Age or Ability – Kids and Dog Walking

There are various lists about age appropriate chores for children. Some of the chores are pet-related. One list says a child of 12 should be walking the family dog. I am all for children learning to help care for pets. However, I am not a fan of the term “age-appropriate.” I prefer to think in terms of “ability-appropriate.” Ability-appropriate covers a wider range of considerations.

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Connor and D’Argo probably summer 2004 or 2005.  That was the trainer with them.

While at a busy intersection, I watched a girl who was around 10 – 12, struggling to walk a large dog. They were close enough that I could see the dog was wearing a prong collar. The dog was dragging the child along the sidewalk when something caught his attention. He pulled the struggling child into traffic. Even with the child violently yanking the collar, the dog ignored the pain to get at whatever caught his attention. This dog was completely ability inappropriate for the child.  There was no way this child was able to safely intervene and prevent the dog from entering the street.  What if the dog was going after another dog or a human? Could the child have prevented a bite? This child was completely unable to safely manage the dog she was walking. Luckily the dog decided to return to the sidewalk.  Well, you may think a better trained dog would have been a better fit.

No matter how well trained a dog is, we must remember that there will always be something that can and will cause a dog to not follow training.  This is an excerpt from another blog of mine to illustrate this:

One of my early clients tragically lost her dog. He was a sweet boy.  Very responsive, a dream to work with and the owner did her work. We had discussed safety, using leashes on walks, etc. over our sessions.  She liked to have her dogs off leash when she hiked.  Well I used to hike with my dogs, off leash, specific areas where it was allowed at the time, and my dogs had a lot of training, proofing and testing.  Even at that, often my dogs were on leash.  That was also over twenty years ago and I have changed my views a lot since then about general safety.  You see, I knew my dogs’ limits but I cannot control other elements such as oh…  Other loose animals.  So now, I keep my dogs on leash unless it is a competition requiring off leash work.

One weekend this owner took her dog hiking and decided to let him off leash.  Rufus was a young guy – not even a year old.  He had just begun training.  He was far from ready for any off leash work.  As luck would have it, Rufus saw something.  He took off in the direction of a parking lot and access road. No amount of calling got him to return. At that moment, another vehicle pulled into the lot. Rufus was killed.  – Deadly Trust

Even a well-trained dog is still capable of pulling a child over as he tries to get to something.  For sake of argument, let’s say the dog is very well mannered and ignores many things going on around him.  Is the child able to recognize potentially risky situations and avoid them?

With one case, a small dog that was not friendly to anyone except family was put in a bad spot. A teenage child was given clear instructions, numerous times, not to let the dog out of a back room if there were guests.  Mom and Dad were at work and the child brought friends home after school. The child decided to bring the dog out to meet her friends.  The dog panicked and badly bit one of the friends.  I had watched older kids not recognize stress behaviors in dogs and end up with their pets in other bad situations.

How many times do we see kids (and adults) fully engaged with their phones and ignoring everything around them? Part of safer dog walking is being unplugged and aware of your surroundings. Another case I advised on occurred when an older teen was walking the family dog. The boy was plugged in and oblivious to the dog’s behavior along with the surroundings. He missed the sounds of kids playing. He did not see the kids running around. The dog was on a retracting lead and had gotten to the full length of it. The teen walked into the line of play.  The dog was over 25 feet ahead of the boy.  He chased and bit a child.  Now, the dog was well within the physical ability of the teen.  The dog was also pretty well trained.  However, the dog was put into a dangerous situation because the teen was oblivious to his surroundings.  The teen, when I was in the house, was always on the phone.  His inability to be responsible (not to mention the chosen leash) resulted in injury.

When my children were little, I was very careful what dogs of ours they could walk with us and what dogs they could not.   My children were born in 1998 and 2004.  Just being kids of a dog trainer did not mean my kids could walk any of our dogs as they were growing up. Not all of my dogs were ability appropriate for my own children.

Ryker was my first serious show dog and was a therapy dog for several years.  He came to us in 1993.

Hunter was a big goof who had less self-control. There was a reason why his first owners gave him up.  He was 70+ pounds of impulsive lunacy.  He came to us in 1996 as a young adult.

D’Argo, even as a pup, was laid back.  Adolescence with him was easy.  D’Argo was slow to rile up and handled life with ease.   He came to us in 2000.

Seven was a great dog but as a livestock guarding breed, she was large and strong. She would go on guard and alert frequently. She came to us in 2001 as a young adult.

What of these four dogs would be ability appropriate for the kids?  Ryker and D’Argo.

How can you start kids out walking dogs?  You walk the dogs and they help.

In the beginning, we would have the kids hold the leash with us. Then we went to two leashes on Ryker or D’Argo. After that they would be able to control the leash themselves, but we were always with them. Connor and Sarah started learning how to train and show dogs with D’Argo. He was an ability appropriate dog for both kids to get their feet wet.

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Sarah and D’Argo – Agility 2009

As parents and dog owners, it is our responsibility to recognize the various abilities our children have. We need to be mindful of situations they may encounter when walking our dogs. It is our duty to work to keep them safe. Know your child, your dog, and keep things ability appropriate with supervision.


  • Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training
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