What realising we weren’t a dog family taught me about being a parent

"I just wanted a non-judgmental friend who would let me pet her fur."
"I just wanted a non-judgmental friend who would let me pet her fur." Photo: Getty

My mum said what I needed was companionship, what I needed was a puppy. She knew I had been struggling with my kids, 8 and 10, who were approaching their tweens with sass, impudence, and eyerollyness. I'd say brightly, "Dishes in the sink, remember the chore chart we agreed on, guys? Guys?" and they would blink at me with eyes narrowed, like lizards.

So a puppy sounded great. A puppy would love me!

"A dog will without judgment curl at your feet while you cry, Elizabeth," my mum said. Trust her, I thought. She parented me. She knows.

A dog will curl at your feet, yes, but it will also barf at your feet, chew all the left (just the left!) eyeballs off your daughter's stuffed animal cat collection, and develop a terrible high-pitched bark such that your neighbors will leave books by Cesar Milan on your porch. But I didn't know that yet.

I just wanted a non-judgmental friend who would let me pet her fur. And, no, shamefully, I did not consider the situation from the dog's perspective. Nor did I reflect on the stats of pet ownership which, like American marriage, mostly ends in divorce. Within two years.

Merrily, I got us a puppy over the objections of my husband. "It'll be good for the kids," I said, using my Most Convincing Voice, and appealing to science with, "Kids raised around dogs have improved immune systems. Hygiene hypothesis. Gut microbiota. Etc."

Sugar was a small white fluff of a baby Bichon Frise and she seemed perfect. I took about a thousand pictures of her and put them on Facebook for all my friends to see how great my life had become — so great! Look at this dog looking at me more adoringly than anyone else ever had.

I think it would have been a long happy companionship had it just been us, a crone and her familiar like a witch with her cat.

But my big bickering loud kids swarmed Sugar with their friends. "Fetch, doggie!" they'd shout, thinking it was hilarious to throw their sneakers across the lawn while she took off after them, like a happy fluffy arrow. Until a shoe hit her.


It was an accident. I say that it was an accident because I believe fundamentally in human nature's potential for goodness. But I also have been a camp counselor. I have seen kids pluck the wings off dragonflies. Not because they are cruel, but simply because they have the power.

Sugar developed a fear of children. Despite my warnings and admonishments, "Be gentle!" "Sugar's alive!" and "If you guys don't treat her with more respect, she's going to bite you, and we'll have to give her away you know that, right?" My kids were Lennies. Lenny, the oaf from the John Steinbeck story Of Mice And Men who love-smothers his small pets.

It was becoming obvious that I, as alpha of this particular pack, was a Cesar-Milan-fail and not only at dog training, but also at child rearing. Why weren't my kids gentle?

"Isn't having a companion animal wonderful?" my mom asked, via phone. Sugar was mid-barf. It was — the vet said — probably anxiety. I was trying to arrange the poor dog such that she could continue to dry heave but not on the carpet and continue talking to my mum. "Mum, this dog thing…." I trailed off.

Sugar revenge-pooped when I left the house. When I returned she barfed with relief. We were spending serious money on steam cleaners, stink-remover, the vet, and a dog clothing item called Thunder Shirts, which were supposed to curb her anxiety. It was money my husband argued correctly that we didn't have.

Meanwhile, the kids continued to treat Sugar like a teddy bear. They fought over her. They grabbed. They lunged. They bickered. "Sugar likes me better than you. No, she likes me…" "No," they finally agreed, united for once in their irritation. "The person she likes most is Mum."

"Mum, do you like Sugar more than us?" They were jealous. They envied the relationship the dog had with me, happily returning the tennis balls that I threw. Someone really was going to get bitten. It was going to be my third child, the dog.

I had made a terrible mistake. I had made the kind of terrible classic pet mistake that fills people with hatred for and derision of idiots like me who didn't do their Pet 101 homework. I had made the choice to get another living creature because I was lonely and my kids were sassy.

"I can't do this anymore," I whispered to husband. "I never wanted to do this," he said. In Costa Rica, where he grew up, all dogs are outside dogs. The idea of letting a dog into your bed grossed him out, but I brought Sugar into the bed anyway, and pet her and soothed her until she fell asleep with her snout on my pillow not caring that I was breathing in her "puppy stink breath" as my kids called it, because I knew this would be the last time. Was I sad? Yes. Very.

I had screwed up the life of a fellow creature for my shallow and selfish benefit. Parenting is hard and I wanted a friend. I was sadder still that I had compared my kids to a dog and found them wanting. In many ways and on many days, I had liked the dog better. She retrieved the tennis balls they sloppily left in the yard despite my using the words "please," and "iPad time."

We knew A Nice Family (isn't this how they are always described? In contrast to us, The Awful Family Who Gave Up Their Puppy) with older children, live-in grandparents and a yard. They adopted Sugar.

She is happy, they report. "She's a wonderful companion," they gush. We can visit her whenever we want, but we haven't, and probably won't. The kids have already moved on. "Can we get a Beta fish, Dad?" "No." "Is that a Costa Rican thing, too? No fish in the house?"

But I'm happy now, too. I've learned it's okay to like dogs and not be a Dog Family, to tell the kids what I need, like sometimes just sitting on the couch to brush my daughter's hair, quietly, companionably, like grooming.

Our ancestors did it. They did it while the dogs that would become canis familiarus edged their way closer and closer to the fire, but were not yet invited into the circle of humans because we were the ones not yet tamed.

Elizabeth Bastos is a Baltimore-based writer. You can find her on Twitter and her blog

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