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How Parenting Dogs Is Different Than Parenting Humans — and How It Isn’t

I was never able to have kids. Caring for my dogs may compare in many ways, but I know that in others it doesn't.

Marybeth Bittel  |  Aug 23rd 2016


On sunny weekend afternoons, I’ll often leash up my pups and take them for an extra-long walk. Along the way, I usually pass at least one or two neighbors — moms riding bikes with toddlers or pushing hooded strollers — and we’ll nod a friendly greeting or stop to chat awhile. I enjoy these interactions, and actually look forward to them. So it’s difficult to admit that once in a while, I find myself suppressing the most troubling urge to cry.

I adore children, but I was not able to have children. Adoption was enthusiastically explored, though circumstances never managed to align. That’s the nature of life, I guess — sometimes, for an assortment of reasons, our dearest plans simply don’t work out. But for the females, the nurturers, the encouragers, the mothers-who-might-have-been, this reality can present its own unique set of painful challenges.

There’s a certain subtle message I’ve noticed, which surfaces here and there. It’s a largely silent signal that can be telegraphed by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, even well-meaning ladies at the grocery store. It reminds me — as if I needed reminding — that caring for a rescued dog is not remotely similar to raising an actual son or daughter. The words themselves are occasionally uttered verbatim; though the message can also give itself away through various facial expressions or particular figures of speech.

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“Mothering” Grant has been difficult at times, after he endured horrible abuse and neglect by a series of previous owners. (Photo courtesy Marybeth Bittel)

It can never be the same, that message says. Pup rescue, dog ownership, canine companionship, whatever label you select… it can’t remotely compare to cradling a drowsy-warm, sweet-smelling newborn in your arms. It can never vaguely approach hand-in-hand walks to kindergarten; late-night vigils armed with vapor rub jars and cough syrup; or bedtime stories read in lilting, reassuring tones.

And how can I help but agree when I scroll across social media, bumping into all those birthday greetings, gap-toothed vacation snapshots, colorful prom pictures, graduation videos? I fold my own hands awkwardly into my lap while dusty shirts are changed and greasy chins are swabbed; soccer teams are cheered on from the stands; and hatchbacks are crammed full of overstuffed boxes and bags just before heading toward proud-yet-tearful college semester farewells.

I understand, absolutely, that a dog will never grow up to discover a cure for disease, alleviate unspeakable violence, or inspire generations with stirring words of insight. Technically, our domesticated dogs never really “grow up” at all. They get older, of course — but for us humans, canines always seem to exist in an imposed, oddly necessary state of part-infant, part-confidante. They walk — loyally, willingly, dutifully by our sides — until their essence drifts away one day, leaving us to cherish what amounts to a fleeting handful of years. I know that neither of my current canines, Grant and Maizy, will provide me with grandkids who grin down from photos on the mantel; nor will they hold my wrinkled hand when I am old.

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Sparky was filthy and matted when he was first rescued from the backyard of an owner who kept him tied to a grill around the clock. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

Still, sometimes when I encounter other women, our good-natured banter can become oh-so-mildly awkward as certain child-specific subjects arise. There’s no lack of friendliness on either side, mind you. There’s just that missing point of commonality, a vitally absent overlap. A female with four-legged furkids can’t completely identify with teen tribulations and typical toddler topics. The parents of pets are an entirely separate subset.

And yet there remains that shared word: parents. How interesting that we who elect to adopt and embrace these cold-nosed, warm-hearted creatures would choose a term that represents such enduring patience, fierce loyalty, and sacrificial support. The phrase pet parent has persisted for quite some time, in a digital world filled with temporary preoccupations and fleeting ideas. I believe that’s mostly because it embodies an inherent degree of accuracy.

There is, after all, something very parental about unconditional love for a pet. I think this holds especially true for a rescued pet. For years now, I’ve looked into the defeated eyes of abused, abandoned dogs. I’ve observed the wary ways in which they sit or slump; often nursing broken bodies and bruised spirits, and sometimes struggling with acquired terrors they’ll never fully overcome. I recognize in them something I’ve learned to honestly acknowledge in myself: an eagerness to connect, encourage, and heal; a need to cheer and uplift; a longing to be named and reassured and simply matter. While these things are often conferred upon a mother almost automatically, the path is not as clear-cut for childless women. Yet I sense these things reverberating like a quiet hum, back and forth, between a homeless canine’s troubled gaze and mine.

Providing unconditional care and kindness for a wounded, frightened canine like Maizy brings its own challenges — and rewards. (Photo courtesy Marybeth Bittel)

So I praise and guide, teach and train, cleanse and bandage, mend and restore. I stop thinking and comparing, and choose to focus instead on the not-so-swift, not-so-simple reestablishment of trust. It’s not always easy work, but the tasks themselves seem to be transmitting a different message of sorts. This message reminds me that unconditional love and abiding empathy regard all recipients equally. It whispers that at some fundamental level, species falls away. Dogs, humans, other creatures — we’re all a wounded blend of newborns and adolescents and old souls. We’re all striving and stumbling forward simultaneously. It’s the choice to love that helps us walk side by side — supporting, sacrificing, learning, cherishing, respecting.

And in the end — cradling our disappointments, nurturing frailties both hidden and apparent, carrying our quiet truths — we quite often rescue one another.