If you have kids, chances are you’ve thought about getting a dog, either because you think it might be a good idea for your family or because a certain little person keeps asking you about it. As the puhutakawa trees bloom, we are reminded that Christmas is coming and so is the expectation of a puppy in a perfectly wrapped parcel tied with a bow. The same applies to birthdays. The influence of the imagined joy on your child’s face and the screeches of delight as they untie the ribbon on the breathing box cannot be overstated. Just search youtube for “Christmas morning puppy surprise” for further evidence of this exceeding pleasant moment.
Now give your head a shake and try searching for “child walks dog,” “child cleans up dog poop,” and “family leaves for spontaneous no-dog holiday without an issue.” I assure you the results are less enticing. These thoughts of extra work and lack of spontenaity are what held me back from pet-comittment.
Until recently. You see, watching videos of children opening their puppy surprises quickly led to watching videos of puppies. First it was just me, but then my husband Jack became equally addicted to the puppy videos. We soon strayed to videos of kittens, baby pandas, and even an intelligent octopus, but kept coming back to puppies. That’s when I began to crack. Maybe we did have room in our homes and our hearts for one of these adorable bundles of love?
Almost every kid grows up wanting a pet of some sort; a dog, a horse, a cat, a unicorn... I wanted a fluffy, white puppy. My parents grew up on farms where the animals lived outside and ate food scraps. They loved their dogs and barn cats, but they weren’t pets like we have in the city, and they never came close to fur baby status. To defer my persistent requests, my mum suggested that I focus on manifesting my doggie dream. I decided that must mean I should surround my family in thoughts of dogs. I scoured magazines for photos of the dog that I wanted and plastered magazine pages up all over the house – in my bedroom, on the bathroom mirror, on the kitchen cupboards. For years I did this with minimal reaction from my parents and a distinct lack of puppy. It didn’t work. Or so I thought.
It turns out I just didn't wait long enough. The magic worked - just 25 years later than I expected.
Fast forward to this year and this was the scene. My son, Dan, was turning seven and having a hard time, or perhaps just having a normal time and life is hard sometimes. My four year old daughter, Sadie, was petried of dogs, cats, and all four legged creatures, even unicorns. It’d taken four years to get her to approximate any humans besides me, so our expectation of animal acceptance were low.
Then we received an unexpected and welcome call from the SPCA. Two tiny kittens needed a foster home for the next five weeks until they were old enough to be adopted. Yes! In our time with the kittens, we saw Dan calm and settle himself, choosing downtime with the kittens over time with his friends or his toys. After several days of keeping a 2-metre perimeter between herself and the frightening kittens, Sadie slowly closed the distance and eventually held and cuddled the kittens.
At the end of the foster period, everyone was desperately sad to see the kittens go, but especially Dan. Many of his daily stresses that had been eased by the presence of the kittens had become hard again. Jack and I reverted to our evening tradition of watching adorable things on youtube and the pet question resurfaced. With concerns about the impact of cats on native birds in New Zealand, we didn’t want a forever cat and we weren’t sure if a rabbit or guinea pig would have the same therapeutic benefits for Dan.
Then a friend sent a photo of an cute white fluffy dog, two years old and needing a new forever home.
We arranged a meeting with Betty and her soon-to-be ex-family. Betty ran around our house excitedly, while Dan played fetch with her. Sadie shrieked in horror from her safe place on top of the the kitchen bench, her reaction not dissimilar from when the kittens first arrived. When Betty left, we considered three options: 1) Adopt Betty, 2) adopt a puppy, or 3) stay pet-less. My husband voted Betty, Dan voted Betty, and in a twist, Sadie voted Betty. As chair, I remained neutral, not yet willing to give up my veto power.
Jack and I spent the next week discussing the pros and cons, eventually deciding that the pros were mostly emotional in a way that can’t rightly be measured against the mostly chore-like cons. In the end, we decided to go for it.
On Dan’s 7th birthday, Betty arrived. Though my inner documentarian desperately wanted to record my own version of the Christmas morning puppy surprise, we decided to give Dan some notice to process the news. Not to mention reduce the amount of pestering. Though Dan knew he was about to get a dog, he didn’t dare to believe it - his reaction priceless, exactly as predicted by youtube. They bonded instantly and Dan continues to tout Betty as his best birthday present ever.
Sadie’s reaction was less analagous with viral new puppy videos. She lived on the kitchen bench for the better part of two weeks. In desperate situations, she would check on Betty’s whereabouts, then dash to the toilet, slam the door, then peek out through a crack in the door and sprint back to the bench again. During those two weeks, the usual bench top supplies of knives, chopping boards, and dirty dishes, shared the space with most of Sadie’s toys and acquired through similarly rapid, stealth movements. Gradually, Sadie moved down to chair-level and eventually the floor. We turned the final corner several weeks later when she asked if Betty could sleep in her bed.
Many believe that the presence of animals has therapeutic benefits, such as improved wellbeing and teaching morality. Increasingly, dogs are used as part of rehabilitation. This is called Animal Assisted Therapy. Speech Language Therapists use dogs to help people start talking and give people comfort. Our local hospital has a therapy dog that comes to visit the inpatients each week and retirement homes often have a resident cat or visiting dog. There are even organisations where you can lend out your dog to visit people. For Dan, Betty and the kittens demonstrated some of this therapeutic effect.
As far as the cons of having a pet, we’re working through it. We experimented with different dog food (in consideration of cost, convenience, and health), met with the vet, make a list of dog friendly trips, and found a roster of friends who are thrilled to take Betty overnight while we travel to dog unfriendly destinations. In our family, we’ve divvied up the walking, feeding, and brushing duties. There is sometimes some grumbling about the after school walk slot, but the kids can see how much Betty looks forward to it and follow through on their own now. Both kids happily pick up poop. I should make a youtube video!
Getting a pet is a huge decision that obviously should not be made lightly. At our house, four out of four family members agree that it was the right one.