A Cautionary ‘Tail’

Originally posted Feb. 3, 2009

Considering adding a doggie to your family? Go for it, but be warned: A dog will steal your heart, your shoes and quite possibly your sanity, and will change the dynamics of your family forever.

My kids were 1 and 4 and I was just starting to get my groove back after years of sleep deprivation when we got our first dog. Annie, an adorable beagle/Jack Russell mix, was definitely a morning person. She greeted each day and each of us with great gusto, generally before 5 a.m.

Sleep deprivation was one thing, but when Annie tired of having small children probe her eyeballs and retaliated by baring her teeth at Noah and biting Holly a week after we got her, she was swiftly returned to her previous owner. It wasn’t Annie’s fault. We just weren’t the right family for this kind of dog, but I felt I’d failed them all.

Eventually we tried again. We thought we had it made this time with an 8-week-old puppy we could train. Abby, a Saint Bernard, had so much in common with our two other ‘children’: she was a warm-fuzzy who just needed to be housebroken and I was in potty-training mode anyhow.

This is best accomplished by immediately scooping up the puppy as she commences to squatting, to teach an association between urinating and being outside, but it’s not always convenient for parents of young children who resent having their parents’ attention divided. One afternoon after I hastily dashed out the door with the dog, Miss Holly ditched her diaper and did a ‘naked baby dance’ on the dining room window sill while four-year-old Noah shouted demands for my internet password from an upstairs window.

Nothing can compare, however, to the time Abby stealthily sidled past me out the front door and bolted for freedom. Accustomed to humiliation by then, I grabbed a leftover Cornish Hen from the fridge, hoisted Holly up on one hip and sprinted after my spirited dog. I stood in the middle of the street waving the hen over my head like a lunatic and begged for Abby to return as she galloped down the street and out of sight.

Sure, we did the puppy-training thing, but, ultimately, a puppy is still a puppy (for two to three years) and kids will be kids-especially wee ones. Abby was only 10-months-old when that reality became impossible to ignore. Twice, after irresistibly dizzying romps with the kids through the house, our by then 125-pound and still growing Saint Bernard (think Scooby-Doo, Clifford and now Marley) accidentally knocked little Holly off her feet, her head landing within a hair’s breadth of the radiator. I was heartsick but the choice was clear: Abby had to go back to her breeder. As a wannabe dog owner I was batting a thousand. I felt like I’d given up a child, but size matters when considering the right pup for your pack. I’m not proud of our track record-it’s horrifying, actually-but I hope that my family’s experience can save yours some heartache.

We hope the third time’s the charm, and think we’ve found the dog for us: Jake, a 1-year-old rescued Golden Retriever, is the right size and temperament for us, and our children are finally old enough to pitch in and help care for a dog. The benefits to kids’ self-esteem and confidence are priceless, and the joy and friendship that kids and dogs can share is forever.

Things are looking up, except that Jake decided to sleep between my husband and me, and ate a psychopathology textbook shortly after he moved in. I guess we’re in trouble, if you really are what you eat…

Other things to consider when adding apooch to your pack:

~ Your lifestyle: Is everyone on board with the commitment to adopt and care for a dog and dog-proof the house? A crate (for sleeping in; also handy for those ‘home-alone’ moments for those not yet house-broken, and for when you’d rather yourdoggie didn’t eat your house while you’re out) and a couple of moveable baby-gates can be lifesavers.

~ Are you prepared for the expenses of food, chew toys, emergency vet bills and grooming?

~ Obedience training: All family members should attend, for consistency’s sake. The dog isn’t the only one who needs to be trained.

~ Consider adopting from a shelter. People aren’t the only ones losing their homes in the foreclosure crisis.

~ Pets die. Grief is hard but is not a bad thing for kids to encounter and learn to manage. Surviving the loss of a pet can help kids learn about the natural cycle of life and how to cope with other losses later. However you explain death, avoid the “putting to sleep” phrase: young children can be concrete thinkers and may worry that if they go to sleep, they too, will die.

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