Puppies as practice for parenting

by Marissa Marangoni

Before my husband and I had our son, we had pets — two cats and two dogs. You can’t really compare caring for cats to caring for children, but I believe there is a strong case supporting the similarities between parenting puppies and small people. 

Bringing J home was daunting for a plethora of reasons for me. When I reflect on the experience of raising him thus far, I feel like raising my rather needy dogs was the best thing I did to prep myself for parenthood. Certainly, I understand that dogs are not children and children are not animals (though that can feel a bit questionable depending on the day), so I can see how some people are of the opinion that having puppies is not good practice for having kids, but those people are wrong.

Here’s why.

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  1. Loss of alone time. Franklin was my first puppy—ever. I grew up on a small farm with dogs that always showed up as adults. Adult dogs are not the same as puppies. Franklin did a lot of prep work in the six-ish months that he was the only dog in the house, and he started his lessons by stealing all my alone time. I’ve always spent copious amounts of time alone, and when Franklin entered the picture, all that time was gone because he was the world’s saddest puppy. As in, when my husband and I brought him home, he cried for three days straight. And so did I. This really wasn’t much different from when we brought J home, except my husband was home those first days, and I am pretty sure I cried more than J did.

Once Franklin passed the crying stage of his life, he glued himself to me. If he could have lived inside my skin, I am certain he would have chosen that option over any other thing he could have possibly done. He was too scared of life without me to do anything on his own—including stay outside of the bathroom while I was in it. I was never an open-door-bathroom person before Franklin, but after him, I gave up. Franklin was so desperate for my company that even after the open door bathroom policy was instated, I’d be lathering my hair up with soap with my eyes closed only to open them to see Franklin’s round brown eyes staring up at me while wagging his little drooping wet tail out of relief that I hadn’t abandoned him.

No matter where I went or what I did, Franklin was right there with me, and when he couldn’t be, he was mourning my absence by chewing his own hair off his legs and violently throwing himself into the walls of his crate.

Suffice it to say, Franklin had a lot of needs as a puppy—and while I didn’t have to feed him milk every five minutes like I did my son, I’m pretty sure this dog was needier than my newborn ever was. J didn’t leave my side much for about the first two years of his life, but Franklin hasn’t left me alone since 2009.

  1. Loss of sleep. Raising puppies also prepped me for parenthood by wrecking my sleep. Let me say this right out of the gate: even difficult puppies couldn’t serve me up the level of sleep deprivation that my newborn did—but they did give me some solid practice. Franklin cried all night long, and Herbie did as well—or so we thought. Herbie actually just dreamed all night long and made noises like he was crying. Either way, both puppies kept my household awake for a long time. Franklin cried all night long until let him sleep in our room with us. It took us a while to cave because everything we read said that if you gave it long enough, a puppy would get used to and even prefer their sleeping space that was separate from yours. The thing was if we ever wanted to sleep again, we realized that we would never have our own space again. 

J also had to share our sleeping space. He refused to sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time anywhere if he couldn’t feel the warmth of human skin. Had we not gone through this whole ordeal with Franklin—and then Herbie—years before, we might not have caved in as soon as we did. But because of those little brown puppies, we pat ourselves on the back for giving that independent sleeping thing a good go and then quickly chose to have at least the option of being semi-functional humans by letting J leave his crib and his own room to join the large collection of sleepers in ours. We were all better off for it, including Franklin, who did not appreciate being awakened every hour and having to leave the warm bed to follow me across the hall only to appease a crying baby.

  1. Not all fights are worth fighting. Puppies taught me to pick my battles. Is it worth not sleeping just so you can say your baby sleeps independently? No. No, it is not. That is not a battle worth fighting at all. When Herbie and Franklin were puppies, I thought it was really important that they be socialized. Because that is what all the things on the Internet said. Unfortunately, even as puppies, Herbie and Franklin were not good at socializing. We tried and tried to make them good at it. We spent money on training classes, took them to dog parks, had them visit friends and family with other dogs, and it just didn’t work.

 Looking back, I wish we would have given up sooner. At some point, I decided it just wasn’t worth it to push our dogs to be good citizens of the world. If they were good citizens of our house, that was good enough. And a lot of the time, good enough is just that—good enough. When it comes to children, you can fight with them over just about anything, but like it wasn’t worth the stress or money to try and make Herbie and Franklin love other dogs, it also hasn’t been worth the time or effort to fight with J about how he doesn’t know everything.

For the past few months, I’ve heard “You don’t know anyfing. I know everyfing” several times a day, and while it isn’t something people find charming for a small child to say to adults, it hasn’t been worth investing a lot of breath or effort into changing because no matter what I say, I am not going to change J’s mind on this. When I gave up arguing with him, quit worrying about what other people would think about my parenting, and ignored his flawed rationale, he stopped saying it so much. And because with age comes wisdom, Herbie and Franklin can now take a walk and see other dogs without dragging me down the street to bark in their faces. Eventually, I have hope that J will quit believing that in his four short years of life, he is an expert at it.

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  1. There is a lot of planning required. Something that I think few of us probably think about before we have children and puppies is all the planning that we will be required to do. We were lucky when we got dogs because I was still in graduate school, which meant that I kept weird life hours. I was in and out of the house throughout the day and able to give our young dogs attention and activity as necessary. But when I graduated to a standard life schedule, this got complicated. And let’s not even talk about vacation. There have been many times where we paid more for the dogs to be cared for while we were on vacation than we did to actually go on vacation. Similar planning is required when you have a child, just at a more intense level for a much longer amount of time.

Since our lives had already revolved around caring for the dogs for seven years before my son was born, we were used to maneuvering our schedules around and enlisting other willing people to care for members of our household when we couldn’t. While it was more difficult to be tethered to a helpless baby and find suitable individuals to change his diapers when I had to work, finding care for potty training puppies was certainly a good introduction.

  1. Potty training is hard. And speaking of potty training: let me just say here that puppies more than prepared me for potty training my child. Because potty training my child was 100 times easier than potty training puppies. I should clarify: potty training J was 100 times easier than potty training our dog, Herbie. After three months of trying with Herbie, I was convinced he was never, ever going to get it and we would be stuck cleaning the carpet every single day for the rest of his life. He seemed to conduct his eliminations purely to spite me—just a few minutes after I let him out to do them and he didn’t. Luckily, after about four months, something clicked in Herbie’s little head and he was suddenly finally potty trained. I was relieved, and so was our carpet, but it was never quite the same.

J was only 18 months old when he very clearly showed interest in potty training, and so, against various people’s advice, I dove in, and he had it down and done a few months before he turned three. I know this isn’t the standard experience when training humans in elimination etiquette, but even if my child been more difficult to get to use the toilet, I think Herbie still would have given me a solid (har har) foundation for the whole process.

  1. Noise is natural. There is an undeniable increase in noise when you have a child. Crying is just the start of it, as later it includes screaming, chatter, sound effects, and more. Puppies were loud. And dogs are even louder. If I hadn’t had to listen to uproarious ridiculous barking over the mail people, delivery trucks, trucks in general, other dogs, people walking down the street, squirrels being alive, and more for 7 years before J, I might have been less ready for the giant tantrums a few years later. 

Have you ever tried to calm a dog who is losing his shit over a rotten little chipmunk sitting and staring at him outside the front window? It doesn’t work. Nothing you say or do is going to make the racket stop until those making the racket stop it. You just have to wait it out, I learned, unless you want to really frustrate and stress yourself with no return for your anguish. This tactic also proves to be useful with my child during his explosive moments.

At three years old, J really gave us a run for our money for about 6 months where he screamed bloody murder out of frustration, sometimes over things I couldn’t even identify. Similar to waiting the dog noise out, I found that simply letting J do what he needed to do to get his big feelings out of his body was more effective than anything else. I had to get used to the meltdowns, and after I did, sometimes I even leaned into them if I had the wherewithal and he allowed me to do so. Choosing not to react let both of us recover quickly and move on with our day as scheduled.

  1. Things get dirty, are messy, and break—and that’s not really a big deal. One really great thing about puppies and parenting was that puppies prepared our house for parenting a child. How? Well, they ruined it before our kid could. 

By the time J got here, we’d already ripped out the carpet and replaced it with hard floor. We already didn’t have too many nice things. I didn’t freak out when he colored on the wall upstairs. We were only slightly sad when he broke our favorite Christmas ornament…three times in a row. While our house had some kid-proofing that had to happen, it was mostly all set for J to come in and add on to the messes that the dogs had already made. Scratched/dented/chewed doors? Already done. Missing buttons on the remote control? Been there. Shredded toilet paper? Check. Entire couch ripped to pieces? Done. And so on. 

Had we not been so used to our house and things being readjusted by our lovely pets so often, I think we would have lost our shit when we found our brand new couch colored on with blue marker just this morning. Instead, we talked to the seemingly guilty party calmly, and the seemingly guilty party confirmed his actual guilt and clearly was already very upset and aware of his wrongdoings and did not require consequences any worse than what he already felt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home to shredded things in the house, yelled, and then automatically regretted my behavior because the guilty dog just looked so very sad. Had I not been through this time and time again, that couch incident may have been a much different scene this morning. 

  1. Sometimes things smell bad. I believe I am what people refer to as a highly-sensitive person. Sometimes, my senses overwhelm me. My sense of smell may be the most challenging of the five, with my hearing as a close second. 

I can’t deal with things that smell bad. I must find the source of any bad smell and get rid of it as fast as possible. And when I can’t do that, I can focus on nothing else but trying to do it. What having puppies taught me was that I could tolerate some bad smells—if they were temporary and as long as I could find the source of the smells. And then dogs taught me that I can tolerate bad smells that are semi-permanent. 

Case in point: Herbie got himself sprayed by a skunk last week. This is not his first tango with a skunk, and he really ought to know better by now.  In the past, I gave Herbie bath after bath in special soaps to try and help the smell dissipate, but this time, I did the initial odor removal bath, and a week later, he’s still walking around like the Charlie Brown character Pigpen in a cloud of skunk stink. Years ago, this would have driven me bananas, but I’ve been through this so many times now that I just don’t care. I know that the skunk stench will fade in the next few weeks, and I will stop feeling queasy every time my sweet dumb dog uses me as a pillow.

With regards to stink and J, skunks have never been a problem, but the boy has smelled objectionable on more than one occasion. At first, I hated the sour milk smell that J had. All babies seem to have it. I might have gone this direction anyway just because J was my child and what else was I going to do, but like the skunk stench, I learned to just sit with the smell and deal. And after a while, I started to like that milky scent of baby skin. The tactic of wait-until-you-can-stand-it worked, and as J grew, there were more interesting smells that I’ve managed to deal with even better than the milk. 

  1. Patience. I think I mentioned that we took Herbie and Franklin to puppy school for training. All this school really did was teach me—patience, mainly. Do you know how many times you can try to teach a dog not to pull on his leash? A hundred million infinity times if you’re training Franklin. You will tell him not to pull on his leash for the rest of his life. He will never not do this, even if he is choking and can’t breathe because he must walk in front of you and go all places as fast as he possibly can. You can try and teach Herbie how to sit and shake and roll over, and he will try very hard, but he will never really remember anything besides sit, and sometimes that is a stretch. Over the years, I have learned that Herbie and Franklin can be taught most anything with lots of repetition and treats. However, there are some things they will just never master, and that’s okay, but if I want them to do those things, I have to be patient—forever. 

It goes without saying that patience is key with children as well as dogs. I would love it if J would remember to put his dirty clothes in the hamper or to take his dirty dishes into the kitchen after he eats, but I have to tell him every time he needs to do these things. I tell him because I want him to do them, and, eventually, he will do them without my prompting, but for now, I have to be patient and continue with gentle reminders until his body just knows the routine without even thinking about it. Patience, of course, is required for both dogs and children in various forms, and it may be the most valuable thing to learn for raising and caring for both species. 

Parenting puppies—and then dogs—before I had my child prepared me for his arrival. Like my dogs, my son is quirky and temperamental. Also like my dogs, J is sweet, sensitive, and caring, and even when he does his worst and I find myself yelling like I didn’t know I could, he has a way of saying he’s sorry that makes me feel bad for getting upset in the first place. While I’m sure some dogs are not great practice for parenting, if you find yourself a nice, anxiety-ridden beast who has had little human contact in their life until you invite them to live in your house, you will likely be able to get some good parenting practice out of the situation. It could even be a try-before-you-buy kind of situation: try the dog out before you try the baby. You might decide you have enough on your plate with the former and delay getting the latter.

I’m obviously no parenting expert, but puppies are a good starter kit leading up to having kids. While there is plenty of information out there about how to train both, there isn’t much that supports the strong similarities between them—and I think there should be.

Luckily, there is quite a bit of information out there readily available to direct you on how to get a blue marker off of your brand-new couch.

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for The Devil Strip since August of 2015.