Parenting is a tough gig and in the pursuit of making choices that enable our children to grow up to be happy, healthy, strong, kind and resilient we need all the positive help we can get.
The four Dent lads, now fully grown men with three of them being loving awesome dads, are better men because we had good dogs as a part of our lives.
Without even realising it, the presence of our family dogs (particularly one called Jessica Claire, or Jess) has shaped parts of their psyche, minds and hearts in positive ways that we humans quite simply could not.
So what can good dogs teach us about being better people?
1. A good dog models and demonstrates what unconditional love really means. As parents we strive to love unconditionally however sometimes the side of our face twitches with mild disapproval when we meet the day with another wet bed, or witness yet another sibling fight or a plate of uneaten vegetables. A good dog never wavers and greets every moment of our children's lives with the same amazing unconditional positive regard.
2. As parents we really try not to have any favourites … however we know that sometimes some of our children are easier to live with than others – especially those of us who have 'roosters', the high-energy, self-important, opinionated and power-hungry children. Dogs never have favourites and they love equally. Our dog Jess could divide herself evenly throughout the night to sleep two hours with each boy (all without a watch!). Hearing her little feet pat down the hallway as she changed rooms always made me feel happy.
3. A good dog can meet our children's natural exuberance and excitement without any effort. They can chase, run and jump insatiably when we grownups have collapsed on the ground hours ago. I enjoyed many a calm cup of tea while Jess ran the gunk out of my sons' motors – she could dispel any excess cortisol that was in their system beautifully.
4. Having a good dog can teach our children responsibility. My lads had to take turns to feed her and pick up dog poo. There are some lessons in life that may not be pleasant, however they are essential to have in our kitbag before we leave home.
5. Every human being has a burning desire to feel that they belong, that they are wanted and they are loved. A good dog shows how much they value every person in their family. Jess could get very excited daily. However this was nothing compared to her response when one of the boys came home from university for holidays. She'd run round and round the lounge room, barking with joy, running over the couches to show the returned son just how much she missed him. His face would wear an expression that I couldn't conjure with my own joy, even though I know he missed me too (maybe I needed to do some laps around the lounge).
6. There is nothing like a good dog to come home to after a bad day. We all need to find safe comfort when life gives us a working over — when we make mistakes, fail exams, or struggle to complete things. Jess would always know when one of the boys had had a lousy day at school and she would follow them and when they sat down she would be on their lap. Silently they would stroke her and hug her and soon they would be feeling happier. She never got it wrong.
7. A good dog can also teach empathy and compassion so much better than we humans. Once Jess was hit by a car and at the vets. We were all very worried and sad. Something magical happened that day. My two 'rooster' boys –normally emotionally tough and quite self-absorbed – comforted their two more sensitive brothers with words of reassurance. I am not sure this would have happened if one of their brothers had been hit by the car instead of Jess!
8. A good dog will give your children the capacity to understand death, loss and the journey of grief. This is one of the toughest parts of life and to experience it deeply as a child when your beloved dog dies is sadly a great preparation to building resilience and capacity for future major loss experiences including traumatic events.
One of the very best teachers you can add to your family is a good dog.
If you don't have one, I would give serious consideration to getting a puppy or a good rescue dog. It is a bit like bringing another child into the family.
The need to accept the responsibilities as well as potential joys is paramount.
My four sons are better men, sons, partners, mates and fathers because of a four-legged fox terrier called Jess.
Thanks Jess – runt of the litter but a giant presence in our hearts – for the love and lessons you taught us all. We still miss you.
Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator and resilience specialist. Her latest book, A Dog's Life Wisdoms: 21 Life Wisdoms: 21 Life Wisdoms from a Dog Called Jess, is out now. http://www.maggiedent.com