Sophie Penson has never known family life without a dog. Right now she shares her home with Bernie, an Australian shepherd, and Basket, a terrier mix, and she’s planning to adopt a border collie mix named Duckie. The Pensons are a poster family for dog lovers – among many thousands of families in metro Atlanta who can’t imagine life without at least one tail-wagger.

The Pensons, East Cobb

Who: Jimmy and Nicole Penson and Sophie, almost 13.

Friends with a Tail: Bernie, an 11-or 12-year-old Australian shepherd, and Basket, a 10-or 11-year-old terrier mix, and an assortment of foster dogs that have spent weeks or months with them over the years. Duckie, a 2-year-old border collie mix, will soon join the family.

Who Cares for Them: The whole family takes care of providing meals and water and occasional walks for Bernie and Basket, and for the foster dog visitors. Sophie has a small dog agility course she’s set up in the backyard to play with and train the dogs, and she hopes to move into agility sports with Duckie.

What Makes Their Dogs Special: “Well, I just love training them – they’re real lovers, best friends,” Sophie says. “They’re just there for you, they make you a little bit happier.” Jimmy Penson adds, “Having a dog with kids is a great bonding experience.”

What Dogs Can Mean for Children: “I had dogs growing up from age 10 on,” Nicole says. “It was huge for me because I was an only child and had no playmates – the dogs were my best friends! I talked to them, read to them and treated them like my BFFs!”

The Masons, Lakeside

Who: Rick and Pam Mason, and Sarah, 13, and Alexander, 10

Friend with a Tail: Pepsi, 7, a female purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who joined the household 10 months ago. Pepsi was a show dog and used for breeding, so she came housetrained and knew commands. “We did not name her,” Pam says with a laugh. “We would never name a dog for a non-Cola product!”

Who Cares for Her: Alexander feeds her and makes sure she’s let outside. Pepsi is not fond of baths, so both kids help Rick or Pam bathe her. Pam takes her on daily walks, often joined by Alexander. “Pepsi loves walks, and Alexander usually comes with me – that’s been a very nice time together for us,” Pam says.

About Life with a Dog: “I was pleasantly surprised,” says Pam, who’s never had a doggie companion and was reluctant to acquire one. “She doesn’t bark in the house; she doesn’t shed much; she’s not a puppy so she doesn’t chew on things. She’ll let you know if she needs something – when she wants out, she stands by the door.”

What Makes Their Dog Special: “She gives you so much love and companionship. I can’t imagine life without her now,” Pam says. “It’s so sweet to have a nice companion at your feet.” When the Masons acquired Pepsi, the breeders offered to take her back, no questions asked, if Pepsi didn’t work out. “That’ll never happen,” Pam says. “She’s part of our family.”

The Marks, Dunwoody

Who: Jeremy and Melanie Marks, and Jonah, 11, Jack, 8, and Garon, 6.

Friend with a Tail: Goldie, 1 ½ , a purebred Golden Doodle, adopted as a 7-week-old puppy.  The boys begged for a dog, and got one after they pledged to keep their rooms tidy and their toys picked up. Melanie wanted a small, hypoallergenic dog to take with her anywhere, while Jeremy wanted a larger dog. Goldie is both – a 55-pound dog that sometimes rides on Melanie’s hip.

Who Cares for Her: Melanie taught Goldie house training and basic commands, with a little help from a trainer. Jeremy or Melanie, and sometimes Jonah, feed her. Jeremy takes her on walks, and the family goes hiking with her or to dog parks or outside to play. Everybody gives her hugs.

About Life with a Dog: Melanie describes her family as “five real people and Goldie, she’s one of the family.” Goldie goes everywhere, she rides in the carpool, goes to sporting events, visits the grandparents, hangs out with the family’s friends and neighbors and goes into stores. When Goldie  sits quietly in a shopping cart, people sometimes do a double-take, at first thinking she’s a stuffed toy animal.

What Makes Their Dog Special: “She’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Melanie says. “We have more family time, take a lot more hikes. The kids want her included in everything, they look at her as a sister, not as a dog.” Goldie also brings smiles when she’s out and about. “People come up to me and say they’ve had a really bad day and they really needed to pet a dog,” Melanie says.

The Kestertons, Sandy Springs

Who: Bill and Traci Kesterton and Ellie, 13, and Molly, almost 11.

Friend with a Tail: Finley, a 7 ½-year-old, 22-pound purebred West Highland Terrier. He joined the family at age 4 months, after the girls started asking for a puppy. They researched breeds to figure out which ones were smart and best with children. Traci, who had a dog as a child, trained Finley.

Who Cares for Him: Traci primarily feeds Finley, and takes him on long walks or runs several times a week. Ellie and Molly like to bathe him – “they get him all perfumed up, he’s like a little doll to them,” Traci says. Finley, of course, prefers his doggie smell.

About Life with a Dog: “Owning a dog is a lot of responsibility. You can’t just pick up and go, you have some lifestyle changes,” Traci says, and she hopes people consider carefully when deciding if a dog – and which dog – is right for their family. “But they give you so much unconditional love, it’s worth it.” The family loves Finley right back.

What Makes Their Dog Special: “Finley’s got a killer personality,” Traci says. “He’s really smart – that was one of the things that drew me to the breed. He tilts his head when he’s listening – he understands a lot.” He sits at Traci’s feet when she’s blow-drying her hair, then quickly leaves if the hair spray can comes out. That’s not to say Finley’s perfect – he whines in the car, he tries to take on bigger dogs and show them who’s boss, he tries to get into mischief if he thinks no one is looking. “I know what his short-comings are,” Traci says. “I accept his, and he accepts mine.”

– Amanda Allen

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