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Posted on Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 11:11 a.m.

The Christmas puppy: Good move or good grief?

By Heather Heath Chapman

“Nothing says ‘Christmas’ like poop under the tree.”

That’s what I said at our last supper club meeting. My friend Laura had just announced that her family would get a puppy for the holidays. The reaction from our crowd was mixed.

Some friends said, “Awwww!” and some friends said, “Hmmm.” I—fueled by wine and finger foods—said the thing about the poop. It popped into my head and then out of my mouth—a knee-jerk attempt to push her off a path that, if memory serves, is littered with whining toddlers and chewed-up Christmas ornaments.

But, I shouldn’t have been so grinchy.

The Christmas Puppy. When we bought ours, five years ago, it seemed like such a great idea. Why? I can’t remember. I know there was a woman selling a litter of wiggling retrievers at a country fair. I know I knelt in the grass and scooped up each puppy, one by one, to kiss every little nose. But things get hazy after that. I was hooked so quickly, and I felt so dopey—the country fair woman might as well have been selling peppermint-flavored crack.

To my husband’s credit (he removed me from the scene by force) we didn’t buy one of those puppies. But, for weeks afterward, we had puppy-on-the-brain; and when Thanksgiving rolled around, we decided to get a golden retriever for Christmas. For the kids, ostensibly.

Our daughter was six, and our son was two. “They can all grow up together!” I gushed. “Won’t it be wonderful?”

The first hour was.

When we picked up little Herbie—my daughter named him after a favorite mascot—he was clean and sleepy, all fluff and feet. We took turns holding him and talking in kiss-kiss voices. We loved it when he tripped over a boot and napped on the spot. We made up dozens of name variations: Herb, Herberto, The Herbster, Herbmeister, Herbivore, The Herbinator, Herbiecakes, Mr. Herbie-head, and, obviously, Herb-a-Rama-Ding-Dong.

But, by the second hour, Herbie wasn’t sleepy anymore. By the third hour, my daughter got bored and wandered away. By the fourth hour, it was clear that my son didn’t enjoy puppy biting, puppy barking, puppy licking, or puppy bouncing.

By the end of the day, I was coming down from the puppy high.

A sense of understanding settled in, and it felt a little like a hangover. Because—here’s the thing—standing in the snow while a puppy weighs the pros and cons of peeing (Here? Maybe here! No, wait! Over here!) really, really blows.

Winter stretched out in a grey blur.

Through the darkest, coldest months of the year, I was—stupidly! I know this now!—potty training a puppy and a toddler at the same time.

There were messes inside, there were messes outside. There were diapers in the nursery, there was yellow snow in the yard. Every week we went through boxes of wipes. Every day was a series of accidents by two little boys who just couldn’t get there in time.

And then—ah!—the clouds parted. Just as the weather warmed up, the toddler and the dog seemed to get the hang of the potty thing.

But they couldn’t get the hang of each other.


Herbie made it clear almost immediately that he intended to grow into his enormous feet. By the end of March, he’d gone from a fur ball to a big, shaggy dog, and he just kept growing. Our veterinarian called him “The Bruiser.” Our son would have given him a more R-rated nickname if he’d been allowed to curse (and if he’d been able to talk).

In the competition over the best toys, Herbie always, always won. He could pull the eyes off of a teddy bear before I could cross a room. He seemed to gravitate toward the things my son loved most, and then he would destroy those things with goofy glee. When reprimanded, he seemed honestly surprised. (What? I shouldn’t have eaten that?) When excited, he’d knock my son over with his big, jolly butt.

My son was furious nearly all the time.

That’s what I remember when I think back on the puppy years; and that’s why I made the poop comment at supper club. But, here’s what I should have said to a friend taking the puppy plunge:

“Good idea.”

Because, by the time he was two, Herbie had it all figured out. He stopped destroying toys and started simply carrying them, like a toy-delivery dog. He seemed to know, instinctively, that his job was to lie by the fireplace, looking all gorgeous and Eddie Bauer. He stopped growing, and my son kept growing. And, somewhere along the way, they became friends.


They play together and rest together. They both love sports. Through stomach viruses, Michigan football losses, rainy days, and swine flu, Herbie has been right there, with his big, soft head in my son’s lap.

So, I’d been mostly right: It is wonderful to have a dog that’s grown up with your children. The puppy path is stained and frayed, but, in the end, it’s worth the walk.

To families who are taking that path this holiday season, I say, “Good idea.”

Also, “Good luck.”

Also, “Bundle up.” Because I wasn’t kidding about potty training in the snow.



Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 7:27 p.m.

Cute story. I got my dog at the other end of the child rearing cycle, just in preparation for the empty nest. It was brilliant. I loved the imposed potty breaks and the walks I had to take with the puppy. It was fun to train someone who actually listened to me (after those teenage years with my kids, it was rather refreshing!). We are buddies and he is great company. But dogs are serious responsibility. So eyes wide open to prospective dog owners!


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 10:20 p.m.

I agree with RonAnnArbor. 2 of our past dogs were "christmas puppys" that ended up at the pound where we adopted them. The decision to bring an animal into your home is not something to be taken on lightly, it's much like having a baby, and you have to be fully aware of all that it entails. Yes, they must be potty trained. Yes, they get hair, drool, and dirt everywhere. Yes, they need a great deal of time as well as money devoted to their well being. If these are things that will give you cause to complain then perhaps a dog is not for you. You may think the tone of my message is not very nice but millions of animals are given over to humane societies (the unlucky ones go to kill shelters or get abandoned) every year. Millions of animals who do not find homes are euthanized. Some of these animals were "gifts" or acquired during the holidays and it is a shame that they come to such a tragic end because of someone's spur of the moment decision. I give you a great deal of credit for keeping your puppy, it looks as if he is a much loved member of the family and you handled the initial chaos very well. Perhaps the folks at the Humane Society could contribute an article addressing this topic.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 4:57 p.m.

I think this is an excellent tail of caution. Know what you are getting in to. That said, I am looking over my coffee table at my 13 year old golden. He is big for his breed, a rescue of sorts. He was that crazy puppy, adolescent, middle aged dog that movies are made of. He's been sick and is recovering. He is asleep on his orthopedic pad with supporting foam for his achy bones. His red collar is worn from the years but this golden retriever, with the craziness and energy of his youth in his past, this one, he's mine. His graying muzzle and his "skepticals" (spectacles with experience) are showing more by the day. He is my truest and most loyal friend. Highs and lows, fears and joys, silliness and entertainment - both of us. What a gift he is. And yet, I am outwardly angry about the bread he swiped this morning but inwardly cheering for the return of mischievousness. So, I agree that you should know what you are getting in to.

Deb Anderson

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 2:22 p.m.

Wonderful story and I'm glad it's worked out so well for you. For all the readers out there who could very well be motivated to go out and get a pet, please know and accept what you're getting into. Please consider adopting at the local rescue shelter. And most importantly, know what you are getting into. A puppy is a lot of work and our pets are only as "good" as the owners. It takes a lot of time, work, and dedication while training. Make sure your pet is compatible with its future environment. This includes children, other pets (namely cats), how long they'll be alone, fenced in yards, and the time you realistically have to provide walks, lots of love, and all the caregiving an animal friend requires, including the expense of food and vet visits; there's many animals in shelters because their family could no longer afford them, a precarious risk in our current economy. If you care deeply for pristine furniture and spotless carpets and floor coverings, you'll find yourself exasperated immediately. Know what you're in for and are able to grasp before you take the plunge, it's a huge yet rewarding responsibility. It's also a great opportunity for children to learn pet responsibily seriously also.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 1:45 p.m.

The only reason to buy a puppy or kitty for Christmas (or any other time) is beacuse YOU really want one. Actually it can work for you, if you tell the kids you bought THEM a puppy for Christmas, but ultimately you are buying it for yourself!! I've bought or adopted several pets over the years - all because I wanted them. I have never regretted my decision - from when they cried through their first nights with us - to when I held them as they breathed their last breath. They enriched my life beyond measure.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:50 p.m.

Very true article. I wish all people would think through pet ownership before bringing home a "holiday gift puppy". Obviously as this article says, puppies turn into full-grown dogs that require A LOT of care. We've adopted two golden retrievers from Golden Retriever Rescue of Michigan, that have been absolutely wonderful dogs. In both cases, they came from homes where the families couldn't take care of them any more for different reasons. Owning a dog can be very wonderful, but prospective owners should fully be aware of the time they will need to spend cleaning up after him/her, walking them, training them, taking them to the vet, feeding them, brushing & bathing, finding a place for them to stay on vacation, etc, etc. If someone understands this and is willing to make the commitment, then getting a puppy for Christmas gift is a wonderful idea.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:44 p.m.

Regardless of where you get a puppy/kitten for the kids, hopefully from the Humane Society, do your home work and make the breed is compatible with small children/kids.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:09 p.m.

Good story. And very true too.