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Just Add a Dog

“Is she your only?” is a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count. I’m guessing it’s a question that I’ll face time again – especially during the remainder of my so-called childbearing years. I always give the same short answer as my spine stiffens, “Yes.”

It’s impossible not to feel judgment when the question comes from a parent with multiple children, and I instantly feel the need to defend my daughter’s only child status. It would be easy to blurt out all the reasons why I have (and plan to always have) an only child, but that’s just painful for me and uncomfortable for others, so the answer is simply a calm and controlled yes.

Well, that was the case until recently. John and I were at a dinner party, and during the dinner, another guest asked me when I was planning to have another baby. Thinking my, “I have no plans for that to happen,” answer would be enough, I thought the topic of conversation would change, but I wasn’t so lucky. The questions continued: “She’s going to be so lonely. Don’t you want her to have siblings for later in life? Only children aren’t happy. You’re too young not to have another child.” And on it went until I became so uncomfortable that I borderline shouted, “We bought Birdie a dog!”

The only child syndrome theory gives me heartburn. I’ve spent too much time worrying whether Birdie will be okay later in life because she’s growing up as an only child. I think children are amazing creatures most of the time, but let’s be honest here folks. Children with siblings can easily grow up to be self-centered, antisocial adults – it’s not a disease in only children.

So, Birdie got a puppy. We didn’t make this decision because she’s an only child; rather, we added a puppy because we love dogs. Like a toddler and a baby, a toddler and a puppy is some kind of combo. It’s crazy. It’s lively. It’s insane. It’s happiness. I love the sound of two little feet and four big paws running through the house. I love the puppy breath and the toddler giggles that come from puppy kisses. I fear the occasional silence because silence usually means trouble.

Stella, our Lagotto Romagnolo joined our family when she was eight weeks old. As we were counting down the days of her arrival, my anxiety about this new addition was higher than at the time I was expecting Birdie! I was beside myself and getting so worked up about having a puppy in the house. My dear friend Emily gently calmed my angst as she said, “Toddlers form incredible dogs; dogs construct incredible human beings.”

Emily’s words made me reflect on my own life with dogs. I was gifted my first puppy when I was two, and I vividly remember feeding Flintstone vitamins to that spunky little beagle named Nelly. Mostly, I think about the love I shared with Nelly, then Sugar, Mac, Midnight, Molly, Athena, Bruiser, Jackson, Reese, and Jack, and those loyal companions are the real reasons why we added a puppy into this already hectic life.

I’m no expert, but I do believe that dogs are an essential part of the good human puzzle. Here are my top 5 reasons why I say, “Just add a dog!” to your family – especially if you’re looking to teach your children valuable lessons that will last a lifetime.

1. Dogs teach unconditional love. Children who have a dog learn to love unconditionally, and children will apply that love in their daily life – now and later.

2. Dogs teach selflessness. Children who share space and people/parents with a dog learn that it’s not always all about them. Children with dogs learn

3. Dogs create happiness. The number of children diagnosed with depression today is staggering. Dogs have proven their ability to reduce anxiety. Additionally, they are always happy to see their people – it makes sense that dogs can lift the mood with their happy dances and wagging tails

4. Dogs teach responsibility. Children learn to take initiative because another living creature relies on them for survival. Feeding, bathing, and walking the dog are tasks that children can help with that demonstrate how necessary (and sometimes hard) it is to care for something other than oneself.

5. Dogs keep kids moving. Televisions and video games cast spells on children and prevent them from getting outside to move their bodies and explore nature. Taking the dog for a walk, playing a game of fetch, or exploring a nature trail give children the opportunity to move their bodies and create a strong bond with the dog.

Since the moment Stella joined our family, we've felt a new happiness (and increased level of exhaustion)! The love and respect she and Birdie share makes my heart swell. I love when Birdie comes home from school and says, "Hey, sweet girl. Sorry I had to leave you today. I had to go to my school. I missed you." Then there's the times when Stella wants to play fetch so she brings her toy straight to Birdie to offer the commands of "Drop. Sit. Fetch. Come." I love watching them grow up together.

The decision to bring a dog into the family must be a family decision – one that works for the whole family. Life with a dog is a big commitment and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Should a dog be right for your family, the unconditional love of a dog is sure to outweigh the challenges of training a puppy.

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