Doggie Deficit

My children have a tendency to define our family, not by what we have, but rather, by what we don’t have. According to both Nick and Elena, a serious McKee clan deficit is a pet dog.

As a small baby, Elena, now seven, would shriek with delight whenever she saw a dog. When she eventually realized that people actually take these four-legged, furry creatures into their homes and care for them like family members, she could barely contain herself. Like every stuffed puppy she saw on store shelves, she had to have one of her own: a living plushie.

Elena’s earliest words included the names of the two dogs, rather than the names of the two little girls, in a dear friend’s family. As an “honourary sister,” she loved these girls. But the dogs, Lucy and Cedar were somehow more vital to her vocabulary.

My husband and I, and other long-time friends, had canine companions before having kids. Our Keshia and their Max shared play dates, babysitters and graduation certificates from the same puppy school. The other “mom,” Shelley, and I traded training tips from pet magazines, and gossiped about the deplorable behaviour of other less, well-heeled dogs.

Over the years, both dogs passed away, and each family grew to include two children. Aware that both sets of parents had previously owned a dog, the four kids collectively declared their mission: to wear their parents down and remind them how greatly enriched their lives had been by pet ownership.

They begged, pleaded and cajoled. They fetched dog-eared Photos of the deceased pets. Only movies starring Benji, Lassie or Otis were requested. Each pair of siblings first focused on their own parents, then on their friends’, in their endless canine campaigning.

I felt entirely confident in Shelley’s position on the matter, but it began to appear that her husband had switched sides. Eventually, he told me that he and the kids had detected cracks in Shelley’s armour. No way, I thought. This woman and I had experienced puppyhood and pregnancy together. I knew her, and I was certain she would stand firm.

So imagine my shock…my disappointment… and worst of all, my seriously decreased ability to continue to fend off my own kids – when the hounding paid off, and a puppy named Diesel bounded into their lives.

Shelley didn’t tell me she had caved. I was the last to find out. My kids told me about Diesel’s arrival, and I refused to believe it was true. I was in denial.

The next time I saw her, Shelley sheepishly (or should I say, with “puppy-dog eyes”) asked if I was mad at her. My mind reeled. OF COURSE I’M MAD AT YOU! WE WERE A TEAM! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?

“No. Not at all. Don’t be silly,” I replied.

The pressure in my house intensified. My kids began answering dog questions that had not been asked: they insisted they’d feed it, they’d walk it, they’d play with it, they’d groom it, they’d clean the yard, and — my favourite, considering their employment status — they’d pay the vet bills.

Their voices change when they speak to animals. They coo gently and soothingly, not at all like the shrill whining when they are begging for a dog. When I hear those coos, I wonder, is it unfair to deny them a valuable opportunity to express this innate fondness for a living thing?

I recognize that pet ownership nurtures valuable qualities. It teaches responsibility … but so do table setting, clearing and taking out the garbage. And they have yet to master those skills.

Though they don’t entirely understand why, my kids seem to have accepted that a dog will not soon become part of our family. We simply don’t have the time to care for it properly.

Now, Nick mentions a dog only twice a year (Christmas and birthday gift suggestions), while Elena has taken to subtly harassing her grandparents.
She recently spent a weekend with my mom, who called me on Monday morning with an update on the visit.

As she had been about to head to the grocery store, she did a final check of her shopping list. She noticed that an item had mysteriously been added.

Milk. Bread. Eggs. And printed in a well-practiced script… Puppy!

I seriously hope that this time, my children are barking up the wrong tree.

Originally published in the Waterloo Region Record