laura will be riding a bike and playing sports and going to the park or the old swimming hole -- where, as Elvis sang, Old Shep "jumped in and helped pull me out." A teenager wants, and needs, a bigger dog.
Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org