Can Kids Walk Dogs? 5 Things to Consider
A friend of mine has a high energy dog and she's busy; she knows her dog needs more walks but is struggling to provide them. I recommended my trainer who walks Kayo but she can't afford the cost (though I have to say our trainer does a far above average job for a quite below average cost!). She told me she was thinking of hiring a neighbor's teenage kid and asked: Can kids walk dogs? Oh boy!
The first thing that came to mind was when me and one of my best friends Siobhan were kids and used to walk her family dog Bodhi. Bodhi was a sweetie pie with a high prey drive. He once pulled me down a hill while chasing a cat. Like most people, I tighten my fists when under stress so I didn't let go of the leash; I just got dragged. Another time we walked him through a park and he got into a fight with an off-leash dog. The other dog was tiny compared to Bodhi's stocky, low-center-of-gravity Sharpei figure. The other dog's owner was screaming "Get your dog, get your dog" and me and Siobhan were frozen. Thankfully there were a lot of people around who were comfortable with dogs and they broke up the fight.
The second thing that came to mind were my neighbor's kids who walk their Chihuahuas. These dogs epitomize the "small dog complex," and they heighten a lot of neighborhood dogs. One of the daughters has let the leash go when one dog went to intimidate a neighbors dog; another larger dog lunged at the Chihuahuas in response to their bully attitudes and the kids let go of the leashes and took off running.
The third thing that came to mind was the conversation I had with a trainer I met just last week who is caring for a dog who is anxious and was never socialized. He's doing his best to help this dog build trust. Out in their neighborhood just two weeks ago, a kid was walking a big dog who was leash reactive. When the leash-reactive dog saw this anxious, intimidated dog, he went right for her and the kid couldn't control his dog. The dog came right toward the trainer's dog but the trainer firmly told the dog to stop and he listened. Thank goodness the trainer knew what to do.
The fourth, and last, thing that came to mind was the two young boys at the Berkeley Animal Shelter volunteering their time and walking a big and quite gentle dog. I remember thinking that they looked proud and responsible.
So...you can imagine the kind of conversation I had with my friend. I like to be hopeful and think of all the positives but when we're dealing with dogs we have to be aware of the potential dangers so that we can best prepare. My friend looked at me like I was crazy when I gave these suggestions about having kids walk dogs but I'm sticking to them!
1. Have kids volunteer at a shelter before they walk dogs untrained or in uncontrolled environments. Not all shelters allow kids to walk the dogs but kids would still get exposed to dogs and learn (probably much faster than adults) how to read them. When they're exposed to dogs other than just their own, they will learn tons about the ways dogs communicate and how to identify behavior that isn't necessarily friendly. You can also tell the kid's seriousness if they're willing to invest their free time volunteering.
2. Work up to kids walking dogs alone and throw them challenges from time to time. Siobhan and I felt greatly trusted to take Bodhi on walks and for the most part we did awesome. But we weren't prepared for the worst-case scenarios. I recommend that adults take their time helping kids get used to it: first, walk with them, then upgrade to letting them hold the leash, then let them go around the block with you 50ft behind, etc. Find ways to challenge kids to think about unique situations—if another dog approaches, should they cross the street or head another direction? What do they do if they drop the leash by accident? If they tried to grab it, would your dog just run away in play? Like earthquake or fire drills at school, helping kids understand and prepare for the unexpected will help keep people and dogs safe.
3. Use conceptual physics. It doesn't have to be calculated but if you're a 180lb person who gets pulled down the street by your 30lb dog, having a 70lb kid walk the dog unsupervised perhaps needs to be reconsidered.