The Pet Reduction Program

The Pet Reduction Program (a small part in a father’s parenting strategy)

Disclaimer: this article is written by a pet apathist – the author is apathetic about pets. Not everyone in the world loves pets and has deep feelings about them. I know that many pet lovers may find it difficult to deal with this concept. Pet apathy is real – and don’t write me angry letters about it. (smiley face)

I have three daughters and I love them dearly. When you are a father, you find yourself performing mathematical computations regarding the future. Some of those computations can be alarming – calculating the timespan of years when the teen-aged female hormones of three daughters might be in play, calculating the college years (and the financial savings required),  and estimating the years my daughters might be getting married (more savings for multiple weddings). Fathers perform many estimations and calculations throughout their lives.

I was performing my fatherly estimating one day when yet another calculation popped into my head – namely, the number of pets with which I might be left when the girls left for college. We had allowed the girls to have pets – a momentous parental decision. It all began with a beta fish named Freddy. It was my oldest daughter Julie’s sixth birthday and my parents-in-law gave her a beta fish. You see, I am not a pet person. I was holding out as long as possible against the crushing pressure of the inevitable “Can I have a pet?” dialogue from my children. But my in-laws trumped my fatherly authority – they hauled off and got my daughter a beta fish, a fish bowl, and some fish food. The fish quickly became known as Freddy, and thus, we began the slippery slide down the pet roller coaster. The slow slide down the pet roller coaster picked up speed when we acquired more fish and an aquarium. Then, using their allowance, my daughters bought crabs (momentum accelerating toward full speed). Then a dog. Then things really got out of hand with an unstoppable pet avalanche – the girls got gerbils, followed by a second set of gerbils, and a parakeet bird.

The small animals were tolerable, but the dog was entirely different dog. A dog is a big animal that takes a lot of time, care, and money (delaying my savings for three college educations and for three weddings). When my daughters began to ask about getting a dog, I would say, “A dog is a big responsibility. You have to be very responsible to get a dog.” I carried on with the dog-responsibility response for several months, and it seemed to stop the children in their tracks. But then, my six-year-old daughter Rachel, a persistent can-we-have-a-dog-asker, posed the following question to me – “Dad, what does it take to be responsible?” I replied, “You have to make your bed, help set the table, brush your teeth, and do other things to show us you can take care of yourself and help others. Taking care of a dog requires much work.”

So the next morning, six-year-old Rachel was up bright and early before school. She made her bed and set the table for breakfast. That girl was motivated. She said, “Dad – am I responsible now?” My reply, “Making your bed once and setting the table once is good, but you have to do that over time to show me that you are responsible.” And so it began – each day before school, her bed was made, the table was set, and her teeth were brushed after breakfast. This went on for about a month. Then Rachel asked me another question, “Dad – how long do I have to be responsible?” At that very moment, my wife Susan made intense eye contact with me  – the kind of eye contact that said, “We need to talk later.” Susan pulled me aside later and did not mince her words, “You had better come through on this dog thing. Rachel and the girls have been doing what you asked. You will be toast (as a father) if you don’t come through with a dog.” It was at that point during the we-want-a-dog onslaught that I realized I had just lost the battle. If we never got a dog, my word would mean nothing to my children. It was game over (from the we-aren’t-getting-a-dog stance). I had lost the battle.

So my wife and I researched dog breeds and agreed that a Brittany Spaniel would be the right kind of dog for our family. Brittany Spaniels were supposed to be good with children, did not shed much hair, and were purported to be energetic (a euphemism that can mean hyperactive). I bought a Brittany Spaniel puppy and surprised my daughters. They loved that puppy immediately and named him Patch. In their minds, he quickly became a family member. I am glad that they loved him, but that dog was just a dog to me. We spent thousands on that dog – veterinary fees for shots, fixing the dog, obedience training school, boarding when on vacation, pet food, pet toys, leashes, etc. One summer, he had some random malady (the dog was lethargic and wouldn’t eat).  We took the dog to the veterinary for diagnosis. Over a thousand dollars later, the veterinary determined he had some kind of allergy and needed some shots. Naaarghhh!!! I wanted to put the dog down and end my financial misery. It was just a dog, not a family member. My wife and my children felt differently – they wanted to keep the dog and treat him for allergies. I lost that battle. It was known as the “thousand dollar summer of the dog”.

My daughters with Patch the dog

My daughters with Patch (the much beloved dog).

Now, fast-forward a few years – the girls are now in their late elementary school to middle school years. I began thinking… “My daughters will be leaving home in a few years. And meanwhile, it appears that I will be left holding the bag on the pet menagerie while they waltz off to college.” Then the reality began to sink in – I would be left as the zookeeper to care for all the pets they left behind. And I didn’t want any of those pets in the first place. This would not an good thing. I needed to prevent this from happening.

A plan crept slowly into my mind. What if we allowed the pets to die off through the years and did not replace them? I began researching the average lifespan of each pet we had acquired – Brittany Spaniel dogs (14-15 years), gerbils (4-5 years), parakeets (5-10 years), and so on. Given some of the pet’s lifespans, it appeared that I might still be hung out. It was time to stop the pet madness. Thus began the “Pet Reduction Program”.

I called my daughters together to let them know of this new plan. “Girls”, I said, “I am introducing a new concept in our home. I have been doing some math – when you leave home for college, it appears that you may leave some of your pets behind. I don’t want to be left with your pets. So beginning today, we are instituting the Pet Reduction Program in the Johnson house. It is simple – no new pets, and if a pet dies – no replacement pets.” Silence followed…. I let it sink in. It did not go well. In 30 seconds I went from hero to zero (in my children’s eyes). “What?” they exclaimed, “Are you trying to kill our pets?” “Do you hate Patch?” “No new pets? Why???” If you could have seen the look in their eyes – they must have thought that I was Satan himself. Dad – the pet killer.

It was a tough couple of days in the Johnson home, but I hunkered down and stuck to my guns. Clearly, the rest of my family members were not pet apathists like me. But I wasn’t planning on taking care of the pet menagerie when my daughters left home. I am a “take it or leave it” kind of guy with regards to pets (a pet apathist), and there was no way that my children were going to leave their pets with me.

So began the Pet Reduction Program. Time passed on and pets began to pass away. We did not get any new pets or replace any pets that died. Patch, the beloved dog, passed away the summer before Lauren’s (my youngest daughter) junior year in high school. By the time Lauren left home for college, we had one animal left – a parakeet named Bongo. The parakeet lasted another two years and was the final pet to die. I was glad that my children loved their pets and I was thankful that they had positive experiences with pets. My children took great joy in their pets. But I was pleased to be finished with that phase of life.  The Johnson Pet Reduction Program was complete. Over the years, the Pet Reduction Program has grown to become a part of the Johnson family lore (starring myself as the calculatingly ruthless villain, and my children as the keepers of all that is good in the world).

Now, fast-forward several more years – my wife and I (now in our empty nest years) were in a church life group (a small community group) and were sharing parental strategies with others in the life group. I shared about the magic of my Pet Reduction Program – beginning with my general apathy regarding pets, the build up of the Johnson pet zoo, my animal lifespan calculations, the realization of an impending personal disaster, the hatching of the plan, how I communicated the plan to my children, and its completion. The Pet Reduction Program got lots of laughs, was the subject of additional  questions from the folks in the life group, served to promote a healthy discussion of pets, and became a vehicle for discussion of parenting strategies. And almost every time the group has met, someone would bring up the Pet Reduction Program. It has become so popular that the group gave it an acronym (The PRP). I am thinking of trademarking the Pet Reduction Program (PRP). Or perhaps I will write a book about parenting strategies with a chapter solely dedicated to the Pet Reduction Program.

Questions to ponder:

What (about this story) made an impression on you? Why?

Where do you stand with regards to pets (having pets and keeping pets)?

How have you taught children responsibility? What strategies and tools have you used?

Would you have done things differently? Why?

What character traits are you important to pass on to your family? Why?