Like most parents, I've tried to provide my son with things that I didn't have growing up - things that would be important in broadening his outlook.
One thing I really wanted and never had was a dog, and I believed that our only child would benefit from the companionship of a pet. As soon as our son was old enough (actually, as soon as I had convinced my wife he was old enough), I told him, "Mike, I think you need a dog."
Never having had a dog, I relied on the positive experiences of family members in selecting a breed and sex. As a boy, my father had always had success with large, female dogs; my sister had a collie who was a very patient companion to her three growing girls.
We gave our collie one of those fancy American Kennel Club names, but she would never answer to it. Our 6 year old named her "Bo," and that's how she was known.
Thinking about owning a dog and actually having one are two very different things. One of our son's early lessons was that any-
thing carelessly left on the floor was fair game, including action figures. We returned home one day to find that Bo had eaten He-Man, Master of the Universe. The mighty powers of Castle Grayskull were no match for a teething puppy.
Bo soon started exerting mystical powers of her own.
When it was time for kindergarten show-and-tell, we were reluctant to let our son take a sweet but very active then-60-
pound dog (who by the way, was also frightened of walking on linoleum floors) into school. Despite the pressure to match the other children's interesting items, he reluctantly agreed to take her photograph instead and passed it around the class. "I told them her name is Bo," he told me at dinner that night, and he added as an afterthought, "I told them she could talk."
Bo grew to be much taller and heavier than the breed standard. Her heart was big for any breed, and she had that admirable combination of size, strength, and gentleness. When Mike was old enough and Bo was sufficiently trained, he would take her for walks.
Off they'd go down the street, each of them watching out for the other, the large dog never pulling the boy - who actually thought he was in charge.
One of her routines was to await his return from school. Whatever the troubles of his day, he knew he was home and safe when he saw that enthusiastic greeting.
No, she wasn't perfect. As she aged, the litany of maladies read like Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary. As Bo became increasingly housebound, our teenager's interests developed more and more away from home. Her care fell to my wife and me.
Having finally run out of excuses to delay the inevitable, my son (now finishing high school) and I lifted Bo into the back of the car, and my wife and I took her for the last trip to the veterinarian. Although we were all sad, I thought Mike seemed to feel her loss less keenly than I did.
Was providing him with this experience worth it?
Several months later, he returned home for his first break from college. He told my wife and I how much he had missed us, and how "I kept thinking I couldn't wait to come home to see Bo. Then I realized."
More important, I believe he learned the invaluable role that pets have in drawing you out from yourself, widening your perspective beyond your own problems. At least that's what I found when our young man took me aside to talk about the recent increasing stress of my job and his concerns about how I was handling it. He gave me some advice:
"Dad, I think you need a dog."
Thomas Leibrandt lives with his wife and son in Abington, Pa.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor