Much like many young couples do, when GAP and I had been married about two years and bought a house, we got a dog. His name is Scout, and I can promise you that he is the best dog in the world. I say this with, yes, some bias. But my opinion is backed by many people who know Scout and are marginally less biased than I am.
I can also substantiate Scout’s superiority among all canines with such stories of how he once staked out a burrow dug in our back yard by a mama rabbit, sniffed it each day for more than a week, and when the baby bunnies finally emerged actually played with them in the gentlest way possible. He crouched to the ground making himself as small as 100 pounds can become, gently pawing near – but not at – them, never once even inadvertently hurting the tiny mouse-sized creatures. (We have it on video.) When I was reading Book 7 in the Harry Potter series and (spoiler alert!) got to the scene where Dobby dies, I lay on the couch crying silently as I read and Scout walked over from our foyer and started licking the tears from my cheeks. He changed his morning routine for the entirety of my first pregnancy, not going downstairs* to go outside until I came down myself. He walks at our sides without a leash. He supervised SSP’s tummy time. He barks only on command. And he loves everyone. One of these days he will leave us, and I will cry for days. (I tear up just typing those words.)
I feel the need to proclaim the magnificence of Scout (and his brother Jasper) because of this article on Slate that basically decries all pre-child pet ownership. Author Allison Benedikt spends the better part of a thousand words complaining about how the dog she once loved and doted on is now merely a blight on her home life. The whole thing just made me sad. I’m sure it’s true for most parents that the time and attention they gave to their pets before becoming parents dropped off significantly after they first carried a pumpkin seat into the house. (I know it is for us.) And I’m sure that for many of those parents the arrival of children into the family renders the earlier decision to purchase of a pet a mistake not easily corrected. But I’m here to say that’s not always the case.
Balancing life with kids and life with pets is hard. We have two 100-ish-pound dogs and a tiny back yard. This means I have to walk our dogs two miles every morning to keep them exercised and free from cabin fever. They shed mountains of hair weekly, which means that sweeping is a never-ending task. Sometimes they get skin infections and require antibiotics twice a day for weeks at a time. And every time we want to leave town we have to make arrangements for a house sitter. I’m not saying I’m the perfect pet owner. Their monthly flea medications usually get administered a few days late (and sometimes missed altogether). Their daily walks often get pushed aside on weekends. And we don’t brush them as often as we should. But we do our best to keep up with it all because of the incredible joy they bring to our family.
But there is more to pet ownership than a collection of touching anecdotes. Scout and Jasper were also wonderful preludes to kids in a number of ways. They taught us many of our early lessons about caring for someone else. About praise and discipline and devotion. About cleaning up messes. About regular checkups and maintenance medications. Many things that come into play (on a much larger scale, obviously) with children we first experienced with our dogs. Over and above that, both the CDC and WebMD document the health benefits of pets. They have the ability to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides. They stimulate the exercise levels of their owners. And they provide companionship to people living alone.
I’m not saying pets are for everyone. They are a long-term commitment and a lot of work, and the decision to get one shouldn’t be made simply because it seems like it’s the next step in life or because the puppy at the pet store is cute. But I am saying that, contrary to the perspective on Slate, pets can enrich your life after you have children every bit as much as they did before you had kids.
In one of my favorite Louis CK bits (I couldn’t find a clip) he bemoans the day that someone gave his kids a puppy. To paraphrase, he says something along the lines of, “I don’t know why anyone would ever give another person a puppy. It’s just about the meanest present you could ever give. It’s like saying, ‘Here you go. Here’s a broken heart in eight to ten years.’”
As for me, I’ll take the broken heart, because I wouldn’t wish away my dogs for the world.
*Until I was pregnant he went downstairs with GAP and our other dog, Jasper (who is also wonderful, but is no Scout), first thing in the morning. From week 10 to week 39 of my pregnancy Scout wouldn’t start his day until I started mine. In my second pregnancy he went downstairs before me to be close to IEP.