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Family Matters

The New Baby Dog Demotion

Having a baby changes everything-including your beloved pooch's standing in the family.

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For me and my husband, getting a dog was always symbolic. We first started trolling animal shelters when we were feeling ready to hunker down to make casseroles and start a family. Just not with a baby. Instead, we fell for a dog.

Quimby never took to our staid ideas of "behavior training" or "obedience." Pretty much every time I walked her, a passerby would quip, originally, "You walkin' that dog, or that dog walkin' you?" But we loved her anyway, quirks and all. What exuberance she had! What zest for life, and also for eating garbage off the street!

Then we had children. Everything loses its symbolism when you have kids, especially dogs. She was suddenly just a dog. A poorly behaved dog at that, given to French-kissing our toddler house guests. Still, we were sure that someday our children would somehow benefit from having a dog, gaining allergy immunity, compassion for animals, and other intangibles we hadn't even imagined.

In reality, the dog was demoted from Beloved Child-Substitute to Just Another Chore. We no longer planned days around taking herto the park with the extra-long leash, or even considered buying special treats for her. (Do they even still make dog treats?)

Her beloved squeaky toys were all hidden out of reach so our toddler didn't gum them. I was annoyed every time I had to walk thedog with baby strapped to my chest. I grumbled at the indignity of picking up her poo while maneuvering a double stroller. Waking up to tend to a child in the middle of the night, I would trip over Quimby's sleeping body and curse.

But the kids aren't babies any more. Finally, after years of second-class family member status, it seemed our beloved pup was poised to regain her footing, as the kids became old enough to enact some of our early kid-and-dog fantasies. Wouldn't she teach all the thing kids are supposed to learn from having a dog, like enduring, selfless love?

Well, imagine a love relationship where there was never any honeymoon period. Since the dog came before the kids, she has always been in the background; they see her more as furniture than friend. Quimby has always been ours, and therefore not exactly theirs. The dog was always just there, never a novel puppy or long-lusted-for gift. The kids have never longed for a dog. They hardly acknowledge her presence. She's just this senile gray-muzzled creature who makes their blankets stink when she sleeps on them.

But there are the moments, when I see sparks of compassion in my kids' treatment of the dog that make me happy, like when my son explains to someone why our creaky dog needs the elevator in our building instead of the stairs, or when my daughter asks a friend to move off the couch because she's in the dog's favorite sunbeam spot. Living with an elderly pet, like any high-needs offspring, is an exercise in patience for everyone involved.

Don't get me wrong, we all feel fondly toward sweet Quimby, who in her golden years has discovered a passion for standing in the middle of rooms and staring off into space. Now that her end is in sight, my husband has taken to asking hopefully, now and then,"Want to get another dog? It would be so good for the kids…it would be their best friend, and they'd learn so much about responsibility…" And this time, it's possible that he's right.

Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. You can find her atamyshearnwrites.com and @amyshearn