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Karen B. London
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Different Size Families
Advantages and disadvantages for dogs

When my husband and I lived 1300 miles apart for four years, our dog was with me. Yes, our dog adored my husband and was always ecstatic to see him, but day to day, year after year, it was usually just Bugsy and me in our Wisconsin farmhouse. We had a wonderful relationship. There is a special closeness that develops from spending so much time together and being the main social presence in each other’s home life. Bugsy did a lot to fill the void of being in a long distance marriage, and he benefitted by receiving a huge amount of attention from me.

On the down side, I worried that he only had me to take care of him. If something happened to me like a car accident, what would happen to him? I always left my toilet seats up and had multiple water bowls out just in case an emergency kept me away from home. I also had contingency plans with neighbors and friends to check on him if they noticed I was not home when I should have been.

I know a man who lived alone with his dog when he was doing biological research in northern Canada, and their relationship was far more intense. They were literally each other’s only company for months at a time, and the dog once saved his life by fighting off a bear. As a result, the dog became closer to him than anyone. In fact, years later when his new girlfriend tactfully mentioned that the dog was keeping her awake at night by nearly pushing her off the bed, he was less than sympathetic. He told her that only once she had lived alone with him in a cabin for years and had saved his life, she would have priority over the dog, and not until. That relationship eventually ended, and he went back to living with the true love of his life—the dog.

As fulfilling as intense relationships between one person and one dog are, there are advantages to a dog of living with more humans. In larger families, schedules often stagger a bit which means that the dog is not left home alone for a full workday. There are many people to walk the dog and play fetch, tug or any other game. Dogs in larger families may be groomed or pet more, and have the benefits of different personalities and preferences. Maybe one kid loves to groom the dog, while another never tires of fetch. Perhaps one adult takes the dog for long runs for exercise while the other adult prefers leisurely walks that allow for plenty of time for sniffing all those interesting spots on the grass and mailboxes. Dogs in big families may have more opportunities for interaction because somebody is usually available at any given time.

Of course, in large families, dogs may slip through the cracks because everyone is sure that someone else already walked the dog or played with him. Sometimes family members can be so busy with each other that there is not enough purposeful attention given to the dog. And though many dogs love it, the chaos and high volume of life with a big family can be overwhelming to some dogs.

I say that if the dog is loved and cared for, the size of the family is not the key issue. Still, there are advantages and disadvantages of different size families, and those can vary for individual dogs. What are your experience with dogs and families of various sizes?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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