Is a Dog as Good as a Child? Musings on Driving by Moonlight.

Today is Pet Travel Thursday at A Traveler’s Library. Stop by to read my full review of Driving by Moonlight: A Journey Through Love, War, and Infertility and tell me what you thought.

Golden Retriever on the porch

What do you mean I’m not your baby?

The Question

No married woman of a certain age has escaped the question: So, when are you going to have kids?

If having a child is your greatest, unfulfilled desire, words can’t express the pain those words must cause. And writer Kristin Henderson reveals that pain with brutal honesty in her touching memoir, Driving by Moonlight.

But this isn’t a Mommy Blog. It’s a Dog Blog. And I was interested in Henderson’s choice to get a German Shepherd puppy after receiving yet more bad news in her attempts to conceive a child. She called Rosie her consolation prize.

If You Want a Baby, Will a Dog Do?

Rosie the shepherd did not diminish Henderson’s desire to have a baby. But she did provide an outlet for nurturing. And she was an acceptable family addition for Henderson’s husband Frank who did not want a child but did want to see his wife happy.

Henderson’s husband experienced as much fear at the thought of raising a child as she felt joy. He worried that as a parent, he would be as angry and abusive as his own father had been. And besides, as his wife pointed out several times in her memoir, Frank had many chances to nurture in his daily work as a Lutheran minister.

Golden Retriever in Bicycle cart

What do you mean if I get in the damn cart you’ll take me for ice cream. You know I don’t understand English. What do you think I am, a kid?

So, is having a dog like “child lite?” Tastes great but less fulfilling? Or is loving a dog (or other companion animal) its own rewarding experience with only slight similarities to raising a child?

I come down firmly on the latter. And I believe that Kristin Henderson did too.

When she brought Rosie home, she knew it would not lessen her burning need to have a human baby. But raising the puppy did give her a focus outside herself and a life to care for.

A Dog is Not a Furry Child

We’ve probably all read that scientists believe most dogs’ intelligence is comparable to that of a two-year-old child. But despite having reasoning abilities similar to a toddler, dogs become adults quickly. And it’s this maturity beyond the simple intellectual capabilities of dogs that makes our relationships with them unique and so very special. Henderson’s memoir provides a clear demonstration.

Driving by Moonlight shares Kristin Henderson’s reflections on the big questions of her life while taking a cross-country road trip with her dog. It is a very different story than it would be if Henderson had been driving with her toddler.

  • At pit stops, Henderson fills the car with gas while Rosie takes herself to a grassy area for a potty break. Just try sending a toddler into a gas station restroom by herself.
  • When meeting strangers, Rosie’s fierce barks are a convincing warning. No menacing person is likely to be intimidated by a crying baby.
  • Rosie remains engaged by the landscape and the smells throughout the trip. I don’t know many children who can amuse themselves for hours at a time in a car seat.

And no, I’m not saying dogs are better than children. But they aren’t a substitute for them either, no matter what your in-laws begging for grandchildren think.

People raise their children, whether born to them or adopted, hoping to mold those young lives into reflections of their best selves.

I want Honey to be well-mannered and happy. But I don’t fool myself into thinking I can shape her personality in any way. I need to discover it, work with it, and appreciate it. She’s a different species. And I’m privileged to live closely with her and gain some small entry into her very different world.

I’ve chosen not to raise children. I understand and share some of the dread Kristin Henderson’s husband Frank expressed on the subject.

But I don’t love my dog because she’s the next best thing to having a kid. I love her because she’s my dog. And for some of us, that’s good enough.

What do you think? Do childless people get animals as substitutes for children? Are there similarities between the way you relate to your pets and your kids? Have you been accused of using your dog as a child substitute?


If you’re intrigued by Driving by Moonlight, you can order it at Amazon. I’ll get a few cents from your purchase but it won’t cost you any more. Thanks for your support.

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  1. As a childless dog owner, I think yes, our dogs become substitutes for children we don’t have, but not in the way that implies. The dogs give us an outlet for our love, something to talk about and worry about, and an excuse to get out and do a little more. We don’t look at the boys and think “sons”, although we call ourselves doggy parents.


  2. “What do you think? Do childless people get animals as substitutes for children? Are there similarities between the way you relate to your pets and your kids? Have you been accused of using your dog as a child substitute?”

    One of my biggest regrets in life was that I have no children. I was one that of all of my friends, I wanted 4 kids while they wanted none. I spent my 20s, 30s and part of my 40s being “wild” soooo no kids for me.

    I DO treat my cat and dog like “kids” (no I don’t dress them up etc lol) but for me they enable me to receive and give unconditional love, just as I would a child. They don’t take the place of having a child but for me they do fill a void. Now, being in my 50s and witnessing the problems that many of my friends who have raised kids had (and are having) I am THRILLED that I do NOT have kids.

    Kids are also born with a basic personality package….you can help guide and shape it but you certainly can’t form it. That’s why you can have the same parents and 3 different kids all raised the same way and they will be totally different

  3. I have children and a dog. As Pamela so rightly puts it, they are different species. Children are much harder, and they recover from poor treatment much more slowly. And an abused or badly-reared child will have a much greater impact on society than a badly behaved dog. Thus parents have a far greater responsibility to society to raise well-adjusted, contributing members of society than pet owners do. And believe me, many is the day I wish I had cats instead of kids! Not every day though.

  4. I’m firmly in the dogs are better than children camp. I have never wanted children and become only more firmly of that mindset as I age. I call myself a dog mom but I don’t feel the dogs are substitutes for children as that implies that what I really want is a child and that’s not true. But I do admit that even a having children loathing person like myself does have a nurturing side – my dogs satisfy the maternal instincts I do have and I’m grateful that they are in my life to help fulfill me in that manner.

  5. I love my human children and they have turned out well, but life would have been infinitely more simple if I had stayed with dogs. I’m just glad that we all have had the choice of where we want our lives to go. Having children without having a deep commitment to being a mother-for-life can produce a lot of unhappy, neurotic and worse human beings.

  6. I got an error message, but I see my comment went through anyway.

  7. My younger cousin told me that she never could see me as a mother until she saw how I interacted and loved Elli. I’ve also been asked whether or not I have children. I’m 22. Really. I remember telling my cousin that I don’t like children — they’re too rubbery, I said, I like fur. :)

  8. I’ve never been accused of using my dogs as a substitute for children, at least, not to my face. I come from a background of a lot of abuse and neglect, and I spent my childhood raising my sister and my parents. My husband is the oldest of nine children and some of his siblings were too young to attend our wedding when we got married. Neither of us was in a big hurry to have kids when we got married, and I kind of felt like if it happened, it happened, and if it didn’t, that was okay. I admit that I did have a lot of concerns about whether I could be a good parent considering my background.

    I love the relationship I have with the dogs, and with my husband, but I don’t think of it as a replacement for a child/parent relationship. I like being able to come and go when I please, within certain parameters, and being able to travel with the dogs when we want. I don’t feel like my life is lacking without children in it, it’s just different than what those with kids experience.

  9. We both have kids from other marriages that are grown up now. While we love Roxy and Torrey to death, they aren’t substitutes for kids that are gone. They are the “kids” we have now though, and we joke all the time they are a lot easier than real kids. We can leave them home alone, leave them in the car to run in the store, (not in the heat of course) and not get arrested for it. They are always happy to see us, no matter what, and are thrilled if we bring them home a treat. The best part….they don’t talk back or argue. The worst part….they have to get up in the middle of the night to pee and that means someone has to get up and let them out.

    • We have three but don’t have to get up in the middle of the night. My brilliant husband put in a dog door that opens onto our deck and into a fenced portion of the yard. Our dogs love going in and out as they please!

  10. I am missing whatever gene or part it is that makes women go “ohhhhhhh” when they see a baby and turn all gooey inside. I only do that for puppies. When I see a human baby, I think “please please please don’t let anyone ask me to hold it.” They are kinda scary. So, no my dog is in no way a substitute for a human baby, in my mind, because I never wanted a human baby to begin with. While I do call Rita my “baby” sometimes, I don’t baby her. She’s a family member, but not a “substitute” child.

    • I missed that gene also. It probably makes some of my friends and family think I’m emotionally cold–but NOT the ones who’ve seen me with my three canine “girls”. :-)

  11. The thing I find most unsettling about the account you give of Kristin Henderson is that her husband clearly did not want a child, and yet there’s the sense that if they could have, they would have. It strikes me that this is one decision that absolutely everyone–hubby wife aunts uncles grandparents nieces neighbors and, in fact, every other being on this planet–needs to be on board with, since it will in fact impact every single being on this planet. And yet, so many couples where at least one half is ambivalent at best just go ahead and do it. How frightening that if not for a biological twist of fortune, this man would have been forced into a role he did not want and a child would have been born who was not wanted by his father.

    I too have never had the urge for offspring, though I have nurturing instincts in spades. Life provides no shortage of beings in need of nurturing, dogs and otherwise. Why would I want to create one creature that will demand all my nurturing energies, when I can accomplish so much more by spreading those energies among many worthwhile projects/people/animals?

    I guess there are some people still of childbearing age who worry that if they don’t have a child, they’ll always regret it. But how much more awful would it be to have a child and regret that. You don’t hear about it much because of course no one wants their kids to ever find out their parents wished they hadn’t come along, but it happens a lot.

    So many reasons why I am joyfully childfree…and even if there weren’t, the following would be enough:
    “the “carbon legacy” of just one child can produce 20 times more greenhouse gas than a person will save by driving a high-mileage car, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, etc. Each child born in the United States will add about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent. ” (

    Thanks for the outlet :) And to answer your question, my relationship with my dogs is complex–sometimes like parent and child, but sometimes they feel like friends, mentors, colleagues, therapists. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.

  12. It’s just not the same thing. I have dogs because I love their “doggyness”: the way they bound towards you, the feel of fur against my skin, even that cozy doggy smell. I want to raise a family because I love the look in a child’s eye when they discover something new, the sincerity in their voice when they learn a lesson and apologize. I love that through a child’s eyes, everything seems new. Having dogs is no substitute for having children and having children is no substitute for having dogs. It’s like comparing apples & oranges.

  13. I had dogs before I had kids, now I have kids and dogs.
    What they each give to me is different and unique.
    Have the kids ever accused me of loving the dogs more than them? Of course! I don’t make the dogs clean their room! I am way easier on the dogs than the kids and the dogs show me more love than the kids do:))))))))))

  14. I’m at the point where I’m not sure if I want to have kids. My fiance isn’t sure if HE wants kids either. We’re both unsure.

    Having Elka is, in many ways, like having a child. Is she a child surrogate for me? I don’t really think so. Maybe? I’ve wanted a dog my entire life. Puppies never fail to make me melt. Children? Well, I like kids that are cool. I don’t crave a child, though, the way some people do.

    One of the libraries in my system has that book…I’ve reserved it. Let’s see if I like it as well!

  15. Oh I have a human so what does that mean? Are my peeps substitute puppies? Yikes what a thought. Have a fabulous Friday Pam!
    Best wishes Molly

  16. I come from the incredibly maternal I-want-to-have-babies clan for sure. Is my dog my child? Yes and no.

    Some friends and relatives have young children between the ages of 3 and 4, and by god they irritate me sometimes! The child is a pure reflection of their parents, so maybe I’m like my mother, a strict hardass who can’t stand an inch of disobedience in a child. It sounds bad but I prefer my dog to these children. He never argues back, he is a good friend and whilst being a baby is infinitely more mature. You get the best of both worlds.

    I do plan to have children, but only once my dog is old enough. Yep I’ve taken that into consideration! He is part of the family, and whilst he may be “like” my child, he is and he isn’t. If we’re saying what he is? Companion. We live together, we keep each other company. I mother him a little because he needs me. He can’t buy dog food on amazon, so he needs me. But he needs me emotionally, socially too – but that isn’t essentially a mother child relationship – it could be described as best friends. I always say to him we’re a team, and we are.

    He does not replace the part of my heart reserved for my children, but they cannot replace the part of my heart reserved for my dog.

  17. When we got Silas, people assumed that he was our “starter” baby. That is, if we did okay with the puppy, we’d start popping out the human babies. And in a weird way, he reminded me of all the things I really, really dislike about children. Noise? Bodily fluids where they don’t belong? Irrationality? Yep. But I also have more patience with him than I’ve ever had with a human child. Still not enough that I’d win a mommy of the year award. In fact, I think I’ll post the housetraining story on my blog tomorrow, and you’ll see what I mean.

  18. Great discussion, truly. I am sorry I couldn’t get here until today. You’ve asked a lot of the questions my friends and I – all childless but with pets – ask each other on a regular basis. My dog is not a substitute for a child, not in the slightest. The two are mutually exclusive for me and if I ever do decide to have children I am sure my relationship with my child would be completely different than the one I enjoy with my dog.

    I look on my dog as a companion, a partner, a teammate. She has a personality but she can only make so many decisions of her own and she will never be expected to be more than what she is. A child grows up, becomes more independent, forms his or her own opinions and goes out into the world. I will always be responsible for my dog’s behaviour but there will come a time where I won’t be able to control a child’s. Perhaps that is part of why parenting is so terrifying. Dog ownership gets easier as the dog gets older, not so with children.

  19. It’s important for people to remember that dogs are not people. We might love them just as much–or more than– some people. lol. We just have to remember that dogs have needs, feelings, emotions, even desires, that are not the same as a child’s…but need to be understood and respected on their own, on an individual dog basis. Adopting a dog to fill a void, as long as you don’t expect your dog to solve your problems, is a valid enough reason to get a dog. We got Kelly when I empty nested. She didn’t take the place of my kids, but she sure has been a welcome addition to the family.

  20. Deborah Austin says:

    I just visited to order your book but it’s not in eBook form yet – so I will have to try to be patient and wait.

    Best wishes!

  21. I love this post. Dogs are dogs, and kids are kids. Although there is nurturing involved in both relationships, they are very different. It’s shortchanging your dog to just view him or her as a furry child instead of appreciating the canine-human bond and how special it truly is. :)

  22. Great post! I think for people who don’t have dogs, explaining to them that I love mine like they are my children is a way of expressing the deep devotion I have for them – but that doesn’t mean I think they’re a substitute for kids. I’ve never had a desire to have kids of my own, but I’ve always known that I’m not a whole person without a dog in my life.

  23. Madai Miller says:

    This post is amazing. It so fully and perfectly describes my feelings, it’s almost as if I wrote it myself. Thank you especially for those opening lines. I don’t think people realize how lunch pain they inflict when asking about one’s plans to have children. I love my dog very very much and give her the very best I can, but she can never take the place of a human child. But she does ease the pain of being childless in her own way. That is what is so precious about dogs – they can comfort us in almost any circumstance. Really lovely post. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind remarks. As someone who is childless by choice I worried about being sensitive to people whose choice about children was made for them.

      So glad you liked the post. And so glad you have a furry friend to nurture and love.

  24. Well I know my answer, I don’t want kids and neither does my husband, but I do want dogs. Dogs are not a child substitute, and I say this even when I call myself a pet parent and my dogs my babies. Sure they do fulfill some maternal/paternal needs to care for others but they are not children. If you really want a child a baby will never satisfy and if you really want a dog the same holds true.

    urban hounds


  1. […] [NOTE: See Pamela's thoughts about a pet as a substitute for a child as she discusses this book at Something Wagging This Way Comes.] […]