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Trust Me, Your Only Child Needs a Dog

Photograph by Leah Campbell

If you had asked me five years ago what my perfect family would look like, I would have told you it would be me and a loving partner raising anywhere between three to five kids, no pets.

And yet here I am, all these years later, just me and one kid and a dog.

It’s funny how life works out.

The single mom part happened more or less by choice. When I was told my fertility was in question, it suddenly created this urgency to become a mom that I had never experienced before. Add in a slew of bad relationships, and this lingering feeling I had that “the one” wasn’t coming my way any time soon, and I knew I was just ready to be a mom. I adopted my daughter on my own just before my 30th birthday.

While I have no regrets about adopting her, her being an only is a different story. I really have always wanted a houseful of kids. I also came into this whole parenting thing with a handful of prejudices against only children. I’ve known onlies in my life who have absolutely lived up to the hype. Selfish, self-absorbed, narcissistic … I didn’t want any of that for my kid. And I knew growing up with a little brother shaped me in ways no other experience ever could have. I have always wanted my kids to have that.

I still want it today, if I’m being perfectly honest. But my daughter is coming up on 5 years old now, and there haven’t really been any other opportunities for me to add to our family. I’m still single, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. I’m still infertile. And while I would absolutely be open to adopting again, there just haven’t been any right fits that have come along.

That’s where the dog came in.

I’ve never really been a pet person. The poop, the shedding, the maintenance—none of it has ever appealed to me. I’ll happily change baby diapers, but I never had any interest in chasing a puppy around with a poop bag. Most of my friends would probably tell you that I just don’t like animals, but the truth is I’m more ambivalent than anything. I’ve never been a big fan of other people’s animals crawling all over me, but I recognize that pets are a big part of the lives of the people I love, and I totally support that.

Still, when my daughter started hinting around for a pet a year ago, I was completely resistant. That was not a responsibility I wanted to take on. And I didn’t even really believe she was ready for us to have a pet. I thought it was something she would stop wanting, or caring about, as soon as we had it.

So, I problem solved. We pet sat for friends when they went out of town, me thinking that would give my daughter the fix she needed. When it didn’t, we started visiting the local animal shelter on an almost weekly basis—again, me thinking that would somehow satiate this need she seemed to have to be around animals.

Instead, over the last year, my resolve slowly dissipated. Every time we visited the shelter, I found myself wondering if I could see myself bringing any of those waiting animals home.

The answer was always “no,” especially as my daughter started gravitating more toward the cats. I definitely knew I didn’t want a cat, no matter how many times cat people told me how low-maintenance they could be. If we were going to get a pet, it was going to be a dog that could come on adventures with us.

See how that shift happened? I went in saying, “No pets,” and then suddenly found myself stipulating what kind of pet might be OK.

And then somehow, we adopted a puppy last month. I can’t entirely explain to you how this whole thing happened. I’m pretty sure my daughter reverse-psychologied me. But by the time I handed my credit card over to the shelter to pay the adoption fee, I actually really wanted this.

And now, after many sleepless nights and potty accidents (because it turns out raising a puppy is just like raising a baby), I can admit, I am totally in love with our dog, especially when I see my daughter with her new best friend.

Adopting my daughter was far and away the best decision I’ve ever made. But adopting this pup might just come in at a close second.

This kid wakes up every morning excited to get her dog out of his kennel and feed him. She joins in with us on training sessions. She basks in his adoration. And she is actually learning she isn’t the center of the universe, purely because of him joining our family.

When she is calling for me at night and I’m out taking the puppy to pee, for instance, she has had to learn to wait.

She’s outside running more, spending far more time playing with this dog and far less time isolated in front of screens.

When she wants something right now, but I’m in the middle of working with the dog on some new skill, she has had to be patient.

She has taken on chores relating to this pup, including filling his water bowl every morning—a responsibility she takes very seriously.

And when the dog jumps up out of excitement and scratches her arm, instead of melting down, she has had to remember that this is what puppies do sometimes—and that it is our responsibility to teach him how to be better.

She has also started defending her pup. I’ve been reading all the books and taking this little guy to all the training classes, so I know all about the benefits of positive reinforcement. But when he nips at my toes or causes a snag in my pants while jumping, I sometimes still lose my temper and yell a little.

My daughter is having none of that, though. She is quick to remind me that we don’t yell at our pup. It’s kind of adorable. And while, yes, the bulk of the puppy care and training is entirely on me (the kid is 4, after all), there is still a lot she has learned about responsibility, empathy and caring for others by having him in our life. These are things I admittedly wish she could have learned by having a little sibling around, but am delighted to see her picking up on now.

Adopting my daughter was far and away the best decision I’ve ever made. But adopting this pup might just come in at a close second. He has been a great addition to our little family, and while that family might not look like I once thought it would, it’s turned out to be pretty special.

We fit together in this amazing way I didn’t even know to hope for. And bonus: My little girl hasn’t asked about a cat once since bringing this little guy home.

So, yeah, if you’re raising an only, I’m here to tell you that the benefits of getting a dog far outweigh the extra poop duty. Including one benefit I forgot to mention: This kid of mine now has someone else in our house, besides me, to play with. And as any parent of an only will tell you, that alone is huge.

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