Are you thinking about introducing a pet into your family? How old are your children? Are they ready for a dog or a cat or a bird or even a goldfish? Do you have the time for one more being's life completely dependent on you? These are just a few of the questions that rifled through my mind one Sunday morning when — out of a clear blue sky, between sips of coffee — my husband proclaimed, "Our family needs a dog!" I just about dropped my spatula!
At the time, my oldest (Matty & Meggie — a set of twins) were two and a half, and my youngest (Mikee) was just four months old. Now don't get me wrong, I am a total 'dog person' — love 'em, grew up with 'em, knew our family wouldn't be complete without one. However, I must admit a wave of panic overcame my body at the mere thought of getting a dog when I had a four-month-old and two, two-year-olds. Oh, and by the way, my husband didn't have his heart set on just your run-of-the-mill ordinary dog — he wanted a Bull Mastiff (or two). In case you're not familiar with the breed, you could — without a doubt — mistake them for small horses. Among the largest of all dog breeds, full-grown Mastiffs can top 200 pounds, standing 30 inches high at the shoulder!
I gave him my schpiel, "No-one NEEDS a dog — (clearing my throat) eh, eh I mean a small horse — honey! Especially a family with three children under the age of three, taking care of a mimi (great-grandmother), living in a cramped apartment, and building their first house! Just jump off that crazy train right now!" Charles continued to sip his coffee and read the Sunday paper quietly. No argument. "Good," I thought as I nonchalantly flipped blueberry pancakes on the griddle, "he has come to his senses. Over. Done. Fini. I win!" Until about ten minutes later, when he said with the excitement of a child's first glance at the tree on Christmas morning, "Look, honey — some guy up in 'The Kingdom' is selling bull mastiff puppies for $400! Six weeks old! That means they'd be ready to be separated from the mother within a couple of weeks!" I continued making breakfast, trying to ignore him. I was relatively successful; until he jumped out of his seat — quarter-folding the newspaper; then held it three inches in front of my face for me to read the classified ad. I could tell this whim wasn't going away with a few words of rational from me!
In other words, my wifey schpiel didn't work; I hadn't won the discussion at all; and worse than that, after breakfast that morning, I found myself loading the children into the car for an excursion to northeastern Vermont (aka 'The Kingdom') to look at Bull Mastiff puppies. Ah well, being a glass-half-full kinda gal, I was trying to look at the bright side — it was a lovely spring day, and it would be fun to take a ride, get out of the house, look at some cute little puppies. What could possibly be wrong with a day like that?
So, off we started for Holland Pond, Vermont — population 500. In case you're unfamiliar with Holland Pond, Vermont — it is one of the northernmost towns in Vermont, located smack dab on the Canadian border. It took us about two hours to get from our home in Burlington to the middle of nowhere; however, I will say — there's a reason they call Holland Pond 'a slice of heaven.' We spent the entire trip hyping the puppies to Matty and Meggie — who were, by the time we got there, beyond excited to meet these furry little loveable creatures.
Finally, we had arrived at our destination after ascending a long, steep, and winding dirt driveway rutted and washed away from many a spring thaw. Good thing we had a four-wheel drive vehicle! As soon as we turned the engine off — a mountain man appeared from the log cabin in front of which we had parked. He had a long straight gray beard, and his matching hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail tied with a leather shoe lace. He wore a flannel shirt and tattered blue jeans. Slowly, he made his way off the porch as Charles, and I unloaded the squirming children from their car seats — wiggling out of our arms — excitedly asking over and over again, "Where are the puppies, where are the puppies?" As the man approached us, in his raspy gruff voice, he said, "You wanna' see the dogs?"
He motioned to Charles and escorted the three of them down a grassy knoll towards an old barn-like structure. Matty and Meggie were running as fast as their little legs would take them to meet the little bundles of fur joy! I returned to our SUV to remove Mikee's baby carrier. No sooner had I turned my back to unclip the car seat from its platform when I heard shrieking, screaming, and outcries of "Daddy!" I looked back down the hill to see a pile of ten playfully pouncing, over exuberant, 15-pound puppies. And beneath that giant pile of playful puppies were my crying babies! Leaving Mikee, still safely clipped in the car, I ran to help rescue Matty and Meggie. By the time I got there Charles, and Mr. Mountain Man had managed to get most of the puppies back into the barn by coaxing them with kibble. However, Matty and Meggie were still quite traumatized as I attempted to brush as much of the fresh spring mud from their clothing as I could. They were crying hysterically, pretty much inconsolable, but did manage to squeeze out — word by word, between long sobs, "We — don't — like — puppies — Mommy!"
I tried to hold it together until we were at least all loaded into the car — and I did a pretty good job of it. Just once, speaking through clenched teeth, I said, "I think we're good on a family dog for now!" I was seething and couldn't wait to get down the road a bit to give Charles the big, "I told you so!"
By the time Matty and Meggie had settled down on the way home, so had I. Charles was very quiet, and I could tell from his sheepish demeanor (completely out of character for my dear hubs) that he was feeling bad all on his own and didn't need any help from me. Suddenly, I was overcome with a 'make my marriage better moment,' deciding to take the high road and not berate him over the incident. Aside from muddy clothing, a pretty big scratch on Matty's face — which, incidentally, left a faint scar to this day — and trepidation at the sight of dogs for the next couple of years, the twins emerged from the incident relatively unscathed.
How do you know if your children are ready for a family pet? Watch for these 'tell-tail' signs when you find yourself considering a new family member with fur, feathers, scales, or fins.
• Your children are comfortable around pets.
If your children are afraid of animals, work on building up their comfort level in ways other than getting your own pet. Visit an animal shelter or spend time with friends' or relatives' pets. And don't make the mistake I did, begin by introducing your child to calm animals, such as older dogs, rather than puppies.
• Your children have the capacity to respect animals.
Children need to be old enough to understand that pets should be touched gently, with affection, not pulled and tugged on roughly. Also, that pets don't always want to be touched, especially when they're eating, so it's important that children know when to leave pets alone and respect their space.
• Your children are ready for the responsibility that comes along with a pet.
The breadth of care from pet to pet can vary. Obviously, the care of a fish or bird will be distinctly different from that of a dog or cat — so make sure that as a family you all carefully research the care involved for the particular pet you are considering. Also, evaluate your children and their current responsibilities. In other words, how do they do when you ask them to unload the dishwasher or set the table or make their beds? Brushing one's teeth every day — twice a day — without being reminded is a good indication of a child's maturity level and readiness for the responsibility of pet care.
• Your children (and you) are truly committed to getting a pet.
Ask yourself at least a hundred times, "Do I really want a pet?" And then really think about what it means to have a pet. Make sure that the idea of a cute, warm, and cuddly puppy is not just a whim. It's quite common for the novelty of a new pet to wear off fairly quickly. And that's why it's recommended you never buy a bunny or a duck for Easter or place a puppy with a big red bow under the Christmas tree. The decision to adopt a pet should be taken seriously and not one made simply for the fact that they make a holiday more festive. Remember that pets have a lifespan and in some cases, for instance birds, it may be longer than yours! So be sure that you're all willing to make the commitment to your pets for the long-haul of their lifetime.
• Your children understand that you must select the pet that is best suited for the entire family.
Not every pet will be the right fit for every family. Any animal is going to need a certain amount of time, a certain amount of space, a certain amount of care, and a certain amount of money to maintain; but some will require more of these things than others. Consider which pet fits the time, space, care, and budget restrictions your family may have. Fish aren't a huge investment of time, space, attention, or money. Birds need the most time investment but not much space. Dogs and cats require a fair amount of care but are not the financial drain a horse would be. If it's a dog you're looking for, I love the American Kennel Club website for information on selecting the right breed for families and children.
• Your family has given pet ownership a trial run.
Borrow Grandma's Poodle, Pomeranian, or Pekinese for the weekend. Or offer to take care of the neighbor's cats while they're away on vacation. Pet sitting as a trial run is a great way to 'try before you buy!'
• Your entire family should be on board.
You may need to consider a family member's allergies to dog or cat dander or an aversion to certain pets — like snakes! Eeeek! In either one of these cases, the rest of the family must respect those family members who may have a problem with a particular pet. Introducing a furry or scaly buddy into a family is an enriching experience; but, if the whole family doesn't support the idea, then it may not be the right pet or the right time for a pet.
• You (the parents) are prepared to care for the pet.
Lastly, if you've made the decision to get a pet for your family, then you must be prepared to assume full responsibility for the animal. With every pet we added to our family, I went into it fully expecting that I would be the main caregiver. That way I was never disappointed in my children, nor did I feel any resentment for having to take care of my pets. If you are expecting that your children are going to be solely responsible for the pet, it is best to wait until they are preteen to early teens. No matter the age of your child, however, expect to do spot checks on how they're doing, and be prepared to take over the responsibilities — that's just the reality!
For more information about what you need to know before bringing a pet into the family and helpful pet adoption tips check out Healthy Pets with Dr. Karen Becker.
And of course, those playful Bull Mastiff puppies — 19 years ago — didn't sway us from adopting pets. Although we never did open our hearts and home to any Bull Mastiffs, we did to scads of chickens, two bunnies, two Cairn Terriers, and five goats. And trust me, they've all made for some fun animal antics; but, we'll save those stories for a different day and a different blog post. For today, it suffices to say that we ended up with quite a menagerie, giving careful thought and adopting each member when the time was right — the key being, 'when the time was right!'
Tell us about your pet or your menagerie of pets! Please comment below!
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...