Some kids will promise to do anything in order get a new pet, but it can quickly become a challenge to get them to follow through with their pet-care chores after the novelty wears off (and trust us, it will). Planning, parental involvement and open communication can make pet ownership a positive experience for all family members.
1. Make a list of all pet-care responsibilities, and talk with your children about which chores they feel they can handle. It's better to give a child an easy daily chore than a difficult one that occurs less frequently. Discuss why the chore is important and what could happen to their pet if the chore is not done (the animal could go hungry or get sick, for example). Make sure all family members participate in chores, and rotate those chores. Remember to serve as a role model. Children can learn responsible pet care by observing your behavior.
2. Make a dedicated effort to praise your children every time they perform a pet chore without you having to tell them. Using a fun pet activity as a reward, such as playing or cuddling with the pet, is always a good idea. Positively reinforcing responsible behavior will increase the likelihood of it reoccurring. As time goes on and your children become accustomed to their pet-care responsibilities, you can decrease the continuous praise, but still make a point of congratulating them from time to time so they will keep being a good pet owner.
3. Don't associate pet responsibilities with rewards or punishments not related to the pet itself. For example, if a child does poorly on a test at school, don't take away playtime with the pet or assign an extra negative pet chore as a punishment. That can introduce frustration or resentment toward the animal. But it is a good idea to have your children do a "less fun" pet chore in order to enjoy a "more fun" pet activity. This helps children understand that caring for pets involves not just the fun socializing, but also the tedious housekeeping.
4. Introduce new games, toys or training to add motivation for your kids to continue interacting with the pet. Encouraging your children to learn as much as possible about their pet is a great way to keep them interested in all facets of their care.
Always give children a chore that is well within their skill level so they can be successful. Here is a general breakdown of age-appropriate pet chores:
Ages 2 to 5
Kids this age should always be supervised when interacting with the family pet.
- Help put food and water in pet dishes. Parents, however, should still be the ones to actively give food to animals; pets can get excited about food and accidentally nip tiny fingers
- Help with cage maintenance, like lining the bottom with newspaper or refilling shavings
- Clean and put away pet dishes
- Help put away pet toys
Ages 6 to 10
- Help put food and water in dishes (if the pet is a dog, this should still be supervised)
- Help with cleaning and maintenance of pet areas
- Cleaning up pet droppings
- Help with brushing, grooming and bathing, depending on the pet's size and cleaning requirements
- Help with exercise and walking, depending on the pet's size and needs
Ages 10 and up
- Children can actively assume all aspects of pet care unless you have a very large dog.
When the Going Gets Tough
Pets are a great way to practice responsibility, but issues can arise. If children constantly miss feedings, walkings or cage cleanings, they should be gently reminded that animals need food, water, exercise and good hygiene just like people do. As frustrated as you may feel, don't make the children feel guilty about their inconsistent pet-care routines. Too much criticism can cause feelings of failure in themselves or anger toward the innocent pet. Instead, find out why chores aren't getting done and find a way to renew your children's interest in their responsibilities. Having a family pet offers many benefits for children, but finding a balance between responsibility and delight is key to a continued interest in pet chores.
Erin Topp, CPDT-KA, is the owner of Topp Canine Solutions, LLC in Ames, Iowa and the voice behind The Five Dog Blog. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and an active member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Erin is also an AKC approved Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, President of the Cyclone Country Kennel Club and Superintendent of the local 4H dog project. To help other dogs get a second chance, she volunteers for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and is a foster home for Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus. When not helping clients to enjoy easier lives with their canine companions, Erin competes in obedience and lure coursing with her own four dogs.