Dogs: Decisions, Decisions, and Teens

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but what about teens? Can a dog help teens navigate the stormy waters of adolescence? Or would a dog be just one more responsibility for your teen to shirk?

This is the sort of mental debate a parent goes through after a teen asks for a dog. The parent wonders at the wisdom of bringing a pet into the family circle. For one thing, caring for a pet is a responsibility. Will the teen take charge of the dog’s feeding, grooming, walking, and depending on the age of the pet, housebreaking? Who will be responsible for finding a good veterinarian and making sure the dog receives its shots and appropriate care?

Many parents get stuck on this point, never getting past these very relevant questions, which is a shame. Bonding with a pet can make a huge positive difference in a teenager’s development. Writer Suzanne Alicie describes how a dog brought her son back from the brink after her divorce and a move to a new neighborhood. The boy, 13 years-old at the time, was experimenting with drugs. He was sullen, withdrawn, and uncommunicative.

We found a place to live with a friend, and lo and behold there was a dog. Not only that, but a dog that was shy and a bit insecure, and more often than not could be found hiding under a bed. This dog was Bear. This wonderful patchwork dog that didn’t seem to fit in anywhere and lived on the fringes of the family became part of my son’s salvation.

My son instantly began working with Bear to get her to be more sociable, even when he wanted nothing to do with other people himself. He took on the responsibilities of taking care of her, and before I knew it everywhere my son was there was Bear. They formed an intense friendship, he talked to her and he petted her, and Bear? Well she listened to him, she didn’t judge and she loved him no matter what. She absorbed the love that the troubled teenager had to give but couldn’t find a way to express to people.

The boy and the dog formed their own unit of support and love that was a doorway to my son learning to express his emotions. Because of Bear’s nervousness, my son learned to express anger without yelling or throwing things; he learned to keep his composure because of his love for this dog. It was a friendship that helped him see the future instead of the destruction in the past. In many ways Bear helped save my sanity by being a source of unconditional love and understanding for my teenage son.

Imagine that! The dog, Bear, was also withdrawn. Well, he certainly understood the pain and loneliness of that existence. So he took it upon himself as his personal mission to coax this dog back to a fuller life. And as he did so, the boy too, came back to himself. He found hidden sensitivities and modulated his tone so as not to frighten Bear and make him nervous. He discovered that he could make all the difference for an animal, that someone could depend on him and that he would be dependable.teenager skateboarding in the park

Alicie’s son also found that Bear had something to give in return. Bear would listen to the boy and never judge him. The boy could pet and hug Bear to his heart’s content without feeling awkward or ashamed for needing cuddles and affection.

Alicie illustrates a beautiful example of how having a dog can make or break a teen’s troubled existence. It seems then, that the wise parent, when having that all-important mental debate on whether or not to get a dog, should consider more than the basic responsibilities implicit in having a pet. Parents should consider the positive emotional benefits that a dog can afford a teenager.

Then again there are other benefits to having a dog that parents may not take into account when musing on the subject of acquiring a pet. Among children ages 2-19, 31.8 percent are overweight or obese, while 16.9 percent are considered obese. A healthy, active dog needs exercise and play. Having a dog encourages teens to move and spend time out of doors rather than remain indoors, glued to their computer screens with junk to nosh by their sides.

Kids need exercise and fresh air, but encouraging them to get out and walk never works especially well when that encouragement comes from parents. What does work is having a dog that depends on your teen for taking brisk walks outside. Wonder why that is? It’s this:

When you, as a parent, urge your teen to go outside and get some exercise, he’s bound to see this as nagging and in the spirit of independence and rebellion, absolutely refuse to cooperate.

Teenager cuddling a lapdogWhen there’s a dog in the picture on the other hand, things are completely different: your teenager comes home from school and the dog goes running to the door, barking and wagging his tail with all his might just begging to go outside. What teen can possibly refuse that canine request??

Now that we’ve looked at the positive benefits of getting your teenager a dog, it’s time to take a look at the other side of the equation. Dogs represent an expense. Is your family struggling to pay the bills and stay afloat? There’s the food dogs eat, and visits to the vet for shots and maintenance. If a dog becomes ill, it’s your responsibility to get the dog quality care and in some cases, have the dog put to sleep.

This leads to another issue: what happens when a beloved pet dies? Dogs don’t live as long as humans. It’s likely that having a pet means watching a pet die. This is painful to be sure, but only because you’ve developed a bond to the animal. Isn’t it better to have had that bond and lose it then to never have had the bond in the first place, or as Alfred Lord Tennyson put it, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all.”

Who Assumes Responsibility?

Last but not least, what happens if your teenager becomes bored with the dog? What happens when there’s a snow storm and the dog needs to go outside? Who assumes the responsibility? This is best addressed by discussing the issue openly with your family before acquiring the dog. This works better than bringing the dog home as a surprise, because as nice as it is to see your child’s happy response, he can always come back at you later and say, “I never wanted a dog. You never asked me. You walk the dog.”

Having a dog isn’t right for every family or every teen, but the benefits can often outweigh the disadvantages. A dog can ease a difficult adolescence and help make your teen more active and healthy. It’s something to consider, at the very least.

Have you bought or adopted a dog for your teenager? If so, tell us about your experience. The Kars4Kids blog would like to hear about it!

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  1. My three children begged us for a dog. When our oldest was thirteen we gave in. We rescued a doberman mix and it was one the the best decisions we have ever made. She is a delight. One of my teenagers walks her and her “brother” , another rescue dog, regularly. My daughter puts her earphones on, and has time to herself, yet has a walking buddy at the same time. Sometimes I have to beg one of the other kids to walk them, but all in all, everyone pitches in and I think the kids are more sensitive to all forms of life from the love they feel towards their dogs. Both dogs have added a lot of fun and love to our home.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Leora. It seems to me that when a teenager has a dog, she never has to feel alone or lonely.

  3. My three children ages 11, 12, and 14 have been asking for a dog for years. I was researching info about dogs and I found this excellent website. This website has convinced me to get a dog. All the kids take turns with the responsibilities, and they work together more. Now I use this website for advice for almost all the problems I face! Thank you!

    • Thanks for your lovely comments, Samantha. Enjoy the new addition to your family 🙂

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.