Spring 2009 Newsletter

Casa Canine



A Dog for the Family, Not Just the Kids

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

On November 4, 2008, president-elect Barrack Obama in his victory speech before thousands of supporters in Chicago's Grant Park offered a special message to his daughters. Said the President-elect, "I love you both more than you can imagine. You have earned the puppy that is coming with us." Since that statement, every media outlet as well as the Internet has been abuzz about the new First Dog.

It's been a long time since the acquisition of a new dog has created such a public stir. Everyone seems to have an opinion - about what is the best breed for the White House (considering 10-year old Malia is allergic to dogs); whether they should get a puppy or adult dog; and if they should buy from a breeder or adopt from a shelter or rescue.

As a dog advocate, all of this hype has certainly caught my interest. Based on President Obama's comments on November 4th, I wondered if the Obamas knew what they might be getting into, that a dog is not something you just "get for the kids." Before anyone, heads of state included, brings a dog into the home, there are some serious matters to consider.

Bringing a canine companion into your home is a commitment for the lifetime of the dog. The American Kennel Club puts the average life span of a dog at 12 years. Based on the breeds, sizes and crosses available, life spans range from 8 to 16 years. Parents, before you adopt a puppy, you need to make sure that you can make that commitment.

Bringing a dog into the home is not something a parent should do solely for the children. It's not the dog's role to teach lessons of responsibility to your children. That can be a positive aspect of having a dog in the family - but not the sole reason for getting one. Even if your children take part in the care of your dog, remember that as children turn into teen-agers, they have less and less time for the dog as their school and social activities increase. Eventually, they will be out of the house. At this point, it is the parents who become totally responsible for the dog. By this time, the dog is usually older. If you as a parent are not committed to the dog, your options are unpleasant at best and dire in some cases. Uprooting an older dog to a new home is not only unfair, but often impossible. What a sad ending for your child's beloved companion - to be euthanized because the parents do not want the responsibility of caring for the older dog.

With regard to the Obamas, 5th grader Malia is 10-years old and 2nd grader Sasha is 7-years old. Most likely, Malia will head off to college in 2016. Sasha will follow in 2019. When Malia heads to college, a puppy born in 2009 will be 7 years old. When Sasha heads off to college, the dog will be 10 years old. That means the President and Mrs. Obama will have several more years of responsibility for the dog after the girls have left home.

If, as a parent, you do not like dogs and do not whole-heartedly participate in your dog's life, it will be difficult for your children to learn how to properly love and respect your pet. Children learn best when what they are told is reinforced by what the parents do. So if you have no intention of participating in the dog's care or keeping the dog once your children are out of your home, then a dog is not the right companion for your family. Teaching your child that an animal companion is disposable is an inhumane attitude, a negative lesson that children may well carry over into other aspects of their lives.

So do the First Parents have an idea of what they are getting into? The First Lady, Michelle Obama, during a "60 Minutes" television interview on November 16, 2008, commented, " .the deal with the dog was that we would get the dog after we got settled. Because as responsible owners we - I don't think it would be good to get a dog in the midst of transition. So when we settle, get in a routine.we're going to get a dog...we cut that deal with our kids before America knew about it."

From the public comments, it seems like the Obamas gave much thought to bringing a dog into their family well before the media blitz. From Mrs. Obama's statements, the well-being of the dog has been taken into account as well as that of the family. With that type of attitude and concern, the First Dog will not only be spoiled and adored by Malia and Sasha, but will be part of a thoughtful, loving family.

So, parents, think hard before you bring a dog into your family. Think honestly of yourself, your children and the dog. If you can make that life-long commitment of affection, concern and respect to your dog, then your family will be rewarded with years of unconditional love and unbridled joy from your dog.

A word of caution!

After this article was written, Mrs. Obama, in a February 25th interview with People Magazine, indicated that the family will be looking to adopt a Portuguese water dog from a rescue organization. Portuguese water dogs are pleasant-tempered and produce less dander than most breeds. It is the dander that people like Malia are allergic to. The dogs are active and energetic, and are not a breed generally recommended for first-time dog owners. Although the dog will be the Obamas' first, they will likely have access to great trainers who can help the lively dog learn to adjust to life in the White House.

Any time a type of dog has as much publicity as the type chosen by America's First Family, the popularity of that type soars. This can be an advantage if the dog is an all-American mixed breed from a rescue. But when the dog is a breed that requires more training and attention than the average family can handle, this can be a serious problem. For example, when the movie 101 Dalmatians made it's debut in the 1990s, people all over America rushed to buy Dalmatian puppies. Unfortunately, most people did not do their homework. Dalmatians are not for everyone, and the rescues were soon overloaded with Dalmatians. Choosing a dog for your family because of breed popularity is wrong. A dog is not a fashion statement. A dog is a thinking, feeling being. It's not a product to be casually returned if things don't work out. So parents, do your homework. Stick with a dog that is right for you, your family, your lifestyle and your resources.

(Our book review section, The Scoop on Books, has several helpful books on this subject "Parenting with Pets: The Magic of Raising Children with Animals" and "Allergic to Pets? The Breakthrough Guide to Living with the Animals You Love.")


Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, dogs and horses.

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