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The Perfect Match

Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family

March 2012

It's inevitable: you take Charlie to the park one morning, and he makes a beeline for the lady walking her lab, screaming, "Mommy, I want a dog!" Or perhaps you return home one day to find the neighborhood stray cat on your doorstep, and little Molly looks up at you, "Daddy, can we keep her?" Or, one weekend George brings home the class guinea pig, and on Monday there's a meltdown as you try to explain that Wilbur the Guinea Pig must return to school.

Getting a pet is a rite of passage for a child, and most experts agree that having a pet – whether it's a dog, cat, hamster, or other domesticated creature – can teach a child invaluable lessons about responsibility, compassion, and love. However, caring for the pet – its health, safety, and well-being – is only part of the equation. The first step is choosing the right pet: determining the level of time, money, and energy you have for this new family member. Here are some pointers from the experts to help guide you through this process.

Time Commitment: Research and Training

Before you step foot in the SPCA or breeder's house, your new pet will have already required a significant time commitment in the form of research. The family should not only research different types and breeds of animals, but also the breeders and facilities from whence they came, said Robin Herman, certified professional dog trainer - knowledge assessed and owner of Indianapolis' A Lucky Dog Retreat.

Herman said that families should be honest with themselves about the level of time and energy that a new pet – especially a young animal like a puppy – will require. She said that families must "have the time to acclimate the dog to the new environment, obedience train, and house break" the new family member.

Connie Swaim, director of canine training at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, added that parents with small children must be willing to take on the responsibility of "another toddler" in the house – "one that isn't house broken, loves to chew on everything including the Kids' toys."

Having realistic expectations is key, agreed Robin Kennedy, volunteer and activist with Indianapolis' Southside Animal Shelter. "People expect the pet to be housebroken, not to have any accidents, not to beg at the table, not to get in the trash, or to bark … and these are all normal dog behaviors. New owners need to give their pets time to become acclimated to the changes in their life and what is expected from them."

If this new responsibility seems too overwhelming, Herman recommends considering an adult animal, "An adult dog offers a lot of wonderful advantages. It's easier to train, and most importantly, you know the temperament of the dog and don't risk it growing up to be something that doesn't match your family."

Lifestyle and Personality

In addition to recognizing the type of lifestyle a family leads, understanding the family's personality is key in matching a family with a new pet. Does your brood kick back and watch football on Sunday afternoons, or would the kids rather spend their free time at the park?

This is another area where you need to do your homework. Third year veterinary student Jacob Wasserman said that if you are going to pick a specific breed, make sure to research that breed to know what quirks come with that breed and if they require special care. "Dogs are about as diverse a species as you'll find," Wasserman said.

Finding a pet that suits your family's personality is almost as important as finding a spouse or partner. In fact, Wasserman advises, "Instead of thinking of a breed that you want to own, think of a personality that you want to own. There are as many personalities in dogs as there are breeds."

Swaim added, "Families should pick a dog based on the dog's individual temperament. Families should only pick a dog that they have seen interact with the entire family – make sure the kids run and scream around the prospective dog to see how it reacts to typical children play styles."

An Educated Decision

Most of the experts cited here agreed that when families make an educated decision regarding their new pet, the rewards are great. In addition to gaining a new friend, pets can teach children (and parents) numerous life lessons. In fact, Wasserman stated there is supporting evidence that owning a pet can lead to greater self esteem, more exercise, and a greater conscientiousness of others.

So head to the library or bookstore, sit down at your computer, talk to a professional, and figure our what four-legged friend will work best for your family!

Tags: In This Issue, Kids, Parenting

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