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Lisa Belkin Headshot

How Having A Child Prepares You To Have A Dog

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Every so often I hear a couple talk about getting a dog as "practice" for having a child.

The longer I am a parent, though, the more I think it should be the other way around.

Yes, adopting a puppy means changing your schedule to that of a dependent being, and losing sleep for a while during crate training. And there are even studies which say that your average pup has the intellectual ability of an average 2-year-old, which means reasoning with the four-legged version might give a glimpse of what it is like to do the same with its two-legged counterpart.

But try leaving said 2-year-old alone for an afternoon while you run errands; or imagine feeling your own heart break because your pup had no one to sit with in the lunchroom; or think of deciding who among your relatives and friends would best raise your puppy should you die in a car wreck. It's quickly clear where the comparison ends.

No, having a dog does not prepare you for having a child.

Having children, on the other hand, is excellent preparation for having a dog.

Riley, the Wheaten terrier, joined our family when my boys were nine and six. He was an answer to our younger one's pleas -- which included carrying a Playskool camera with him everywhere he went to take pictures of "all the dogs I love but can never have." Like both my children (and my husband) Riley is male, and I am often asked what I was thinking, since this was my chance to even out the gender ratio around here. I guess that's the first way that parenting prepares you for a dog. Before my children were born I thought I was meant to be the mother of a girl. By the time Riley came along, though, I'd accepted that life means taking what fate -- or the delivery nurse, or the breeder who made it clear I was lucky she was allowing me to pay her for the privilege of raising this particular pup because there were other families waiting in line for a hypoallergenic purebred -- hands you.

We were also ready for a dog because our children had broken us in. Bones and squeaky toys strewn around the floor? We had given up on actually seeing the carpet long ago. Accidents during crate training? Did I mention I had toilet trained two boys? Whose aim was still imperfect? We hardly noticed. Whining and howling for reasons we could not decipher by a creature who could not speak and therefore could not explain? Been there, done that.

As the boys grew there was something delightful about having one "child" who actually listened. Well, at least once in awhile. He wasn't good with "No", but he did "Sit", "Down," and "Stay" far better than either of the kids. (Well, he did those things when there was a treat right in front of his nose.) What might have looked like disobedience if I'd only had Riley as a measure, I recognized as the disciplined miracle that it was, and it reassured me that I could get SOMEONE to do as I said.

It also gave me someone who adored me. Yes, yes, my family loves me too. But my boys long ago stopped looking at me like the sun rose and set on my command (and I think it would have creeped me out a bit if my husband had ever looked at me that way.) My dog, on the other hand, is quite certain that I am perfect. I appreciate that worship all the more after watching my children come to realize I am flawed.

Most of all, though, what Riley has given our family is an understanding -- an acute awareness -- of time.

Riley turned 12 this week, and he's reinforced for us -- my children in particular -- how quickly time passes. Parents don't expect to be present for a child's entire lifetime, nor a child for the whole of a parent's, but my kids understand too well that they will likely live through both the infancy and old age of their dog.

In those dozen years, Riley's also been our measure of how time brings change -- of how it loops and wanders and doubles back on itself, giving new perspective on things you only thought you knew.

There is a story I once heard in a parenting seminar of a new mom who discovers she is somehow the mother of a dog. It is an adorable creature, wagging its tail whenever it sees her, jumping on her with affection, wanting to be around her every moment of the day. Then one morning the mom wakes and finds she is instead, inexplicably, the mother of a cat. The cat walks out of the room when she walks in, sniffs suspiciously at everything she offers, and hisses occasionally. Every so often, though, it curls up on her lap, and those moments are enough.

Then with no warning, she comes home, arms full of groceries and someone bounds down the stairs, lifts the packages from her arms and says "Can I help you Mom?" Her "dog" has returned.

While I waited for my boys to come back, I had Riley. While they wrestled with the storms of adolescence, they had Riley.

Happy Birthday, Puppy.

Good dog.