The Case for a Dog

My daughter was almost eight years old when we brought Zoe home. At just five months old, Zoe entered our lives full of boundless energy. Still so young, she required much of our attention and guidance. Our affection for her was swift and deep.

Of course, this is to be expected of a puppy. And it’s precisely the reason we adopted her.

Zoe is a Corgi. Still under a year old, her stocky twenty-five pounds hovers mere inches above the ground. She’s a sweet dog, sometimes defiant and headstrong when she doesn’t want to come in the house or go to bed for the night. She eats her toys and has had two accidents on the carpet (so far). The margin between a young child and a puppy is narrow for sure.

We had one child by choice. We have no regrets. Full stop.

But a few years in, around the time of Kindergarten, I started to notice something going awry in the dynamics of our household. There was an inchoate tension building. Our attention, it seemed, was always oriented in some way toward our daughter. The way we set up bedtime. The way she played. The way we spent our free time, collectively and individually. The way we held our daughter accountable around here, or not, as the case may be.

The way we depended on her. The way she depended on us.

They were the kinds of things that, coming from childhoods with siblings, we knew would be different if she had a brother or sister in the midst. It was an unexpected realization, and one that did not materialize until we had been parents for a handful of years. There were and will be many things she will experience differently simply because she’s the only one. Whether these tendencies and habits developed because of her or because of us is inherently murky and unknowable, but I’m willing to shoulder some of the blame. Which means that I also want to course correct whatever problems I might have had a hand in creating.

A change was needed. But another child was not an option.

My husband and I both grew up with pets. In fact, together we adopted a cat two years before our daughter was born. Eventually, when our daughter was very young, it became clear that Bijou was not a good fit in our house because of her temperament. We decided that she needed to live elsewhere. The story ends well for Bijou; she now lives (more happily, I think) with my in-laws.

Back then, however, I wasn’t sure whether our daughter was going to emerge unscathed from the experience. It took her awhile to trust animals. We agreed to wait a few years before even considering another pet. In the back of my mind, I held onto the hope that we might someday bring a dog into our home. It would have to be unanimous among the three of us.

Then, around the time our daughter was six, and after countless conversations, it became clear. We were ready.

We did our homework about which breeds might best fit into our lifestyle and other needs. We settled on a Corgi. For us, a rescue dog was not an option (for starters, many rescue leagues will not place a dog into homes with children under ten years old; we were not willing to wait that many years). We considered adopting from a shelter, but we ultimately decided to work with a local breeder instead. We wanted someone with extensive experience in selecting a very particular type of dog given our daughter’s own disposition and personality. We found someone who would take our requests to heart and match us with the right dog.

In the meantime, our daughter initiated nightly dinner table discussions about how great it was going to be when we got a puppy. She made lists of possible names. She strategized where the crate would go and who would do the feeding and walking. I noticed we were no longer talking about our daughter’s life all the time. The spotlight on center stage was now growing diffuse.

The wait was long. More than a year. That’s a lifetime to someone in first grade.

Then we got the call. When we met that four month old bundle of foxy colored fur, the three of us knew she was unequivocally worth the wait.

Zoe has been with us almost five months now and will turn a year old in January. Already I see a lightening of spirit in my daughter. It comes from the increased responsibility and pride she has through caring for and training a dog. She is more confident talking with adults and strangers who want to know more about Zoe while we are out walking. Our daughter has learned that others must come first sometimes. She experiences the hard wait of patience in a way that school or living with just us could never offer. She has grown up in ways that I did not even realize were necessary just yet.

I try to ignore that someday, Zoe will also teach her about the deepest of heartbreak.

A dog is not a sibling. I know this. But there are some important similarities. She will be the anchor to many of my daughter’s childhood memories, creating an ample supply of “remember when Zoe . . .” and when we see the oversized ears perked up next to our girl in photos. Zoe adds a new dimension — a levity, if you will — to our dailiness. Her canine antics, like the pre-breakfast “crazy runs” around the house, send my daughter into hysterics every time. Until Zoe came along, my daughter did not laugh like that before school.

She looks to my daughter for snuggles and treats. She makes a good alibi when things get toppled or grow too loud in the other room. My daughter hones her resilience with the friction of annoyance and divided attentions that a puppy inevitably creates. My daughter understands better now how her father and I cannot be in two places at once, and that she will need to rise to the occasion more often, a lesson we struggled to convey before Zoe.

Most importantly though, Zoe offers my daughter the lesson of unconditional love from someone other than just us. For me, that has been the heaviest burden of parenting an only. The gravity of being all that your child knows of love on a daily and granular basis is often strong and overwhelming.

But those brown eyes that beg for belly rubs and those bushy pantaloons that waddle around our living room? They are more than just cute and funny. My daughter now knows that there is someone else she can love — and who loves her back — every single day, no matter what. I’m convinced above all else, that it is the strongest evidence in the case for a dog.

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