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Adopted Puppy, Adopted Children, One of Them Had to Go

Photograph by John Howard/Getty Images

This week I’m speaking to actor, writer, producer and parent of two, Dan Bucatinsky. You may recognize him from last week’s premiere of “Marry Me,” where he plays one of Casey Wilson’s two Dads. You may also have seen him on the Showtime comedy “Web Therapy,” coming back this Wednesday night. And that’s just a few of his recent credits. Mr. Bucatinsky is definitely a man about town in Los Angeles. One of the only places you won’t find him is the dog park. Certainly not for lack of trying.

Dan has been married to his husband, the writer/director Don Roos for 22 years. With his book, (yes, he’s an author too) “Does this Baby Make Me Look Straight?” Dan has also become a public figure for gay adoption, writing extensively about his experience adopting Eliza (7) and Jonah (9) from the same birth mother. In addition to everything else, Dan also loves dogs and raised two, who passed away at ages 15 and 12 in 2009. When the grieving ended, he was ready for more.

“We often talked about getting another ‘one day’. But never a little one because I am not a fan of little dogs.” So when the kids were out of diapers, the dog conversation got a little more real.

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“Of course, Eliza was obsessed with the idea of a Chihuahua. One day the whole family went to the park, all four of us. It happened to be pet adoption day. There was this Chihuahua mix with one floppy ear. I fell in love. Don was like, ‘That's the only little dog you've ever liked.’ We took her home that day. We called her Monica.”

Monica was 4 months old and hadn’t been housebroken. With no househusband between them to trail Monica all day, Dan and Don knew they had to get help.

“We tried the newspaper thing, crate training her, we even had a trainer come to the house,” Dan told me. “Still she would pee wherever she wanted and jump all over people and bark incessantly. Then we sent her to a three week training school — a boarding one. When she finished that, we brought those trainers over to teach us the prompts and commands she learned. But Monica was just not into it, no amount of training seemed to stick. Also, she wasn't happy being alone. I don’t blame her, but we worked and the kids had school.”

(I realized) that my enthusiasm to make my daughter happy, in this case, had been a mistake.

Frustrated and anxious about disappointing his children, Dan asked the trainer, what’s up? “The trainer looked at me and asked simply, ‘Did you do any research about Chihuahuas?’ I’m pretty sure I stared at the ground, having a junior high school flashback about a failed geography assignment. The woman went on, ‘There’s a reason why they are always in old lady’s arms or Paris Hilton’s handbags, they are a terrible breed for children.’ Oh, I said, realizing that my enthusiasm to make my daughter happy, in this case, had been a mistake.”

Even though they felt terrible about it, after nearly six months of repeated visits by carpet cleaners and living with relentless barking, Dan and Don had to admit it was not working out.

“It just became increasingly clear to us that Monica needed to be in a home where people would be with her all day.” They agreed to tell the children, "She wasn't a good fit for our family."

They decided they would find Monica a great new home. “We asked around, until we found a family through our nanny that was looking for a small dog for their 12 and 15 year old kids. It was a family where the mom was home all day. They came to the house, met her and left with Monica and 300 dog toys.”

All seemed right about this decision and they breathed a sigh of relief that no dog or humans were harmed in the process.

“Eliza and Jonah seemed — as they do when our cat died or when the fish died — oddly processed about it and wondering about whatever OTHER pet they could get next.”

The last thing I would ever have wanted is for her to spend years wondering when her time was up.

Until one day the two of them overheard Eliza tell a friend on a playdate, “We adopted a dog, but then she went to live with another family.” And then she added. "I'm adopted."

“Records scratched all across America in our heads, hearing Eliza say this,” Dan told me. “To be clear, this was not some big drama, no hysterics, it was just one of those moments, where thank God I was paying attention and caught it because the last thing I would ever have wanted is for her to spend years wondering when her time was up.”

Dan and Don hadn’t thought about the impact their handling of Monica might have on their adopted children. But rather than tossing back a couple of tequila shots and pretending they never heard it, or brushing it off lightly with a one-sentence, “Don’t be silly, dogs aren’t people,” comment, they took the time to talk with Eliza and Jonah about the word adoption. I was curious how they handled the initial talk about their adoption versus the more nuanced one they had after the puppy relocation.

“When we first told them the story of how we became a family we described their birth mom,” Dan said, “And how we adopted both of them. First Eliza and then Jonah, but how we always knew they were going to be our kids. Forever. That it's a very special agreement made among three people. Daddy and Papi — and our birth mom.”

The post-puppy conversation focused more on the meaning of the word adoption. “I explained that the word ADOPT can be used for lots of different things — including an accent-when someone is putting one on — and they mean different things, and we love them in different degrees. Adopting a pet (or a highway for that matter) is obviously a very different arrangement. Pets are unique and need different kinds of care depending on the age and size and breed. And how well they interact with children. This was a conversation about the different kinds of adoption."

"The initial one, adopting them, was all about love and destiny and how we became a family in the first place. It was about the formation of a family that we were all going to have and be forever more. The pet adoption conversation was about bringing an animal into our existing family — and finding one that made the most SENSE for the family we are. We emphasized to them how we would be her parents forever and ever and ever. And then joked ‘Even if you pee on the rug.’ Of course, we hoped she wouldn't. So far neither of them has. Although Jonah did climb up our outdoor stairs the other day and peed right off of it to the lawn below. I wasn't happy (another teaching moment) but, nevertheless, we're keeping him.”

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What I love about this mistake is that it crept up on Dan. These kinds — the ones that end up coming back to haunt you, whether it’s something you did or said, repeating itself through your child’s mouth, like an ugly belch — these parenting errors are a little more tricky. Of course you want to respond, but then again, you don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but you can’t ignore it either.

Hitting just the right note is the challenge. But since recognizing these misunderstandings is the key, after this story I am going to forego the drop-off playdate once in a while now and position myself nearby, pretending to check e-mails, moving my fingers around looking busy, but really doing some on-the-ground mommy mistake recon. You never know what you might learn.

What’s the “mistake of the week” you bounced back from? Share it in the comments!

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