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What Kind of Dog Is Right for Your Family?

A Child's Best Friend

Whether it's a friendly retriever that doesn't mind the pokes and prods of a toddler, a patient collie that allows a preschooler to "do" her hair, or an active mountain breed that's a grade-schooler's most loyal sidekick, a dog is often one of a child's first and favorite playmates.

What's the reason for the kid-canine attraction? For one thing, a dog may be a child's best confidant, says Sandra B. Barker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Human-Animal Bond Program at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond. "He won't repeat what you tell him!" Having a pet also lets a child trade her role of "cared for" for that of caretaker -- by feeding, grooming, and walking the dog.

Besides being cuddly and fun to play with, a canine pal often teaches a child new tricks. "Children who are involved with their pets seem to show more empathy and may tend to have higher IQ scores," says Robert H. Poresky, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. The reason: Young kids are egocentric, and an animal provides feedback that shows another point of view.

A dog can also help smooth a child's transitions through childhood, adds Dr. Barker. "As young children explore their environment, a pet acts as a bridge between the familiar home and the outside world, which may lessen anxiety about new situations."

Although experts caution that you should never get a pet to solve a problem, sometimes adding a dog to the family can be part of a solution. For example, a dog may help a shy child come out of his shell. "A relationship with a dog can make a child feel secure, which increases the chances of his feeling comfortable interacting with others," says Dr. Poresky.

Dr. Barker agrees. "Pets act as a social lubricant," she says. "Research has shown that people interact more with others when they're out walking a dog than when they're strolling alone."

Further evidence of the benefits a dog brings: A study found that when animals were brought to a preschool, children who were inhibited at first became less shy the more they played with the animals. "Over time, the kids who held back initially were talking and petting the animals as much as the other kids were," says Dr. Barker.

That makes sense to Anthony Di Benedetto of Philadelphia, who credits his family's golden retriever, Bella, with contributing to his 2-year-old's early preschool success. "Alessandra's teachers say she interacts well with other kids," he says. "I think Ale is so loving because Bella has been a sweet and gentle companion."

Interacting with a pet can bring physical benefits too. Tamara Feaster of Berea, OH, points out how one of her family dogs, a Yorkshire terrier-Pomeranian mix, has helped Taylor, 15 months, practice her motor skills. "Taylor loves to throw a ball and have Valetta bring it back," says Feaster.

What's more, a dog of his own may encourage an overweight and sedentary child to get outdoors more, says Dr. Poresky. A dog may motivate a child to play Frisbee or take a walk.

Your child doesn't have to miss out on the benefits of a puppy playmate if she has allergies or asthma. Breeds like the bichon frise and standard poodle have hair, not fur, so they can be good choices. Plus, researchers at the University of Goteborg in Sweden found that kids exposed to pets during their first year of life were less likely to develop allergies or asthma than kids who weren't exposed to a pet.

Just remember: Besides the many benefits, owning a dog is a large responsibility for the whole family. The following are the best picks, according to experts.

Top Kid-Friendly Dogs for Families

You want a dog, but which one? As a general rule, the younger your child, the larger the dog should be. The reason: If a toddler falls on a big dog, it won't hurt the dog -- he'll just walk away. If a toddler falls on a small dog, the dog is likely to react aggressively to protect himself. Small breeds are best with kids over 6. Select a dog with a calm temperament, raised by a reputable breeder (go to www.akc.org for tips). And always supervise your child with any dog.

Why It's a Winner

Berners are known to be easygoing and very devoted. They form a strong bond with a family but often attach themselves to one person in particular. The perfect winter playmate for an only child, this breed thrives in cold weather and loves snow.

Special Care

Berners typically have a shorter lifespan than smaller breeds, usually living for eight to 10 years. This can be tough for a child who gets attached to his dog at a young age.

Word of Caution

Be sure to select a calm, even-tempered dog. As with any breed, some Berners are shy and others can be aggressive-not a good quality in a large dog. Finding a good breeder is key.

Why It's a Winner

Playful and loving, these small breeds are good for city dwellers. They're also great for kids with allergies or asthma because they have hair instead of fur. Both breeds like to perch on the back of a couch or chair so they can peer out the window at passersby.

Special Care

These breeds don't shed much, but they do require professional grooming every month to keep their coats from matting.

Word of Caution

Since these breeds are sensitive to pain, they aren't fond of being tugged on by an overzealous toddler. They do best with children over 3 years old.

Why It's a Winner

A good size for a toddler and small enough for a child to walk with supervision, gentle Cavalier spaniels are a terrific fit for most families.

Special Care

Cavaliers don't require a lot of grooming, but they thrive on attention. This breed could be the perfect choice for an only child looking for a constant companion.

Word of Caution

Cavaliers are very high energy dogs, which makes them good for rural or suburban life-but not life in the city. They're such great family dogs that their popularity could lead to inferior breeding. Choose a confident, happy puppy from an outgoing mother.

Why It's a Winner

Collies are herders by nature. That means if a collie views a child as his "herd" or pack, then the child's got a loyal, fun-loving companion for life.

Special Care

"Rough-coated" collies require frequent brushing, making them ideal for attentive kids who want to "style" their hair. Also, collies can be jumpers, so you will need a high fence to contain them.

Word of Caution

Don't confuse this breed with the Border collie, whose shyness, sensitivity to sound, and extremely high activity level can make it a challenging dog for families or for novice dog owners.

Why It's a Winner

So many people gravitate to these friendly dogs that the American Kennel Club ranks them as the two most popular breeds. They can be great for infants because they're soft-mouthed and gentle. Plus, they're usually not bothered by noise or crying.

Special Care

These breeds need plenty of space to play and lots of exercise, making them an excellent match for athletic families.

Word of Caution

Retrievers love to chew on objects, although early training usually prevents that problem. The high demand for these breeds can make it tough to find a healthy retriever with a good temperament.

Why It's a Winner

Newfs are good-natured and laid back. They love to swim, take daily walks, pull carts, and carry backpacks (the last two come from the breed's history as a working dog). This outdoorsy breed could be the motivation a sedentary child needs to get more exercise.

Special Care

Newfs drool a lot and shed a ton, especially if you don't brush them regularly.

Word of Caution

These playful giants (they generally grow to be between 110 and 150 pounds) are best suited to suburban and country living.

Why It's a Winner

Often perfect for children with allergies or asthma since they have hair instead of fur, poodles are smart, energetic, and highly trainable.

Special Care

They require professional grooming every six to eight weeks, plus at-home brushing and bathing between appointments. Getting plenty of outdoor exercise keeps poodles calm when they're indoors.

Word of Caution

The poodle's popularity means that there are many out there, some with better temperaments than others. Choose carefully.

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Copyright © 2001 By Kristen Finello. Reprinted with permission from the April 2001 issue of Child magazine.