How Having a Dog Made My Wife and Me Better Parents

Pet parenthood prepped us for real parenthood in ways we didn't imagine. We learned lessons in responsibility, communication, and dedication that are helping us raise two kids under 2.

The author and his family.
The author and his family. Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Gildin

There are parents and then there are dog parents. And while my wife and I have been parents to our two wonderful children for almost two years, we were "dog parents" together for eight before that.

Growing up, I never had a dog—and to be quite honest, I never really wanted one. (It only took being tackled once by a big dog as a kid to do away with any urge I had to want one.)

But when I first met my then-girlfriend and now wife and her Yorkie Sammy, there was something about the little guy that I was immediately drawn to (and no, it wasn't just his small size and that he couldn't tackle me). He had a big smile, even bigger ears, and about as much energy as you can imagine. I was officially converted to a dog person.

Just like when couples first meet, there's a "honeymoon phase" between dogs and people. At first, with Sammy, it was all fun and games. Ultimately, I had no real responsibilities; he wasn't my dog. But when we all moved in together four years later, I officially went from "dog person" to "dog dad"—taking on a whole new role. My wife would post Father's Day photos of me and our dog (which seems silly now that I am an actual father, but that's the love and devotion we had for our dog). Not a birthday or anniversary passed by when we didn't buy each other a card and sign it from our dog. He slept in the bed with us every single night (we insisted) and sat with us every time either one of us went to the bathroom (he insisted). We even had him walk down the aisle at our wedding.

Of course, with all of the fun also came the responsibilities. I found myself going to the vet frequently and doing daily walks. We learned to share the responsibilities of dog ownership. Our schedules shifted to cater to our dog.

Then, in 2018, after Sammy was the only "child" for 11 years, my wife got pregnant. Initially, we were nervous: How might Sammy react? As a small dog, he was pretty territorial. We hired a trainer to work with him to get him ready. We even bought a baby doll that made a crying noise and would place it on the floor by Sammy to see how he reacted (the results were not encouraging).

But ultimately, when we brought our son home in December of that year, we were pleasantly surprised by how much Sammy took to him. Sure, we had to be careful—we never left the two of them alone in a room—but most of their interactions were filled with giggles and kisses, which took a lot of stress off our plate and provided adorable social media posts. It was one of our first early lessons in parenthood: Be prepared but know that sometimes, the adjustments can be easier than you expect.

Bringing our son home also made my wife and I realize how much more prepared for parenthood we were than we thought—in part, thanks to Sammy.

Now, don't get me wrong: The level of responsibility and care involved in taking care of a child versus taking care of a dog is pretty different. But whether it's dividing up responsibilities or opening up lines of daily communication, a dog adds a whole new dynamic to a relationship, which ultimately helps get you ready for what's in store when you have a child who is dependent on you.

For one, dogs provide a shared experience and responsibility for couples as they embrace their future together. You get to be parents without having to really be parents quite yet. A dog can also help a couple build confidence (read: we can do this; we do have the capacity to dedicate the time needed to care for another individual). I also truly believe that the dedication and love my wife and I showed for Sammy permeated over into our love for our children.

Once we had our second child a year later? There was no fear on our end for how Sammy would react. The transition from a family of four to a family of five was seamless—even if it had its occasional hectic moments.

Last month, we, unfortunately, had to say goodbye to Sammy who had been growing sicker by the day. It was one of the most gut-wrenching feelings any dog owner could have to experience.

Because my kids are both under 2, there was no clear way to explain to them that Sammy was going away. Occasionally, when the doorbell rings or he sees another dog, my son will ask for Sammy or say "Sammy's home!"

It breaks my heart a little bit.

Ultimately, though, I feel fortunate to have photos and videos and memories of my children with Sammy to remind them of how much time they spent together—and the impact that he had on our little family.

My wife and I will always cherish the memories of our dog for another reason, too: how he unknowingly helped us prepare for the next stage of our life. We'll always miss him and love him for that—regardless of how many times we had to move him over in the middle of the night because he was hogging up the bed.

Tyler Gildin is a director, producer, and creative, but most importantly a dad of two kids under 2. He most recently directed and produced the documentary The Starfish that tells his grandfather's Holocaust story, and is now available on AppleTV, Prime Video, and several other streaming services. You can follow his almost daily updates on balancing being a creative and a dad on Twitter.

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