As the nuclear family generation draws to a close, the era of the step family begins. A story written by Jim Willis called How Could You? focuses on an increasing issue for dogs in this new world…single gets dog and develops a deep bond with her; single meets partner with children; they fall in love and get married; dog becomes part of new family but is eventually surrendered to a shelter because she’s no longer a priority.
What if the single, and subsequently his or her new family, had taken steps to ensure the dog was a priority? Can “step dogs” continue to live happy lives amid ever-shifting family dynamics?
The Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that approximately 45% of dogs surrendered to shelters are there because of family changes, including becoming part of a blended family, the arrival of a baby, or a change in housing. Many of these situations arise from a lack of planning on the part of the family for how these changes will affect the dog. “Families need to take the time necessary to make a new living arrangement work for all, including the canine members of the family unit,” says Linda Lloyd of Boxer Rescue Ontario. Many other rescue organizations that take in surrendered dogs agree.
Make your dog a priority
There are many things to consider when incorporating a dog into a changing family. They include training issues, financial responsibility, accommodations, teaching any children how to relate to the dog, and even cultural differences within the family.
When people have planned ahead, “getting rid of the dog” is usually not an option. “If I did that, I wouldn’t have been the person [my partner] fell in love with and I wouldn’t be true to myself,” says Alison, who has three boxers, two Jack Russell terriers and a Rottweiler, and who also fosters for rescue groups. “My partner is a neat freak so you can imagine the horror of a house with dogs sneaking in with a dirty paw or two. We have fostered un-housetrained dogs in the past – heaven forbid someone was sick to their stomach! Sleeping arrangements were a huge issue. And special diets and vet bills can be a sore point for sure.” But because Alison was open about her lifestyle before committing to sharing a home with her partner, this newly formed family continues to enjoy a happy, balanced life with the dogs.
Five steps to a happy family
1 Talk to your new partner about your dog’s needs before committing to a living situation. If you are planning to share accommodations, make sure your partner and dog are already familiar with one another. Discuss who will be responsible for what and review the dog’s schedule. Be open about the expense of having an animal so that if a vet bill comes in, or the food bills are high, it’s not a surprise to your partner and he/she will be willing to accept the costs.
2 If children will become part of the family – prepare, prepare, prepare! Many trainers and training books outline how young children should interact with dogs, and how to prepare your dog for a baby. Young children need to learn their limitations with the dog, such as not teasing or chasing her or pulling her tail or ears. Taking these steps can lead to a safe, fulfilling relationship between the dog and children.
3 Resolve training issues in advance. You may not mind your dog being a jumper or a rough player, but those behaviors might not be acceptable to new family members who are smaller or unable to handle a dog with these issues. Training out these behaviors will help everyone accept the dog more easily and feel comfortable spending time with her without unwanted behaviors causing resentment.
4 Maintain the same primary caregiver. This is especially important when transitioning the dog into the new family dynamic. Trusting that the same person she always relied on for food, walks and playtime will still fulfill those needs regardless of the upheaval around her will help her learn those changes aren’t really a big deal and are something she can accept and adapt to.
5 If you’re moving to a new home, be aware of the local resources that will or will not be available to your animal, and how you will adjust her schedule based on those changes. Perhaps you will no longer have time for an early morning run with your dog, and will need to teach her the ways of the local leash-free park instead. Or you may be moving to a highrise where those easy midnight backyard breaks won’t be so easily accommodated, and the dog’s internal clock may need to be slowly adjusted.
Your dog is an important member of your family. When that family changes, make sure you help her, your partner, and any children fit into the new dynamic so everyone stays happy and comfortable.