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If you want better kids, get a dog

I suppose the title of this post has a double meaning. On one hand, if you want the joy and hardship of taking care of another living thing maybe you should get a pet instead of procreating. (Better yet, get a plant.) But, no, I mean if you want to see an improvement in your kids' level of responsibility and behavior a dog may be the way to go.

That's completely opposite the usual logic, right? Most of the time, we question whether children have the level of maturity and intelligence to care, feed, treat nicely, train, etc.. I get it. I was right there where we had some serious doubts about how my 4 year old and nearly 6 year old would handle a 50 lb dog. When they were babies, we had another greyhound--a white with red brindle older girl--who tolerated them as long as we kept them far away from her. It wasn't mutual love by any means. But it was our family for awhile until the dog passed away. In the meantime, we've enjoyed several dog-free years which I now think of as both free and empty. The ability to leave the house for long periods of time without a care isn't necessarily greater than that wagging tail that greets you when you arrive home.

"Dog people" will get it. You're either a dog person or you aren't. It's like having a hole inside you filled with something you can't quite explain. Dogs bring something to our lives and make something click. And I think my kids have figured that out without any kind of spoken conversation about it. You may get an "I love" or catch them gently hugging their new friend. But, mostly, it's a change in their habits.

Don't get me wrong, they still fight and yell and have careless moments of forgetting their manners. But they're learning quickly. A dog is teaching them things that we've tried but failed to get across. When we ask them to pick up toys it would fall on a deaf ear. When Maggie chews up a Lincoln Log because they didn't pick it up as soon as they were done playing it drives home an immediate point. You can't take it out on the dog...the dog was just doing what it does. That becomes your problem--your failure--that you'll remember to correct next time.

As I blogged about last month, we were careful to select our girl based on her reaction to the kids. She doesn't mind loud noises, extra smothering, hands all over her, or a gang of small voices all trying to talk to her at once. That's important and I'm by no means advocating that a family just run out and bring home any old animal. Maggie is gregarious to the point of us being able to take her to a crowded concert in the park during the first week we've had her. She relaxed on a picnic blanket while families around us ate dinner and thumping music filled the air. This dog has been through a lot so she takes most things in stride. She's been to Texas, Alabama, Florida, a kennel in Chicago, a foster home, and now us. I'm not entirely convinced she thinks she staying. But I also think she realizes she's got it pretty good if she's "stuck" here. So far, we've gotten quite a few contented sighs as she sleeps on the couch--things a truly nervous dog wouldn't be doing.

These kids though! They feed her, they play with her, they go for long walks (the rule is grownups have to hold the leash though), they snuggle her, they try to teach her a few tricks, they use quiet voices and keep food off the floor. They pick up their things and they're careful to watch the dog to make sure she is safe and doesn't get into trouble. It's really quite amazing. They're quite proud of her and are eager to tell anyone who'll listen about it. Their favorite fact seems to be that Maggie will steal their shoes.

I definitely think our level of preparation for having a new dog has been influenced by both our substantial knowledge of the breed and experiences the last time around. But it's also a situation where we were prepared for the worst and have ended up in a far better place than we assumed. In fact, when her foster e-mailed to check yesterday I replied that was I surprised at how mellow Maggie is. We'd been expecting a hyper, energetic 2 year old but that's only part of the truth. She definitely has a playful personality when she wants. Most of the time she's easygoing and, frankly, a little aloof. The Mama at one point even wondered aloud if she's depressed. I'd say that's not the case given how clearly she enjoys a great many things around her. It's more of a dog Zen. She's the ultimate in family stability...things come and go and she remains steadfastly aware and taking it in but doesn't react. She sleeps. She eats. She plays. She gives great kisses and begs for rubs. But mostly she just chills.

And the best part is it's rubbing off on the kids.