How Pets Train Families

by Nicole Leigh Shaw

We’ve said good-bye to both of our dogs over the last few years. It’s been bitterly hard to say that final farewell; they were lovely, wonderful family members. For nearly 13 years they’d been a part of mine and my husband’s lives—our kids’ lives, too.

Since those pups have shuffled off this mortal coil, we are left with a rabbit that lives in a cozy cage in the backyard and a fish that lives in a bowl near the kitchen sink. Comparatively speaking, they are not as engaging and interesting as our dogs were, but infinitely easier to care for. I’m not saying easy maintenance is the only positive quality in a pet, I’m just saying it’s nice that I don’t have to vacuum up fish hair from the carpet.

As a mother of four, it occurs to me that my pet priorities have shifted. I have children to make my messes for me and to wag their tails when I come home to them, or, more accurately, when they come home to me from school. I’ll grant you that children are a poor substitute for the love of a puppy, but they are also less likely to defecate on your front lawn.

When Bonnie and Clyde were small we took them to puppy preschool where they learned, well, they learned to sit and sometimes come. They never mastered walking on a leash. And heeling? That was never really going to happen, was it? I mean, they were great dogs, the best, even, but when it came to puppy preschool—”C”s earn degrees! Still, I had the time and energy to help train them for life with humans and it made all the difference in keeping our household happy.

Okay, yes, they ate the cabinet fronts, the flat middle parts of the cabinet doors. I’m still not sure how that was physically possible, but they managed it. And the window sills got pretty well mangled by puppy teeth. Right, also, this one time they ripped up half of the living room carpet. But the rest of the puppy preschool training—basically learning to sit—that was tops.

But who enters into a relationship with a new dog and expects it to be bump-free? We don’t get pets because we value a clean home or not stepping into cold vomit at the foot of the bed. We get them because it’s nice to have a furry creature to love and to love us back. And because we hope they will scare away burglars when the reality is that they would probably let a masked man take the TV if he upended a bag of Pupperoni on the floor first.

The other reason one might get a dog is because it’s a helluva training run for parenthood. No, animals and children are not the same. Children put an even greater variety of inappropriate items in their mouths and poop in their underpants as well as on the floor. But caring for dogs and cats and rabbits (oh my!) is certainly better pre-baby practice than carrying around a sack of sugar for your high school health class and pretending it’s your baby named Chad that you and the captain of the football team had about a year after your perfect outdoor wedding in Disney. Just me?

Today, I have the kids I was practicing for, and no longer need a puppy (or two) to break me in. I hear my kids asking if we can get another dog someday, we all do love them so, and I find myself thinking, is that really necessary? Perhaps, as a family who has hit the big leagues of child-rearing, we could find an animal that requires less everything.

To that end, I’ve made a bottom-line list. This is the list that a busy parent needs when considering a new family pet. Remember that there is a limited sweet spot between ages 9 and 12 when your children can take care of 99 percent of your pet’s needs until she or he decides that dating or texting is more interesting than Fido. So if you must own a high-maintenance pet, also get yourself a pre-teen who can help care for it.

Otherwise, consider the following, brutally accurate representation of common family pets.

Dog = Mobile Poop-Dispenser. Not only do you have to pick up the poop, you need to locate it first.

Cat = Hairball Carpet-Bomber. Hairballs are what happens when cat puke and the crap clogging your shower drain have a baby.

Goldfish = Future Toilet-Sushi. Fish are ninjas of death. One minute they are glub-glub-glubbing along, the next they are flush-ready.

Rabbit = Fluffy Escape Artist. A rabbit wants nothing more than to be free and has the jumping ability and poorly trimmed claws to gain that freedom. That won’t stop your family from desperately wanting to hold and pet it.

Bird = Flying Poop-Dispenser. It poops from above. Is that what you want? Airborne turds?

Hamster = Culturally Acceptable Mouse. BUT STILL BASICALLY A MOUSE.

Hermit Crab = Almost a Rock. If you’re smart, you’ll buy a cage and put a shell you found at the craft store in it and pretend he’s always sleeping.

I guess you can get lizards and ferrets and exotic cockroaches and pigs. Those are pets, too, these days. But they are basically the same as the others: Creatures whose poop you are responsible for cleaning up. It’s no coincidence that “pets” is only one typos away from “pest.”

As for our family, I have no doubt that any number of these animals, if not all of them, will eventually find shelter in my home. Sure, they will be annoying and maybe loud or destructive or reclusive or disappointingly dead and floating before we even get home from the pet store. But it just so happens that having a pet is good way to train kids for life with humans. Compassion and care and even knowing how to handle someone else’s poop are, after all, essential people skills.