Should my family get a dog?

Local writer Julie Matlin shares her own experience and offers advice from veterinarian Elkin Seto and dog trainer Aimee Pierce

The Matlin family with their dog, Zoe

The decision to bring home a dog was not an easy one. We had dogs before; two mutts named Kato and Trouble. They were with my husband, Daniel, and I through our courtship, marriage, and the birth of our two children, living well into their childhoods. Saying goodbye to those two dogs was the hardest thing I ever had to do.

Fast-forward five years and our kids are 11 and 9. My son, the eldest, is exhibiting signs of anxiety, which he clearly inherited from me. My daughter, who for years cherished being the youngest child, was now itching for a little sibling. For the first time, we thought about getting a dog.

One night over dinner, I decided to float the idea with the kids.

“Why?” my son asked. “It’s just going to die.”

At that moment, I realized that the only experience my children had with dogs was living with two deaf, senile, and incontinent seniors. Forget puppy, they never had a healthy dog. I knew this had to be rectified.

After a long search with some failed starts, I finally found our puppy. My husband’s only condition had been no shedding, and my only condition was that the dog be sweet and easy-tempered. We settled on a Bernese/Poodle mix and I found a reputable breeder in Ontario. As it happened, the breeder had just had a large litter, with three puppies yet unclaimed – only one female.

We brought her home at 10 weeks old.

Dogs bring an incredible amount of joy into the house. It’s like magic. Zoe turned out to be the perfect dog for us, not the brightest, but certainly the sweetest. She’s friendly, easy-going, and every day at 2 pm, she waits at the bottom of the stairs for me to join her for a nap.

It took exactly 2.5 seconds for my son to change his mind and fall whole-heartedly in love. Even now, three years later, he still starts and ends each day with, “Where’s Zoe?” My daughter, as usual, developed her own relationship and you can often find the two of them sitting on her bed, my daughter with her headphones and computer while Zoe curls up, chin resting on my daughter’s feet while peering out the window at passersby.

WHY BRING HOME A DOG?

My friend Rachelle was never a dog person, but that didn’t stop her third child from begging for one from the time he was three. For a solid decade, he ran up against a brick wall. But as he came up upon his Bar Mitzvah, and his two older brothers were going away to school, Rachelle realized it might be time. In a family where every member is over 6 feet tall, they brought home an 9 lb Maltese/Yorkie mix.

“Within days we were all in love,” Rachelle says. “He brings so much love. He keeps the kids company when they’re sick and makes us all happier. A disproportionate amount of our conversation has become about how cute the dog is and what he did that day. We send pictures and video to the older boys. A few months ago, my son left for prep school, and it’s just me, my daughter and my husband left at home. So, after all those years, it seems I got myself a dog. And to be honest, I love him so much. I wish I had given in sooner.”

“There are so many benefits to owning a dog,” says Dr. Elkin Seto, a Montreal veterinarian. “Especially when there are kids in the family. It teaches them to have empathy for and to aid in the responsibilities involved in caring for a living being. This four-legged family member will also never be judgmental and can be a tremendous source of comfort.”

Dr. Seto runs the Clinique Vétérinaire Sud-Ouest and says he has an endless number of examples of the benefits of having a dog. There’s new research to suggest that early exposure to pets can help reduce a child’s chance of allergies,” WebMD actually did a great job of rounding up some of the supporting this theory. A 2010  study even shows that children who grow up with dogs may reduce their risk of developing eczema.

Aimee Pierce is a dog trainer who has two of her own pups and spent a few summers working at Camp Bandana, a recently defunct camp where teens learned how to train their dogs. “A lot of the kids I saw at camp weren’t your average socially-savvy teens. They didn’t have a lot of friends, and dogs clearly brought them a sense of companionship. They had a connection to another living thing. And these kids were then able to build friendships at camp, which I’m not sure they would’ve done otherwise. Their dogs act as an icebreaker.”

“There are other, less obvious benefits, too,” says Seto. “You get out more when you’re walking a dog. There’s also lowering your blood pressure, reducing stress, increasing longevity.” In 2013, the American Heart Association released a paper that summarizes various research studies that support these findings.  In fact, the AHA’s conclusion was that dog ownership likely decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

“And don’t forget companionship,” Seto adds. “Socially, one is much more likely to speak to other dog owners and people we encounter on walks.”

I can vouch for this last point. It amazes my husband how many people I know in the neighbourhood, all because of Zoe. As a writer, I spend a great deal of time at home, alone. The chance to get out and talk to people is one of the biggest advantages in my books. Aside from the naps.

THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BRINGING HOME A DOG

“Preparations should be made well in advance,” Seto advises. “First, all family members must want a dog. Second, it must be decided if the dog will be crate-trained, where the dog will be allowed to roam, how training will be done, etc. Third, who’s going to feed and walk the dog? Finally, when you do bring the dog home, bring him to the vet as soon as possible for a check-up. There may be health issues and it’s also an excellent opportunity to ask any questions you may have.”

While Dr. Seto is exactly right, we all know the reality is that your kids are going to swear up and down that they’ll feed and walk the dog. And maybe they will. But you have to be prepared to take on that responsibility if they fall short. Unless you have much more effective parenting techniques than I do.

I also think it’s important to be flexible. The kids walking Zoe was one of the main items on my list, but as it turns out, I adore walking her and do it every chance I get. Instead, I make sure the kids take over play duties. And both have proven very effective in training her.

Keep in mind that having a dog isn’t cheap. There’s food, toys, vet bills, medication, and a whole bunch of expenses you’ve never even considered. I spend more on Zoe’s hair than I do the rest of the family combined. And if you like to travel, boarding can cost anywhere from $26/day in a kennel to $45/day in a private home. If you work full-time and the kids are in school, you might want to consider a dog walker or doggy daycare, as well. There’s a lot to consider here.

CHOOSING THE BEST DOG FOR YOUR FAMILY

Choosing a dog based on looks is not the way to go, and remember that you might bring home a puppy, but you’re keeping a dog. There are many factors to consider when deciding on the right dog for you.

“It’s important to take into account the lifestyle of the family,” Seto says. “For example, if the dog is going to be alone during a long work or school day, unless the dog is going to daycare of has a dogwalker, then a very active dog may not be a good idea. If young children will be walking the dog, a smaller breed that they can easily control would be wise.”

There’s also the issue of mutt vs purebred. There are pros and cons on each side. Purebreds have common, known traits, while mutts are known to be healthier and live longer.

“Some purebred dogs are more prone to health issues,” Seto warns. “Owners of these dogs should be prepared to visit the vet more frequently than most.”

Pierce adds that while purebreds offer an idea of temperament, it’s important to remember that each dog is an individual, with its own personality. You can end up with a high-strung version of a normally easy-going dog.

“If you choose to adopt, a good rescue will do more than one behavioural evaluation,” Pierce says. “Multiple people will evaluate the dog so that you can have a better understanding of its personality and character.”

Whether you choose to rescue or go through a breeder, keep in mind that puppies are a lot of work and there will be a period of adjustment. Some people even experience postpuppy depression, a feeling of remorse and “oh lord what have I done?” I went through this twice, mainly due to the sleep deprivation that comes with crate training. I’m pleased to report that in both cases everything worked out fine, as it seems to in every other case I’ve heard of.

STILL NOT SURE?

If you’re still on the fence with your decision, there are ways to ease into dog ownership. You can offer to dog-sit for a friend on vacation or foster a rescue that’s waiting for a home. If you want to see if your children are ready, there’s a great program offered by the SPCA and Engage, which offers kids and teens hands-on experience in caring for shelter animals in a safe yet fun environment. Emelie Luciani, who works with Engage, says, “We have a high educator-to-participant ratio to make sure all animal interactions are properly supervised.”

Luciani also stresses another important benefit of having a dog around. “We know that a lot of issues today stem from the lack of empathy,” she says. “Working with vulnerable shelter animals is a great way to practice empathy.”

So whether you’re ready to dive in, or just dip your toe in the water, there is one thing I know for sure, life will never be the same.