As a family we fall on the late-adopter end of the spectrum. This is challenging for our kids when it comes to owning the newest technology which I’m pretty sure we have none of in our home. It’s been similar with pets. After becoming a parent, I remember the sense of awe I had watching other parents simultaneously following their toddler, pushing a baby stroller, and walking a dog. I knew I’d never pull that off.
When our sons were in elementary school and began asking for a dog or cat, my first response was to say we already had a pet and point to their toddler sister, Annie. “When Annie becomes less of a pet, we can think about getting an actual pet.” Eventually, it was Annie herself begging for a pet. Thus, four years ago we got a kitten, a good first pet for us. But as it so happened, we adopted a kitty who never turned into the lap cat about which our kids had dreamed. Over time, our children more and more desperately wanted a dog with whom they could run around and wrestle.
Last summer, after having our kids do extensive research into the pros and cons of different dog breeds, we brought home a 7 week-old puppy from a dog rescue organization. Our reading led us to adopt a puppy rather than an older dog in order to have as much influence as possible over her adult personality.
Looking back, I am glad we got a puppy because in the end raising a puppy taught my kids a lot about parenthood.
Early Puppyhood Is Not Unlike Life with a Newborn Baby
In the first few days with our new puppy, while I was suffering flashbacks of bringing my newborn babies home, my then 17, 15, and 12 year-old kids were realizing that this puppy adventure was going to be more involved than they had envisioned. “You mean someone has to get up at night and take her out?”
It was a cruel awakening. One week in, we were all fairly sleep-deprived and cranky. But our children were definitely learning what taking care of a puppy 24/7 felt like. They named her Scout, after the character in To Kill a Mocking Bird which our sons had read in middle school. Like all parents, they loved watching her sleep, and couldn’t believe how much energy she woke up with after those relatively short naps.
During those days Todd and I talked a lot with our teens about how similar this was to when they were little. We reminded them that we would sometimes go to 3 parks or playgrounds a day when they were young and their energy was overflowing our small home.
I recall one day in Scout’s early life when each of us had something we needed to do away from home. We were looking at schedules to make sure someone would always be available to take Scout out. Daniel said afterward, “So this was what it was like when we were little? And it was like this every day?” Of course I wanted to say, “It was at least 3 times worse since there were 3 of you, and this phase lasted even longer,” but I didn’t because just seeing that flash of understanding in our teenage son’s eyes was incredibly gratifying.
You Don’t Have Full Control Over What Kind of Puppy or Child You Will Bring Home
It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenthood—you must learn to love the child you are given. Sometimes the hardest part is letting go of your previous hopes and expectations.
All the puppy books said that the earlier you adopt a puppy (within reason), the more time you have to “shape” their personalities. Now that we’ve had Scout for over a year, I shudder to think how she would have looked if we didn’t begin with her at 7 weeks. Scout is like that extremely shy child at the playground. She sort of wants to say hello to other kids, but when someone new comes up, she runs back behind her Mama’s legs. This has also been a valuable lesson for our children. They have had to accept Scout’s basic personality. Her complete adoration of our immediate family has at least helped with this.
After our initial dog research, we had decided the breed we liked most was an Australian Shepherd. A full-blooded Australian Shepherd wasn’t in the cards for us financially, but we were hoping for a half Aussie. In the end we got what we refer to as a part Australian Shepherd, part Husky, part random white dog.
Early on, we took Scout to a number of puppy play groups which the dog books said would help socialize her. During these groups our kids often wondered aloud, “Why is our puppy the only one not playing? The other dogs are having fun together, but our dog spends her time searching for food at the edges of the room. You would think we weren’t feeding her!” Or, “Is there something defective about Scout, why is she so shy?” This led to conversations about the varied rates of development of different dogs (and children).
I acknowledged to our kids how hard it had been for me at toddler play groups to see other kids who had mastered things my late-bloomers were still stumbling over. Although it felt somewhat ironic that Scout seemed to have some of the same issues that all 3 of my kids had experienced as toddlers, I figured this was once again a great lesson for them. They were learning that unlike a new bike which you can ride around the store ahead of time, and decide exactly what color you like, puppies and children develop and change in unexpected ways. You need to work with and love them as they are.
Training a Puppy, Like Parenting, Is Not as Easy as the Experts Make it Sound
Remember those parenting book titles that gave us false hopes—Siblings Without Rivalry, for example? Soon after we adopted Scout we bought, The Perfect Puppy in Seven Days. What puppy owner wouldn’t buy this book? And honestly, aside from the title, it included some very helpful training tips. Since we had older children when we got Scout, we strongly encouraged them to read this and a few other puppy training books which came highly recommended.
Then we watched our kids learn the lesson that reading about how to teach a puppy a skill is one thing. Doing it is another entirely. The real life experience of training your dog to come, for instance, seems akin to potty training a child. It takes time for the dog to learn the skill, and mistakes are of course made along the way. Then after they’ve learned the skill you still must keep practicing it with them month after month. And then inevitably some change will occur: your child starts preschool, or your dog is no longer allowed off-leash at your usual play area. Suddenly that wonderful skill you thought your puppy or child had mastered disappears. This life lesson is simply not one you can “tell” a child about (at least our 3 kids), but experiencing it firsthand with their canine charge made an impression.
Now that Scout is close to a year and 1/2, we are further away from the crazy puppy days, and have hopefully climbed the majority of our steep puppy-learning-curve. Seeing how much Scout adores our kids no matter where they are on the roller coaster of the adolescent experience is worth those first challenging months. I still get a little jealous when I see other young dogs who run up to anyone wagging their tails excitedly. But I so appreciate the unexpected lessons that our sweet, hyper, unknown-mixed breed, on-the-anxious-barky-side Scout has taught our teens and reminded their parents of as well.
How did getting a pet work at your house? Leave a comment below!