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Is a pet a better choice than a sibling for your first born?

As I write my three-year-old Mini Fox Terrier Jasper is asleep beside me, curled up on a pillow in the sunshine. I can reach over and stroke his smooth white fur and the sound of his ‘happy breathing’ is comforting and sweet. At the end of the bed lies Ned, a Jack Russell with a mess of 'bed hair' and a habit of sleeping on his back with his feet in the air.

These two little rescue dogs are my babies, my precious companions and a source of tremendous love, liveliness and humor in our little family. But the main reason they are here is my 14 year-old son Tom asked for them. It’s not because he’s only that he asked for a dog as many children who are not onlies do the same, it was because he just wanted a dog. Still the benefits to us all have been extraordinary.

I must admit when Tom asked for a dog I tried to talk him out of it. I had dogs growing up and they were in some ways the best thing about my childhood, but on the downside they tie you down, make a lot of work and can be a real expense. But what really put me off 'going again' with dogs was my dread at losing them; when they die they break your heart. Finally, Tom refused to be cuddled anymorem and I realized we all needed a dog.

We rescued Jasper and later Ned from homes where they weren’t wanted and brought them into ours where they are worshipped. In return they have transformed our little family of three, filled our spaces and hearts and given us all a lot of joy, amusement and exercise. A small family can feel a little too quiet at times and while we love our alone time and an ordered home life, it felt a little too precious or 'adult' to be entirely healthy for a child. Children including onlies, need a little chaos and noise surrounding them for their own good, it sort of feels right. And nothing adds chaos and noise to a home quite like a couple of young dogs.

Two years later the two additions to our family are fully fledged members of the family. Tom is now the big brother and they are his younger siblings. They look up to him, trust him and demand his affections. They welcome him after school and sit on his knee in the car basking in his attentions. Tom walks them (sometimes) disciplines and controls them and gives them a lot of love. When he lifts them up and cradles them in his arms I can see a future loving father and it's gratifying and comforting. They have taught him about the preciousness of all animals; their complexity, playfulness, loyalty and deep kindness. There was a little jealousy (sibling rivalry) in the beginning but Tom soon learned that he could share our love and there was plenty to go around.

Our dogs have had an added benefit for Tom, he’s no longer the sole center of our affections. Being an only child can sometimes mean too much parental scrutiny and even too much attention. Dogs or pets make fantastic parental distractions. They take parents out for walks and force parents to bath, feed, cuddle and play with them. This is a welcome relief for the only child who can finally enjoy being ignored or overshadowed, especially when entering the privacy obsessed teenage years. Our dogs are an extra focus for all of us at meal times, in the car, on trips and vacations, all of the time.

Children grow up quickly enough but an only is gone in the blink of an eye and I admit that letting your precious only child ease gently towards adulthood can be hard. Having a second child slows down the process, and when the 'baby' leaves you are more likely ready to let her go. When an only decides it's time to pull away physically the temptation to go again can creep in.

With our dogs we have all the advantages of one child; more time, less chaos, more disposable income, less pressure but our dogs fill any potential voids. We can still cram into one hotel room and sometimes upgrade our flights. Our home didn’t need extending nor our cars upgrading. Tom’s getting a great schooling and we’re all happy, all five of us.

I’ve seen this same positive pet effect in the homes of other one child families. Friends of ours brought two beautiful Burmese cats into their home and the transforming effect was extraordinary. Those beautiful cats cuddled and played and filled the home with love and warmth, fun and a little healthy chaos. The only child had someone to play with and talk to and cuddle, and his mum did too. Their lives were enriched and the tone in their home shifted into a lighter place, it was wonderful to see. And when they head off overseas the cats stay behind with a babysitter.

When I was growing up with an older brother and sister we had fun, particularly when we were very small, but these early friendships frayed and petered out as we got older. I remember being alone a lot of the time as our home life became increasingly fractured and fraught with our parents’ divorce which dragged on and affected us all. Our mother buried herself in her work and our father became increasingly alienated so it was pets not people that gave me the unconditional love, warmth, friendship and stability I needed. Looking back, I credit my pets with saving me from an otherwise lonely and troubled childhood.

My first pet was a guinea pig, Emily, who came into my life when I was 10. Two years later she stopped eating and started to waste away. Finally, it looked like she’d gone into some sort of coma and since my parents were nowhere to be seen and my siblings had no interest in getting involved, I rushed her by taxi to the vet. Looking back this story is as much about the failure of my sibling relationships as it is about my deep love of a small animal. How could my older brother and sister abandon me during such a crisis? Even if they didn’t care for my guinea pig, they could have comforted or supported their little sister.

Shortly afterwards I was given a horse to take care of and I found myself with a new best friend, Flicka. She was an old, spotted grey with a hard mouth, uncomfortably long stride (when heading home) and kind nature. I loved her madly and (when I could catch her) spent hours riding in the paddocks and pine forests near my home. My sister often joined me but it was mostly just me and my Flicka alone. The joys of owning a horse can’t be overstated for a young person. Riding is a wonderfully freeing experience and the friendship of a horse is deep and profound.

When I was 15 my parents finally split, my siblings left home and I became a sort of only child. To augment our family my mother and I went off to the dog shelter where we found two beautiful dogs who were very grateful to be rescued. Hamish and Lucy were my salvation. For a stressed-out teenager walking the dogs was all the therapy I needed and our walks would last for hours as we ventured into the Australian bush where they could run free and I could revel in the peacfulness and beauty. Walking in nature spurs the imagination, allows your thoughts to flow unhindered and unlocks deep creative energy. But with dogs you’re not alone. Watching them running wild their noses to the ground, chasing birds, swimming for sticks, digging in dirt and following the scent trail of a kangaroo is healing, meaningful and uplifting.

Most importantly, the love of my animals gave me an invaluable bench mark with which to compare all other loving relationships. My dogs, especially Lucy, loved me unconditionally. It’s a feeling I needed to experience so I could recognize it later and be aware of its presence or absence in future relationships. A more profound life lesson I can’t imagine.

When I met my life long partner and husband I recognized this easy affinity and was immediately charmed by his gushing love of dogs. I think the first moment I fell in love was him was when he lovingly pointed out a 'doggie' on the street. Now that we have our own, I love watching his face light up when he pats Jasper and Ned, or laughs at their funny habits. Our dogs bring out the best in us all.

There is a lot of research that shows the positive and therapeutic effects of co-habiting with animals both physical and mental. They have been shown to have benefits to humans in many environments – prisons, nursing homes, playschools, hospitals and of course homes. Caring for and being cared for by animals is well established to be good for us spiritually and physically, but even I was surprised to read some research that showed how important pets can be for children in times of adversity.

British researcher Matt Cassels studied the relationship between children and their pets by examining the data from a 10 year longitudinal study ‘Toddlers Up’. This study of social and emotional development was conducted in a diverse group of 100 children in the UK. The children had been recruited at age two and included a section on their pets.

Matt’s research revealed that “Children who suffered adversity in their lives such as bereavement, divorce, instability and illness or were from a disadvantaged background were more likely to have a stronger relationship with their pets than with their peers.” And that “These children, particularly girls, and those whose pet was a dog were more likely to confide in their pet than in their siblings.”

Matt attempts to explain the findings in this way “They may feel that their pets are not judging them and since pets don’t appear to have their own problems they just listen. Even confiding in a journal can be therapeutic but pets may be even better since they can be empathetic.”

A pet for any child is important but for an only child they are more so. They fill the voids, teach valuable lessons about sharing your parents, managing downwards and even nurturing in preparation for parenting. But most importantly they are a loyal friend, companion and confidante. In times of adversity the only child doesn’t have to go it alone, their pet can be as supportive as a sibling, maybe more.

When I was in my twenties I brought a boyfriend home. It was just the two of us there and the relationship was still pretty new. When he went to the bathroom my dog Lucy told me straight, ‘He’s not good enough.’ She was a wise old girl who’d given me a lot of good advice over the years. It took me a few months but I did break up with him. And she was right, he wasn't.


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