Three Things I’ve Learned from Adopting a Puppy

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know that we’ve had some hard times with our dogs over the past year, with two failed adoptions of adult rescue dogs under our belt. I shared our hard-won wisdom about adopting rescue dogs in a blog post back in May. We eventually decided to adopt a puppy—a terrier/spaniel/poodle mix who we named Sunday (in honor of her mother, Easter). Here are three things I have learned about, and from, bringing a puppy into our family.

1. Adopting a puppy is a lot like having a new baby, except it’s faster and easier.

As I wrote in my earlier blog post about adopting rescue dogs, a similar household dynamic occurs when you bring a new dog of any age into your home and when you bring a new baby home. For a few weeks, normal routines (and the breakneck pace that characterizes family life for so many of us) must take a back seat as the family adjusts to their new member, and vice versa. The house gets cleaned a little less often, checkmarks on the to-do list take a little longer to show up, and the adults in the family get a bit less sleep. The new little one’s bodily functions, particularly elimination and sleep, become the focus of our days and many of our conversations. Siblings (human and animal) become confused or upset by how the new interloper is changing their world. My younger children are still struggling with how to respond when Sunday nips at their feet (kicking one’s feet in the air and squealing does not—repeat, does not—teach the puppy that this behavior is unacceptable). The cat, now that she is confident that this obnoxious little creature doesn’t pose a bodily threat, is mostly pretending she does not exist.

This is as close as Sunday and our cat, Stormy, have gotten so far. Sunday would love to play. Stormy is not interested.

 

But despite these similarities between bringing a new baby and a new puppy home, there are some vital differences. Everything, from teaching the little one where and when to sleep and pee, to figuring out how to get back into normal household routines, happens within weeks instead of months (or even years). And through it all, parents of a new puppy have one option that parents of a new baby don’t: Pretty much any time we wish, whether we need to go run an errand or are just sick and tired of cleaning up pee puddles or distracting the puppy from chewing on shoelaces, we can put Sunday in her crate, shut the door, and leave her alone. You can’t do that with a baby.

2.There’s a lot of pressure to do things perfectly. You won’t, and that’s okay.

We’ve been immersed in the positive-reinforcement dog training environment for months now, starting with one-on-one training for our rescue dogs and now in puppy kindergarten with Sunday. Parents are bombarded with expert advice telling us that if we just feed our kids the right foods/use the right sorts of behavior-modification techniques/manage the right sort of household/make sure our kids have the right sort of friends/enroll them in the right kind and amount of activities, etc., then our kids will be well-behaved, healthy, well-adjusted, and productive. Dog owners are likewise bombarded with messages that if we are 100 percent consistent with the right training techniques, our dog will be well-behaved, healthy, well-adjusted, and productive.

We have gotten tons of great training advice that is certainly helping us to mold Sunday into a cooperative and pleasant family member. But here’s what I’ve realized: I am a good parent, but I’m not a perfect parent. I can’t and I won’t do everything I possibly can at 100 percent capacity at every moment in parenting my children. Sometimes I’m not consistent with consequences and expectations. Sometimes I don’t feed them the healthiest food I could feed them. Sometimes I say the wrong thing. Sometimes I choose to do something for myself instead of with or for my kids. Likewise, I am a responsible dog owner, but not a perfect one. I put up with some not-great behaviors from Sunday, or correct her inconsistently. To socialize Sunday, I will take her to the kids’ swimming lessons or to pick them up from school, but I won’t (as one vet told me I should) go hang out in the Home Depot parking lot and ask random passers-by if I can introduce them to my dog. I will use positive reinforcement as our main mode of training, but I’ll also shake a can of pennies to give her a little scare when she’s chewing on the rug (again).

I’m not a perfect parent or a perfect dog owner. I don’t have perfect kids and I won’t have a perfect dog. In being a parent and being a dog owner, I’m always deciding what my priorities are, what I need to let go of to maintain my own sanity, and figuring all of this out in the midst of chaotic family life where things rarely happen the way the experts say they will or should.

3. If you’re not a “dog person,” you shouldn’t get a puppy.

While guiding a puppy toward good adult dog behaviors is faster and easier than raising a child from newborn to young adult, these early months are enough like having a new baby in the house to require some serious self-sacrifice on the part of the whole family, and particularly the dog’s primary caregiver. If I didn’t love dogs, frankly, the time, effort, and frustration involved would not be worth it.

Some people are “kid people”—people who naturally interact well with kids, and who go into professions such as teaching and pediatrics where they put their kid-centric skills to work. I am not a “kid person” in that way. But I’m a good mom. You don’t have to be a “kid person” to be a good and happy parent. But I do think you need to be a “dog person” to be a good and happy dog owner. A puppy simply doesn’t immediately inspire the kind of fierce loyalty and intimate knowledge that a new baby inspires in his or her parents, that feeling of, “I don’t know a whole lot about you yet, but I know you are mine and I will do whatever I must and whatever I can to protect and nurture you” that we have for our children.

My kids and my husband have wanted a dog for a while. I like the idea of my kids growing up with a dog as I did. But the bottom line is that, because I’m home most of the time and am therefore the primary caretaker of all things and creatures in our household, I wouldn’t have said “yes” to Sunday if I didn’t love dogs. Which I do. I love dogs. And I love our dog. And I think the Dollars have finally found our family pooch.

 

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://kingdomcivics.com/2012/07/06/o-canada/ Tim

    “we can put Sunday in her crate, shut the door, and leave her alone. You can’t do that with a baby.”

    Wait, you can’t? Man, wish I’d known that when outr kids were young!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Ha! Good one Tim. I have to tell you that I intended to post this next week. I woke from a little midday snooze (the byproduct of getting up with a puppy early every morning) to find your comment and had a little panic attack, since the post wasn’t finished and I obviously pressed the “Publish” button inadvertently! Fortunately I hadn’t left anything embarrasingly unfinished. But congratulations on being my first blog reader to comment on a post not (yet) intended for publication!

      • http://kingdomcivics.com/2012/07/06/o-canada/ Tim

        I’m usually not ready for things, Ellen, so this would just be true to form for me!

  • http://dog-training-care-behavior.com Jen

    Sounds like everything is starting off on the right track. Good luck with your new baby


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