Maybe You Should Get a Puppy First: Preparing for Parenthood

Maybe this is just a trend for Millennials, or maybe generations have been doing this for decades. Young couples who are just married or settling in to serious long-term relationships get a puppy together, sort of as a trial run for kids or just the idea of family. As much as this end ever can be branded as trendy or “just playing house,” there might be some benefit in a couple getting a puppy for practice at parenting.

Let me start by saying I do not want anyone to go out and buy or adopt a dog/cat/anything without considering seriously the cost, responsibility, and suitability of their lifestyle for the pet they hope to bring home. Pet ownership is a huge responsibility and should never be taken lightly. What I would like to speak to here are the possible benefits a couple might find if they choose to get a pet together in the early stages of their long-term relationship or marriage. Even if you are still years away from even thinking about having children, you will likely learn a lot about yourself and your partner through the experience of pet parenting together.

Future plans, including whether a couple would like children, is just one of the many topics I cover with my premarital counseling clients. One topic we cover when discussing plans for kids is the type of parenting style each person thinks they will use. While it is hard to know exactly what we will do until we do it, it is well known and documented in research that we often parent as we were parented ourselves. This is helpful information to have as a couple begins their journey together and plays a role in their choices as pet parents.

As demeaning and unromantic as it sounds, children are a lot like dogs. They each need caring for, food and shelter provided to them, rules and structure, and endless love. You can get a pretty good idea of how a person will parent a child through observing how they parent a dog or puppy. Just go to the dog park and watch the dogs and their owners interact with one another. A young man whose playful Boxer is terrorizing the latest doodle-dog mix might say, “oh, they are just playing” in reaction to the doodle’s owner’s shrieks of concern for her small dog. Similarly, you will likely see a person pleading over and over with their dog to stay out of the muddy swimming hole while their dog gleefully ignores their owner’s polite requests. Additionally, you might see a dog and owner that seem to stand out of the crowd as the dog reacts instantly and obediently to their owner’s commands, and the owner calmly provides instruction and loads of praise for their pet along the way. We’ve all seen these people at the park, or even in our own homes. The dog that keeps jumping up on the counter to look for food likely has a permissible owner who might be lax or inconsistent in their corrections of the dog’s behavior. A dog who cowers in the corner when a particular family member walks in the room might have received far too much punishment for their behavior, and not enough love or praise for the things they have done correctly.

The principles of Behaviorism are deeply ingrained in our culture and lives through the ways in which we shape our own behaviors, and the behaviors of those around us. The same three parenting styles that a person might adopt as a human parent (permissive, authoritative, or authoritarian) are the same three parenting styles they could adopt with a pet. Through the experience of becoming a pet parent you can not only begin to understand how you might approach discipline as a parent, you can also observe how your partner might as well. I have worked with guide dogs for 12 years now and have a pretty good grasp on the principles and techniques that keep my guides performing at their best; however, since getting married I have also gotten the chance to observe how my husband might parent a child in the future through watching him interact with my former guide Julius and my current guide Virginia.

As a guide dog user and person in general, I am a pretty big rule-follower. No human food or excessive treats. No dogs on the couch or bed. And no socializing in harness while the dogs are working. Let’s just say my husband breaks all of these rules, and I have loosened up a bit myself as a result of the contrast. I can see that I would likely be a parent with lots of structure, and that Taylor will likely be dubbed the “fun parent.” While we have had the chance to observe this now, we both can discuss and decide how we might adapt ourselves and our style given that we would be two parts of a whole parental unit. I likely need to leave more room for harmless rule-breaking, and he could benefit from a bit more structure from time to time.

Getting a dog or puppy is not always right for everyone, and again should be seriously considered before committing your life to a pet. However, the experience of pet parenting may provide you with some invaluable insight into how you might function individually and as a couple when it comes to parenting real life humans. Whether pet parenting is right for you, at the very least you should take the time to learn as much as you can about yourself and your partners preferences when it comes to raising potential children. The more kinks you can discover and work out now the fewer that will possibly cause you trouble in the future. So, if you have recently settled down and are looking toward the near or distant future, consider what you might gain from becoming a pet parent before you become a real one.

Lauren Barron is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist-Associate specializing in serving engaged, newlywed, and married couples. Now accepting new clients in her Waco office. Call her at (713)364-9748 today to set up a consultation or appointment.

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