Dog, cat, guinea pig, frog -- What kind of pet is the right pet? That depends on the family. Alice Bumgarner and her family continue their quest for the perfect furry (or not-so-furry) friend.
On a sunny afternoon last summer, my daughters -- Annabel (7) and Phoebe (4), my husband Matt, and I walk through a local farm's pick-your-own strawberry fields looking for "our dog" Milo. He's not lost -- in fact he's not even our dog. A few months before, we'd delivered Milo, our Australian shepherd, to this farm just a few miles away from our house. We had staggered into a relationship with a pet that simply didn't work out.
For a year and a half, we'd tried everything to make it work: We enrolled Milo in dog obedience classes, walked him twice each day, provided a large fenced-in yard, peppered him with rawhide chews. But as Milo grew, his herding instinct became stronger and stronger, causing him to nip at the girls whenever they ran and to bark incessantly at tree squirrels (to the extreme annoyance of all our neighbors).
Finally, we had to admit that this particular relationship had to end, for all our sakes. After screening carefully for a new owner, we found a farmer who actually wanted an Australian shepherd. So now Milo is a "working dog." He has plenty of space and opportunities to exercise. And our neighbors don't give us the stink-eye anymore.
The most difficult part was explaining to Annabel and Phoebe why we were giving Milo a new home. Obviously, they were heartbroken, and I listened to them tell me all the things they loved about Milo. I explained that Milo needed to do what he was born to do -- run and herd! And, because we loved our pup so much, we were going to let him live on a farm where he can do all those things. I explained to them that we could visit him on the farm anytime we wanted. We kept photos of him around the house, so the girls would remember and love Milo.
The "giving-up-Milo" experience has been a difficult stop on a mostly wonderful pet journey. Having pets is like that: mostly wonderful, with a few difficult bumps along the way.
Pet Care 101
When Annabel was born, Matt and I owned a cat and a beloved dog -- another Australian shepherd, Sparky, whom I'd raised from puppyhood. She was the perfect dog for young children: tolerant of little hands (and of being dressed up occasionally), energetic but also a fan of lounging, and always happy to go outside to play.
At 4 years old, Annabel was "in charge" of scooping food into Sparky's bowl, taking the job very seriously. She learned that during Sparky's mealtime we shouldn't touch her food bowl or invade her territory. She learned about how to play fair with her furry friend -- that if you hold up a dog toy, for example, the dog expects you to throw it, not keep it. Annabel also learned to recognize her pet's moods. And, as a result, when we approached other dogs, she knew to ask an owner for permission before petting them. See Taking Care of Furry Friends for more ideas on how kids can care for pets.
All in all, I believed that having a dog was hugely valuable for Annabel and Phoebe's development. I was happy that my children were growing up with a pet, not only because they could practice taking care of a living creature, but because they were comfortable being around other people's pets.
Then Sparky passed away.
This was one of the difficult bumps I mentioned before that I wished my daughters didn't have to go through.
Phoebe was just over 1 year old at the time, so she wasn't fully aware of what had happened. But for Annabel, the experience provoked some of the toughest "why" questions in the book: "Why did Sparky have to die? Where is she? Mommy, will you live forever and ever? Do people live longer than cats and dogs?"
I answered as simply and as honestly as I knew how. And I encouraged her to talk to me anytime she was feeling sad or missing Sparky. I remember giving plenty of hugs and reassurance. It made Annabel feel better to keep a photo of Sparky under her pillow, which she did for weeks afterward.
Later, after we'd had plenty of time to heal, thoughts turned to getting another dog -- another dog just like Sparky.
Now, anyone will tell you that you should research the type of breed you're considering, to see if it's right for you. And many people would suggest that an Australian shepherd isn't the best fit for an urban family. But it had worked out so well the first time, why not try it again?
Finding the Right Fit
Flash forward a couple of years, and here we are today, with two very different pet experiences under our belt. Having discovered that choosing the right pet can make a world of difference, we've decided not to rush into getting another dog. Instead, we're trying our hand at low-maintenance pets.
We still have our cat, who is quite possibly the best cat ever. I like to listen to Phoebe talk to him in a sing-song voice, coaxing him to come to her. Unlike dogs, cats are moody. Phoebe has to pay attention to her kitty's behavior to know how to approach him. I think our cat is teaching Phoebe how to be more patient and persuasive.
Even more low-maintenance than our cat, though, are our two mini frogs. Phoebe saw them in a toy store and fell in love on the spot. A salesperson explained that inside the frogs' clear container is a self-contained ecosystem. A snail feeds on algae growing in the little tank. A bamboo plant releases oxygen for the frogs. The gravel works as a filter for food and waste. They're not just pets; they're a science lesson! Get your child hooked on science with nature-related games, activities, videos and more.
Low-maintenance as they may be, the frogs still need to be fed. So I've talked to Annabel and Phoebe about what it means to be responsible for little creatures. Annabel feeds them on Wednesdays, and Phoebe feeds them on Sundays -- and I double-check to make sure they are doing their duties. We worry that one of the frogs is tinier than the other one, but so far so good.
We'd hoped to adopt a guinea pig, but we haven't fared well with that goal. The first guinea pig we brought home from a pet store was likely sick already, because it died within a week. The second one we adopted was very skittish, so we donated it to my daughters' elementary school, where it could be admired, but not handled.
Our family-pet tally so far? Two dogs, two frogs, two guinea pigs, and one cat. I certainly didn't set out to have so many different pet experiences, but I think Annabel and Phoebe would agree with me: It's been worth it.