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What Your Kid Can Learn From Having a Family Pet

It’s chaos, headaches and hair (everywhere!), but I’m grateful my son has a furry sibling

Published on: January 01, 2024

A young boy plays a harmonica for his dog

“Ôte ton nez!” my 3-year-old son shouts in his deepest Québécois accent (translation: “Get your nose out of it!”), slamming his sturdy little palm down on the table in a perfect impersonation of his father. Pearl, the family dog, slowly lowers her head, a retracting periscope, still eyeing his tuna melt hopefully. She eventually settles down at his feet with an exaggerated sigh. She knows she won’t need to wait long.

Gobbling, snarfing sounds come from below.

“Did you just feed Pearl?” I ask. Rowan looks at me with imploring, wide-eyed innocence (the teenage years are going to be fun with this one): “It … fell.”

He loves tuna melts, yet he shared his — willingly! — with the dog. I struggle to keep my expression stern as my heart secretly exults at the sight of this boy-puppy bonding.

Pearl, an Italian Maremma/Great Pyrenees cross, is not even a year old yet, but she already weighs well over 70 pounds and, when sitting, can comfortably rest her chin on the edge of the kitchen table. Typical puppy behaviors take on a whole new level of destruction and mess with a dog this size; hence, life with a puppy and a busy preschooler has been interesting, to say the least. There have been times when my husband and I have wordlessly communicated with bloodshot/crossed/rolling eyes: “What have we done?” However, sweet moments happen often, and they remind us how valuable it is for kids to grow up with pets.

Unconditional love is a hallmark of the dog-human relationship, and Pearl quite simply adores Rowan. I honestly don’t know how she puts up with him sometimes, with all the poking, prodding and teasing he inflicts upon her — she is amazingly patient. She sleeps outside his bedroom at night and loves being by his side (even when he’s playing with construction toys, which she’s totally spooked by — maybe because of the times they have hit her in the face).

When we read bedtime stories, it’s not uncommon to see Pearl’s big white head peering over the top of the book. Although she’s possibly contemplating a future snack (having already forayed into the world of books-as-food soon after we got her), I prefer to think it’s because she enjoys being close. Since there is a 14-year gap between Rowan and his older brother, Pearl will be his playmate and sidekick as he grows up — a furry sibling.

I have fond memories of my childhood dog, an Old English sheepdog named Moby, and Rowan is rapidly filling a repository of Pearl tales. His current favorite, which he enthusiastically recites to everyone (everyone), is the story of how Pearl got lost.

She got spooked at an off-leash dog park and bolted away from my husband, surprising (and awing) everyone who witnessed it by soaring over the fence and disappearing. She spent the night in the forest at the base of a mountain and when we finally found her the next morning, she was whimpering and coated in mud. It’s actually an awful memory, but hearing Rowan’s epic recounting always puts a smile on my face, especially when he dramatically ties it up: “And she was sooooo dirty, we had to take her for a BATH!”

Pearl’s exuberance is an opportunity for all of us to practice patience. Rowan is learning how to redirect her ankle-biting and bottom-nipping with more gentle, positive ways than yelling or hitting. We talk about how she’s just learning (easy to forget when she’s bigger than a lot of adult dogs!) and that we need to correct with kindness. It’s also a daily reminder for us to be more patient with Rowan, who is also learning.

Rowan gets to see cause and effect at work every day (if I get Pearl riled up by teasing her repetitively, she might bite me; if I open the door when Mama specifically says not to, Pearl might get out and Mama will have to run all over the neighborhood — in her pajamas — trying to catch her. Mama will not be pleased.) Somehow this experiential learning is more impactful than repeated instructions, warnings and lectures. Go figure.

Because Pearl can’t talk (although she does a fantastic Chewbacca first thing in the morning), Rowan is learning to “read” her body language and to see things from her point of view. “Hmmm, see how Pearl’s tail is between her legs when you hit her in the face with your dump truck? I don’t think she likes that.” Sometimes, he can be surprisingly empathetic towards her: “Mama, Pearl is sad. I’m going to pat her and make her happy.” Other times, well, he can act his age. Have I mentioned how grateful I am for Pearl’s patience?

So, yes, there is now dog hair everywhere. And I have sprouted many new white hairs of my own from parenting what feels like two young, wayward children. My blood pressure skyrockets whenever we have to get out the door and I need to not only cajole a headstrong preschooler into his shoes but also fend off the excited advances of a giant white puppy that thinks we’re going for a walk. Our garden may never be the same, thanks to Pearl’s passion for excavation. But, knowing all the positives this crazy, hairy, sweet beast brings into our lives, particularly Rowan’s, it’s totally worth it.

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Editor’s note: This story originally published in 2019 and was updated in 2024.

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