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Pets are Great for Parents: Co-Parenting with a Family Dog

My black dog named Kat was one of the sweetest animals I’ve ever known. Part fur-baby, part nanny-dog, and eventually part-aging-grandparent, she was a true companion in my life as a parent. Turns out, pets aren’t just great for kids – they’re great for parents, too.

Kat showed up when my youngest child was a pre-schooler, and left me just before he leaves for college. In the wake of her death, which we shared together as a family with equal parts tears and laughter, I have come to see Kat as the Mary Poppins in my life.

My sweet dog often helped me through the rough spots of parenting and taught my kids a lot about life.

Ode to a Black Dog Named Kat

Her formal name (every dog should have a formal name) was Meer-Kat-Rina -- because she looked like a meerkat and was rescued from Hurricane Katrina. She answered to the names of Kat, Kit-Kat, and sometimes Kitty Kat, and in her hay-day, she leapt at the sound of a leash, tennis shoes or the opening of the refrigerator.

When I met Kat at a few weeks old, following the death of our two twelve-year-old beloved canines, I wasn’t keen on getting a puppy. I had three complex kids – wasn’t that enough? But my husband and kids sneaked her into my heart before I had a chance to be reasonable, and she turned out to be one of the finest pets I’ve ever loved.

As a rescue, Kat was full of gratitude. She was happy to be loved and cared for… and we were happy to be appreciated (the disinterest of a real cat was never my cup of tea). It was a love fest around our house. She was just idiosyncratic enough to fit in perfectly in our wild and crazy house. She shied at loud noises and was not a big fan of water (a hurricane survivor, after all). She disappeared one New Year’s eve in response to a neighbor’s local fireworks, and we held vigil all night until she felt safe enough to re-surface. I never tired of introducing her to children as a dog named Kat.

In the early years, she was more my dog than others in the household. When my youngest child turned 6 and I wanted to get my post-baby, middle-aged body back into shape, Kat became my walking partner --keeping pace with me every step of the way for several years. She’d come to me in the mornings, ask me what I was going to wear, and almost will me with those big brown eyes and tilted head to put on sweat-pants and walking shoes.

Over time, as my pace has picked up and her little legs slowed down, we didn’t walk together as much. My husband began working out of the house and she became his office dog -- and she was always a faithful companion to each of my kids.

True confession: sometimes I got jealous of Kat. My husband would get on the floor and play with her daily. My kids talked to her, and it became their job to feed her. She got the attention from those I love that I wish I’d gotten more often (okay, so my husband has always fed me well!). And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A Pet’s Gift to Parents – and Kids

There is something pure and healing about the energy a well-loved animal brings into a home (especially a rescue). A pet offers an opportunity for kids (and sometimes grown-ups) to learn to care for another being who is completely dependent. It’s an awesome obligation, if you think about it, like a tail-wagging, panting, magical training ground for learning to take on significant responsibility.

Arguably more important, pets offer us the opportunity to take some time each day to just relax and play. They offer friendship, companionship. They ask very little in return, except to make the space to be with them, to be kind and loving, and to pay attention to their basic needs.

Now, I know there are some adults who just can’t imagine having a pet – and that’s fine. It’s not for everyone. Like children, pets make messes, and noise, and need occasional emergent trips to the doctor (okay, I’m not so sure that turtles have ER visits, but I know that geckos do!). Caring for another being is not to be taken lightly, and I have immense respect for people who choose not to have a pet rather than manage the responsibility less than honorably.

But I will say that, if there is a part of you that is so inclined, or wonders if its right for your family, there is something magical about an authentic relationship with another being who cannot speak to you. It forces everyone to learn to communicate on another level. It’s one of those little gifts of life that is difficult to express, and can’t be over-estimated in the peace and joy it can bring.

Truly – pets are great for parents! As wonderful as Kat was for my kids, she was a rock-start when it came to co-parenting with my husband and me.

Kat had allergies (no joke!) and in the end, she died of heart disease. Somehow, she managed to hold onto her grace while suffering the indignities of age and infirmity. We all cared for her as we would any elder member of the family, complete with multiple medications, hyper-attentiveness on the stairs, and frequent trips to the doctor. In return, she taught us to:

  • slow down and pause
  • pay attention to the fundamentals
  • be kind and loving
  • take care of ourselves and others
  • ask for and accept help
  • and enjoy life

I ask you, is there anything more important to teach your kids than that?

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