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Turn to Animals to Fill the Void When Kids Leave Home

Furry friends can provide a new focus for your love and attention when your children move out

By Lenore Skenazy | January 29, 2013

Here’s something parents of kids going off to college seem to know almost instinctively: The nest isn’t really empty if there’s a bird in it. Or a dog, or a cat or even a guinea pig.
 
“We already had two shelties,” says Debbie Mullin, a social worker and the mother of two girls who lives in the far suburbs of New York City. But when her younger daughter got accepted to college, Mullin and her husband saw the writing on the wall and got themselves a third dog, a puppy.
 
Theoretically the pup was to ensure that the middle dog would have a companion once the older one went to that frayed couch cushion in the sky. But the little tail-wagger served a strikingly similar purpose for Mullin, too. “It was definitely buying me another 10 years of having somebody at home to worry about.”

(MORE: Longing for a Dog)
 
But Mullin says she doesn’t even mind if she and her husband have to postpone most of their paint-the-town-red plans so that someone’s home to walk another generation of dogs. “They’re fun, they’re always in a good mood, and they’re totally worth it,” she says. “And best of all, they won’t go away to college.”
 
They Just Need Someone to Love
 
Beth, a psychologist who’d rather not divulge her city or last name (you’ll see why), knew she would have a hard time when her only son went off to school. “I spent a year mentally and emotionally preparing,” she admits. The boy had been gone about a month when Beth walked into a pet shop and there, staring up at her, was a perky little guinea pig.
 
“I put her in my arms like a baby and brought her home,” Beth says. “The attachment is amazing! I give her treats, buy her toys. She walks around the house — I have wee-wee pads everywhere.”
 
(MORE: How I Fell in Love With a Guinea Pig)
 
Clearly, the little fur ball is the new kid at home, and Beth’s son (a psychologist’s kid after all) understands the implications. “He’s actually a little jealous,” Beth says. 
 
Some people don’t get a new pet when the kids leave; they just seriously upgrade their existing critter’s status. “Sugar was really my daughter’s cat,” says Kathi Elster, a Manhattan publicist. “I wasn’t even that big a fan of hers. But one day after my daughter moved out, Sugar jumped on the table and took a piece of chicken, and it triggered a surprisingly maternal response.”
 
So Elster began cooking chicken for Sugar, and now she does that every day. “I find myself talking to her as if she’s a person. I get so much back from her: attention, affection, affirmation.” When her husband started telling people she’d turned their cat into their daughter, Elster realized with some embarrassment that that was true. But she got back at her husband when she came home one night and discovered that he had just cooked a couple of pieces of chicken — for Sugar.
 
“A loyal pet can fill the void and be a grateful recipient of love and affection,” says Amy Robinson, a dog trainer in Vero Beach, Fla. In return, the pet gives love back, “without rolling the eyes, and follows the folks around adoringly and only occasionally wets the rug.” What’s not to love?

The Ones Left Behind
 
On the other side of the spectrum are the parents who, like Peter Rabinowitz, are left with a pet they never really liked in the first place. The Philadelphia lawyer had gotten his son a dove back when the boy was 13 and into magic. “Then he went off to school and left me with the dove,” Rabinowitz says with a sigh. “Day and night, you can hear it cooing in the background.” 

Rabinowitz cares for the pet, lending a not entirely unpleasant regularity to the day. But sometimes it creates an awkward situation that underscores his ambivalence. “When people come over for dinner and don’t see the bird — because sometimes he’s in the basement — there’s always the joking-but-slightly-worried question, ‘We’re not having dove for dinner, are we?’”
 
The reassuring answer is: Of course not — because then the nest would be truly empty. Even Rabinowitz isn’t ready for that. (That said, anyone stuck with a truly unwanted animal should try to find it a suitable home. Or college.)
 
(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)
 
Good Breeds to Fill the Void

Kristen Corral, owner of Little White Dog Co., a pet services company in Las Vegas, offers this top 10 list, using for criteria the dog’s size, neediness and temperament. All of these breeds can be found in rescue and adoption groups and at your local animal shelter.

  1. Maltese: They love to play with other dogs and people, are very social and enjoy daily walks.
  2. Shih Tzu: These sweet dogs are one of the most popular breeds in the country and crave companionship. They also have a “double flowing coat,” which requires daily maintenance and grooming.
  3. Pug: Their trademark wrinkly face and distinct big round eyes are irresistible. They are a low-maintenance breed that is perfectly content just following you around the house.
  4. Toy poodle: This tiny fluffy dog is incredibly smart and excels in obedience and sports. They need lots of attention and love joining in on all kinds of outdoor activities.
  5. Pomeranian: A ball of fluff famous for giving sad eyes when they aren't getting your full attention. Poms make great lap dogs and love to give kisses. They need a lot of attention and are best for people who have plenty of time to spend with them.
  6. Papillon: These small dogs are adorable, with their small, pointed nose and butterfly-shaped ears (hence the name). They are adventurous dogs and have an energetic attitude but can also enjoy a nap with you on the couch.
  7. Italian greyhound: Don't let their 15- to 25-pound weight fool you. They’re big babies and hate to be left alone. And their favorite pastime is sleeping on your head.
  8. Dachshund: Because of their short little legs and long bodies, they’re affectionately called “wiener dogs” — and they’ll melt your heart. Their longing eyes watch you patiently until you pick them up and cuddle them.
  9. Yorkshire terrier: These highly portable little guys love to travel with you on errands. They have lots of energy despite their size and are very protective.
  10. Chihuahua: Known as the “purse pooch,” this is one of the most loyal breeds and will even get jealous if they see you giving other dogs — or even people — attention. They like to be next to you at all times and are happy to do whatever you are doing. They’re extremely tiny (usually 3 to 5 pounds) and love to snuggle under the covers with you.
Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. Her show, World’s Worst Mom, airs on Discovery/TLC International.