Parenting

How Bad Pets Make Good Kids

After I got married and had two kids of my own, I vowed that I would give them the pet experience I never had. We adopted a dog -- an irresistible floppy-eared basset hound named Darwin -- soon followed by cats, each lovable in its own disdainful way.
01/06/2016 01:33pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017

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My family only owned one dog. We owned it for less than a week. I don't think we even had it long enough to give it a name. I'm not sure my parents understood how often you are supposed to walk a dog, so I remember it smelled awful, and pretty soon the house smelled awful too. Then, suddenly, I noticed the dog was gone.

"What happened to the dog?" I asked.

"There was something wrong with it," my mother said, "so we returned it." Looking back on that moment, I understand, from my parents' point of view, why they did this. I know exactly what was "wrong" with our dog.

It was a dog.

My parents were smart, kind people, but "dog" and "cat" were languages they simply did not speak. They loved books and couldn't communicate with a dog that treated a volume of Shakespeare like a chew toy, any more than they could deal with a cat that sharpened its claws on Proust.

The result: as kids, my brothers and I never had another dog (or cat for that matter.)

After I got married and had two kids of my own, I vowed that I would give them the pet experience I never had. We adopted a dog -- an irresistible floppy-eared basset hound named Darwin -- soon followed by cats, each lovable in its own disdainful way. For me it was a revelation. Along with my son and daughter, I discovered all the warm, fuzzy delights of pet ownership: from snuggling, brushing and roughhousing, to bestowing Milk-Bone treats or generous doses of catnip.

It's easy to like a cat when it's curled up purring on your lap, or a dog when it gallops to the door to adoringly lick your face. But my kids learned that life is not always like that. They learned that sometimes the dog really does eat your homework. (Or worse. Our basset Darwin once secretly tore open a bag of kibble, gobbled up its entire contents, and left the stinky consequences scattered around the house for the whole family to discover).

Yes, sometimes our pets really did act badly: a scary growl from Darwin that was more than playful, or a claw mark from our cat that drew blood. And yet, ironically, I found that as a parent, that was when having a pet really paid off.

At those moments when the dog or cat was "bad," my kids faced a challenge they had never faced before: they might be powerless in all the other aspects of their lives -- told when to go to sleep, brush their teeth or take their vitamins -- but they held power over their pets. They could treat the dog or cat any way they chose. When the animal displeased them, they had the physical strength to punish it with a whack.

Or not.

My wife and I tried to set an example, to respond to bad pet behavior not with anger but with restraint. We wanted our kids to learn one of life's abiding truths: Instead of punishing creatures when they displease us, sometimes we must simply take them as they are, knowing that to love them means accepting them at their worst as well as at their best.

Of course, we still did all we could to keep the latest disaster from happening again (yes, we learned to lock the kibble away safely in a cupboard). But certain recurring misdeeds, like our cat clawing the sofa or our dog upchucking on the carpet, had to be simply written off as the price of their friendship. Considering the friends we got in return, that price was cheap.

Maybe teaching kids how to deal with pets behaving badly is one way to teach what it means to act human. Call it a lesson in forgiveness. After all, we want our kids to learn to accept the "bad" with the "good" in a dog or cat they love, as we would like them to accept the bad with the good in us.

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