This is something I wish someone would have told me when I was childless, although I definitely wouldn’t have listened to them.
My passion for dogs was (and sometimes still feels) blinding. I have always loved them. I dream about them. On the street, I still look at dogs far more than I look at people or children. I want to talk to all of them. Even though I am writing this essay right now, I confess that, in downtime on the internet, I browse profiles of dogs who need to be adopted in my area. I look up breeders for rarer breeds that I want to acquire one day (a silken windhound! A kooikerhondje!), as if that were a decision I was even remotely close to making. Like my father and grandmother before me, dogs are a defining passion of my life.
As soon as I married, getting a dog was the next thing on my to-do list. I read 65 books (not kidding) about dog behavior and training. I started a blog about dogs to temper my enthusiasm while I waited for us to move into a rental that would let us get one. After a few years, my kind, endlessly patient husband, despite not being much of a dog fan himself, finally accepted a move to a mold-infested cottage that allowed dogs, and we welcomed a dog into our home. And not just any dog—a dog who, despite receiving nothing but gentleness from him for nine years, still despises and fears him. We adopted her, a traumatized German shepherd from a rescue, and subsequently welcomed seven other traumatized German shepherds into our home as fosters in the course of the next two years, including adopting another psychotic but affectionate shepherd for a stint of four years.
I say all of this to emphasize that I have done my TIME. I am not a dog-hating witch. If anything, I write this warning because I love dogs as much as I do, and I wish someone had asked me to think about the long-term commitment to a canine a bit more carefully.
I get why this is a trend. Millennials, like myself, tend to get dogs first rather than have children, because dogs are much cheaper and a far, far less significant investment of your life. They also happen to bring unconditional love and companionship, which are huge bonuses. Most of the couples we know did what we did: Get a dog in the early, child-free years of marriage, have fun, and then have kids later, when the poor dog is old and when you will start to resent it for the tiny amount of time and energy it demands from you. It is a sad but very familiar pattern.
Sweet Pyrrha is nearly 10 and continues to live with us. Daily, her life grows a bit more constrained. Our toddler has started the phase of recognizing that he has power over her, if he wants, and we are teaching him every day that he has to be gentle and that he cannot pull her tail or ears while she begs for food from his perch in his high-chair. Still, she is patient and gentle, even if we do our utmost to protect her from him. They’re not allowed to be in the same space unattended, ever. This requires daily traffic control, and already, I can feel it getting tedious. She gets far fewer walks than she ever did, because I can’t walk her and keep Moses from running into traffic at the same time. And yet, she doesn’t complain. She’s as sweet and gentle as she ever was, and she has adapted to her second-class role admirably.
And so, here’s the thing: I love my kid. I also love my dog. It’s BECAUSE I love my dog that I now wish we didn’t have her. It’s not fair to her. She was the center of my world for eight years, and now, even though she hasn’t changed at all and is still the easiest dog in the world, I find myself resenting her. Does she have to sleep in the hallway and trip me and the toddler every day? Has she always kind of smelled? Is the shedding always this horrible? Have I always had to vacuum two to three times every day? She irritates me now, and it breaks my heart to admit it. She’s still the super-weird, terrified, sweet, sweet dog that she has always been. But our life has changed profoundly. And it’s changed to her detriment.
What’s a childless, dog-loving but maybe-child-wanting person to do?
Wait. Please. For the sake of your future dog and future self as a parent, wait. Volunteer at a shelter. Offer to pet-sit or walk a neighbor’s dog. My father has found an outlet for his extreme dog-love over the years by functionally adopting his neighbors’ dogs. They are often found at my parents’ house, eating from his hand and sleeping at his feet, or riding along with him on trips to Lowe’s. Again, I wouldn’t have listened if you told me to wait, but I am saying it now, in penance.
Compromise: If, like me, your passion for a dog is a blinding force of your life, ponder this counsel. If you think you don’t want kids for a few years yet, adopt a senior dog from a rescue. For God’s sake, don’t get a puppy. Give that senior dog the best life possible for whatever years he or she has left. By the time you have to say goodbye, you’ll be ready to consider child-rearing and be dog-free.
If you already have kids, wait until your oldest is solidly in elementary school AND you feel like you have the spare energy and interest to take care of another living creature. The first is because babies, toddlers, and dogs often don’t mix well (mostly because it’s hard to teach either of them anything that sticks), and dog bites are a serious consideration with young ones. Any dog can bite. Do not underestimate this or expect your dog to be the adult in every situation. You be the adult and protect your dog and your kid from each other. This makes me crazy.
On my second point: Dogs require a lot of work, especially if they live in your home, as the majority of dogs today do. It’s not like the olden farm-dog days, when you sent them out to pasture and threw them some kibble now and then. You’re welcoming an animal into your house, and that requires a LOT of patience and training. The “puppy” stage can last for a year or two. Think long and hard about that.
Don’t make the decision lightly. A dog, especially a young one, is a commitment of a decade and then some. I wish I had thought more seriously about the prospect of children back then, even though I know I wouldn’t have ultimately taken this advice. I know you won’t listen, because I wouldn’t have, but I felt compelled to share, all the same. God bless and keep you and your pups and progeny.