Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

We keep thinking about getting a dog. We have favourite dog breeds and have even thought about dog names. We are not getting one though, unless I actually want to have a nervous breakdown, which I don’t, so we are not getting one. Not in the foreseeable future anyhow.

It is not as though we haven’t got any pets. We have two cats, outside fish, inside fish and up until fairly recently we had three hens (they got old, don’t worry, it isn’t a grizzly fox story).

The cats are good pets for Little Bear. The cats are quite straightforward with clear boundaries; if they are happy they show you with purring, if they’re not they show you with a scratch. They literally never get over-excited, I don’t think cats can be bothered, and if Little Bear is too rough or over-exuberant with them, they either walk away or give him a nip. Obviously I don’t want him to be nipped or scratched but it is a natural consequence of not treating the cat properly and has led to him being very gentle with them. He has learned that if he is nice to the cats, they will reward him with cuddles and sleep on his bed. Whenever that happens I always tell Little Bear how much they love him, otherwise they wouldn’t want to be in his bedroom or on his bed and that makes him feel good.

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Little Bear has started to get involved with feeding them and knows when they’re hungry. He is also good at keeping them company on the way to the vets. He is less pleased when the little cat goes on a killing spree and brings all sorts of half-maimed creatures into the house but he has helped to catch a live mouse on more than one occasion and has also tidied up dead birds (I don’t make him do that, obviously, but he likes to help). The cats have taught both boys a lot about life, nature and responsibility.

The fish are quite entertaining to look at but I have to admit they are the least exciting of all our pets for children. Little Bear enjoyed building the pond though and enjoyed keeping it ice-free over the cold spell we just had. He likes to feed the inside and outside fish and helps to clean out the tank. Pets definitely provide opportunities for helping and feeling successful.

Our hens have been our most fear-inducing pets, though only ever in other people’s children, not in our own. It has always been a bit of a surprise to folk when they have come across them in our back garden as we live in a typical cul-de-sac, with a not-very-big garden and you don’t really expect to find them there. We have fenced off part of the garden at the side and the hens are generally free range in that bit. Children have to go in there to get to the trampoline though which is what causes the consternation.

We already had the hens when Little Bear came home and he was pretty interested in them from the beginning. I have some lovely photos of him holding one of them and also him inside the hen house with them all outside! I was pretty impressed with him that at the age of three he was brave enough to get hold off one (they were friendly but you did risk a whip from a wing if you didn’t hold them firmly enough). The look on his little face of pride and happiness is just lovely.

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Little Bear has learned quite a lot from the hens. When he first arrived I don’t think he’d ever seen an egg before and he certainly didn’t know that hens lay them. The first time he was left alone with the freshly laid eggs, he threw them all on the ground and trampled them. I often talk about the incident in my workshops and I genuinely think it was because he didn’t understand the context. He didn’t understand that the hens had laid the eggs, that we could take them inside and cook them or that we could eat them. I think he just thought “they look interesting” and explored them on a sensory level.

Funnily enough Little Bear is a good little helper in the kitchen these days and whenever we are baking or making pancakes, he is always in charge of the egg part.

Little Bear has always enjoyed a practical task and would often help Grizzly to hose out the hen house or to re-fill the feed or water or just give the hens some treats. Our last hen, Yoko, recently became poorly and it was obvious she was going to die. It was during the Beast From The East so we brought her inside and she sat in a washing up bowl by the back door for several days while we gave her ‘end of life care’ (the poor thing had lost her ability to move about). Both boys were good at sitting with her and stroking her. Big Bear even suggested she might want to watch You-Tube on his I Pad!

I think that having her inside and letting her go naturally was helpful for the boys who could get a bit used to what was happening and were not shocked when she did die (though the three of us did stand there for quite some time staring at her, trying to decide whether she was breathing or not. It’s harder to tell than you’d think!).

Having pets has certainly brought another dimension to our lives and I do think the boys have gained from it. They have developed empathy, caring and the practical ability to look after something.

I could see us with a dog: I could see the boys would get a lot from one too. Only we just can’t get one. It’s a bad idea.

Little Bear LOVES dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who loves dogs quite as much as him. When he was smaller he would just run at them, whether he knew them or not and would be desperate to get his hands on them. We have had A LOT of chats about not knowing whether dogs are friendly or not and that you must ask their owner first before you can touch them. Little Bear has learned the rule well but it has not stopped him from gate-crashing stranger’s picnics to make a furry friend or trying to wrestle a lead from someone so he can walk their dog. Once, we were in the country park near to home and I happened to turn around just at the instant Little Bear had over exuberantly scooped up a Dachshund and was dangling it face first above the ground, the poor thing no doubt scared out of its wits. Another time we met a Chow Chow on the high street and within three seconds of being acquainted with it, Little Bear popped his hand in its mouth, probably as he was intrigued by its dark tongue. Dark tongue or no, you can’t go round sticking your hand into random dog’s mouths.

My brother has a dog. She is only about a year old, massive and EXTREMELY bouncy. She is a Tigger of a dog. She is very friendly and has no malice in her whatsoever. She never growls and loves the children. However, and it’s a big however, she has some issues with regulation. She basically can’t regulate herself and hence can be poor at listening, unruly and very, very excitable.

Before we go to see the dog, Little Bear and I always have a little chat. I remind him that if he runs and jumps at her, she will jump up at him. I remind him that if he wants her to be calm, he needs to be quiet and calm and move about slowly. Little Bear knows all this and can tell me the rules. I believe he has every intention of sticking to them.

When we arrive, the dog will be beside herself because some new people have appeared and not only that but some of them are tiny people and that’s way more exciting. Her tail will be wagging with such vigour that she’s knocking things over and she will be being held by her grown-ups to stop her from jumping at everyone’s faces. As she is considerably bigger than Little Bear on her hind legs there is a very real possibility that she will knock him flying. Little Bear doesn’t mind one jot and is just as keen to get to her. What usually ensues is a tangle of human and dog, lots of licks and possibly an accidental scratch.

Already, Little Bear has forgotten the rules. Then mayhem breaks out. The more times the dog licks him or stands on him or knocks him over, the more excited Little Bear gets. The more excited and loud and fast Little Bear gets, the more excited the dog gets so the more she leaps about like a lamb and the more Little Bear laughs and falls over, the more the dog tries to bury under him and the more it tickles and the more he laughs. The dog and the boy reach fever pitch within the first 5 minutes of meeting each other.

Now, if that lasted for half an hour and then everybody calmed down I could deal with it. But it doesn’t. You wouldn’t think it humanly possibly but Little Bear at least, remains at fever pitch the entire time he is with the dog. We once managed 24 whole hours at my brother’s house before Grizzly and I couldn’t bear the dysregulation any longer. People say, “but they’d get used to each other, they’d calm down after a bit” but they wouldn’t. Little Bear doesn’t get any calmer and Grizzly and I find it really hard because what everyone is seeing is Little Bear at his worst. He is completely out of control. He has lost his ability to listen and he cannot be controlled either by us or by himself. He is as dysregulated as he can get. It means that when we try to get everyone to sit quietly and watch TV or let the dog have a nap, Little Bear is not physically capable at that moment in time of leaving her alone or of being quiet or of sitting still. It means he seems very disobedient and is constantly told off.

Having written about Interoception recently, I do wonder if that is the root cause. I read that part of being under-responsive to interoceptive feedback is that you don’t know when you’re getting over-excited or when you need a break. Little Bear certainly doesn’t when he is with the dog and last time, he was absolutely exhausted when we got him home, having come down from his adrenaline-fuelled high.

Obviously if we did get a dog Little Bear would love it but you can see why it feels risky. We would do our research and get a calm breed but a puppy is a puppy and all will be excitable to some degree. We wouldn’t be able to rely on Little Bear sticking to any sort of rule about leaving the dog alone for five minutes or not playing with it roughly and I do wonder how on earth we’d be able to train it properly in those circumstances. The very worst outcome for Little Bear would be us getting a dog then having to send it back, something we are, for obvious reasons, keen to avoid.

It feels a little mean, saying our child can’t have the thing he would love most in the world but until his regulation is improved, it’s too risky. I know there is a lot written about the benefits of dogs for adopted children but I wondered whether anyone else experiences the issues we do?

I think we’ll stick to cats and hens for now. Easter is just around the corner, the perfect time to welcome some new chicks…

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Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

Guilt

The Bear’s had a bit of an incident with one another during the holidays. It wasn’t anything major, probably an everyday occurrence in most households. Play had got a bit over-excitable resulting in Big Bear accidentally hitting his brother instead of the ball he was aiming for. Big Bear immediately felt guilty which makes him uncomfortable. I think he did apologise though (I was upstairs letting Grizzly handle it). Little Bear, stinging from the blow and also because his favourite person in the whole world had delivered it to him, was upset.

Upset is easily confused with anger by Little Bear so instead of crying or moving away, he gave his brother a sharp kick (no doubt he had flown straight into Fight or Flight territory). Now both Bears were upset and a little enraged. Grizzly attempted to referee but at that point neither was ready to see sense.

I could hear Grizzly explaining that Big Bear had hurt Little Bear accidentally. He had not meant to. He had said sorry. The incident should have ended there. He explained that Little Bear should not have kicked him back. He suggested he too say sorry and then the whole thing could be forgotten.

Little Bear was not ready to apologise though. He wasn’t calm. He was very annoyed. I suspect by this point he was starting to see the error of his ways and the anger was beginning to turn inwards. He was feeling guilty.

A big difficulty, when you are someone who feels bad about yourself already, is that this type of normal self-condemnation is difficult to deal with. I suspect that when your heart is already filled with self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, an additional feeling of guilt can be too big an emotion to squeeze in. What often happens here, and has been happening for the past year or so (previous to that Little Bear didn’t really experience guilt I don’t think), is that because the guilt cannot be contained and dealt with inside, it tends to spill outwards.

“Big Bear is an idiot!” I can hear him shouting. “He’s stupid. You stupid Big Bear!” and so followed a tirade of further insults.

Big Bear, already upset from hurting his brother and having had his apology thrown back in his face, could not deal with the name calling and marched off to his bedroom, slamming the door for good measure.

Little Bear, aware he had further upset his brother, no doubt felt even worse about his own actions and also marched off to his bedroom, also slamming the door for good measure.

“Well that went well,” remarked Grizzly sarcastically, coming to find me upstairs. As we started to chat about whether I should get involved or not and who Grizzly should go to first, we heard movement on the landing. There was a knock on a door then a little voice. “I’m sorry Big Bear” we heard. “I’m sorry I hurted you. You are very strong. I love you”.

It was unfortunate because Big Bear was still upset and not really ready to accept the apology in a gracious way. However, it did mean that Grizzly could go to Little Bear and make a big deal out of him being so mature and sensible and apologising by himself without any help from us. Because it really was a big step forwards and we were both very proud of him for how he dealt with it.

During similar previous incidents one or other of us has had to sit with him for a long time, trying to explain that he isn’t actually annoyed at the person he has hurt, even though he is shouting at them and insulting them. We have tried to explain that it is because he feels bad about what he has done. That he feels guilty. We have tried to explain that you don’t need to keep feeling bad about it. You can say sorry and maybe have a cuddle and then it is finished. You need to forgive yourself. Sometimes, if Little Bear has purposefully hurt himself and had similar feelings of guilt, we have encouraged him to afford himself the same respect. You ‘apologise’ to yourself, square the incident off and move on.

Obviously all that is pretty complex for a 5 year old, especially one with language difficulties, but it really seems that he is starting to take it on board. Understandably, in the heat of the moment, he still becomes upset/angry but he is certainly able to calm more quickly and is getting much better at identifying his own emotions and making more positive choices about how to react. Previously guilt would have led to a downward spiral and all sorts of other behaviours would have appeared. A small incident like the one I have described could easily have ruined a whole day.

The concepts of ‘forgiving’ and ‘guilt’ have been useful in other situations too and Little Bear is beginning to use the words himself.

This holiday we have also spent time with my brother, girlfriend and their dog. The dog is still young and can be pretty boisterous herself. Little Bear LOVES the dog (I suspect he over-loves her if that is even a thing). We took her for a walk. Little Bear had a great time throwing the ball and playing fetch. On the way home, he got tangled in the lead and fell over. It hurt his knee, as well as his feelings. “I don’t forgive you” he kept saying to the dog. No, we reassured, you don’t yet. You are still upset with her because she hurt you. She didn’t mean to though, look, she feels bad about it. She’s sorry. When you’re ready, you can forgive her and be friends again.

On that occasion Little Bear was able to verbalise that he wanted to hurt her back, because she had hurt him, but he did manage not to follow through physically. After a bath, he was ready to move forwards and announced that she was forgiven!

There is clearly still some way to go but I’m pleased we have made a start at unpicking some of these more complex emotions and that Little Bear is able to reflect on them.

Although Big Bear was not ready to move on as quickly as Little Bear after the hitting/kicking incident, there was a difference in his reaction too. Previously this type of altercation with his brother would have led to catastrophizing. It would have dredged up all the old feelings of whether he really wants a brother at all. This used to lead to him being generally unhappy and us needing to rally round and involve the grandparents to make sure he got some extra special time (and a break).

This time, though he needed a bit more time on his own, he did still say, “I love you too” back through his closed door. There were no fallout chats later on.

Less than an hour later, having allowed both boys to eat their tea separately and on the sofa (I find it’s always wise to eliminate any blood sugar issues), they were friends again. They snuggled up together watching a programme like Ninja Warrior and laughed a lot. All was forgiven.

If anything I think they were extra nice to each other because a little bit of guilt was still lingering.

Guilt