Q: My 14-year-old daughter has been begging for a puppy for the past year. Because she asked for a dog a few years ago, we got one then, but it was a hassle to get my daughter to help out. With both parents working, he never received much time from the family and eventually we found a friend who offered to take him.
Now that she's a teenager she says that she really needs something to love when her friends disappoint her and feels it would be comforting to have a puppy of her own. I understand that and would like to let her have the dog, but I’m afraid that the same thing will happen — the puppy will not receive enough attention and I'll be stuck with all the work again.
In your experience, are the benefits of having a pet worth the hassle and what can I do to help her take more responsibility with the dog this time?
A: Kids are notorious for asking for pets — and for promising to walk, feed and clean up the messes — but quickly lose interest. Then, of course, the parents end up taking over the responsibilities or deciding that Fido or Fluffie have to go to live with someone else. Animal shelters are filled with dogs and cats that were bought with the best of intentions.
A 14-year-old, though, should be mature enough to understand the responsibility of caring for a dog. In addition, as your daughter suggests, there can be considerable benefit to owning a puppy, in terms of confidence-building and companionship especially if the puppy’s nature is a good fit with your daughter's temperament. It certainly sounds like she needs something huggable right now. You need to take into consideration, however, that the dog is probably going to be at home long after she leaves for college!
So, what to do to make sure your previous bad experience isn't repeated?
First, even before looking for the dog, draw up a family contract. Decide what each family member will be responsible for in terms of walking, feeding, cleaning up messes and playing with the puppy. And, if possible, have your daughter take over some responsibilities for a neighbor’s pet. Now that summer is here, she should have the time to help your neighbor feed, water and walk the dog on a daily basis. If her enthusiasm falters, then it’s a good bet that she will lose interest in her own animal once the novelty wears off.
I've found that it's best with kids to tie these responsibilities into their daily privileges and activities. For instance, the rule of "you don't eat until the puppy eats" usually works well. Kids quickly get into the habit of feeding and watering the animal before they eat breakfast and dinner. And, she may need to let the dog out or walk him before she uses the restroom upon returning from school or an outing. In other words, the pet’s needs come before her needs or desires.
Another suggestion: Make it a rule that your daughter has to play with the puppy for at least 15 minutes before the TV is turned on or she begins to use the phone to talk with her friends.
Some parents use creative methods in order to get their kids to clean up messes. I've heard of a couple who will move the mess to the child's bedroom if the kid ignores it or refuses to clean it up. I personally think that’s a bit much (and by the time you move it you might as well have cleaned it up! But, the family that I’m thinking of swears by this method.) Others will dock the kid’s allowance for each mess the parent has to clean up.
One caveat in dealing with pets and kids: I believe that the threat of taking the puppy back to the shelter or kennel if the child proves irresponsible with animal chores is not appropriate. If you adopt a pet, then you are making a commitment for the long haul. In threatening to take the pet back, you set yourself up for a game of guilt that will most likely end up with you keeping the animal and doing the work. If you stand firm in terms of docking the allowance and not allowing your daughter privileges until her animal chores are complete, she will have little choice but to assume responsibility for her dog. And, hopefully the puppy will give her the comfort she's desiring to help get through the tumultuous teenage years!
Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting" (, 2002). She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.