Monday, April 16, 2012

Why do Americans treat our pets like people?

[Does this photo look like cruelty to you? It does to me.]

As a new dog owner, I'm irritated by people treating their dogs like humans. American pet owners like to call our animals our "best friends" or the person we can always "talk to." But while you can talk to an animal, all it can do is its best to read your emotional state and try to respond as appropriate. I prefer human best friends. Ones that talk.

Although many pet owners don't like to think of ourselves as "owners," we are owners. Most of us paid good money for these animals and hold the power of life and death over them. Our animals are not our equals, however we might live in the fantasy that they are. They aren't going to grow up one day and take their seat beside us in decision-making and family-raising. They just animals. Yes, I said "just."

Here's my theory: Americans anthropomorphize our pets because we're lonely. We're a splintered society that has mostly forgotten how to build community, nurture friendships and tolerate our families in close quarters. We don't get sufficient emotional intimacy or physical touch from each other, so we turn to animals. In past centuries, people used dogs for guarding, herding or hunting. These days in the U.S. most dogs are there to be our companions.

We draw on pets to fill in for the children or friends or partners we wish we had (even if the children, friends or partners actually exist in our lives). Pets boost our esteem and help our depression. We stroke their fur and hold them close because that makes us feel better. We tell ourselves our animals love us back and feel about us the same way we feel about them.

They don't. Humans practice "love" in all kinds of different ways, many of them fear-based and self-destructive. We would really have to stretch the definition of "love" to make it apply to how animals feel towards us. I've seen evidence that our dog trusts us and feels loyal to us, but does Ozzie "love" as humans practice love? I haven't seen it and I'm glad. Human love is often harmful in ways that the trust and loyalty of a pet aren't.

But the idea of a pure and nurturing love is irresistible to us, so we call our animals' licking and rubbing and companionship "love." The problem is that if we call what animals do "loving," then we must find another name for what humans do, which is complicated, with hundreds of nuances and reasons. Americans wear each other out with the twisted behaviors we call "loving." Love is one of the most destructive forces we use on each other. Maybe what our animals are doing is the ideal of unconditional acceptance and devotion that humans aren't very good at. We need unconditional love in our lives and, unable to get it from each other, we draw it from our pets.

There are so many lonely Americans with no idea how to connect with other humans in an intimate and meaningful way. The modern dog's main job is no longer guarding or herding or hunting. Their jobs are now better described as being the child I haven't had yet, or keeping me from feeling lonely or reducing my pain and helping me sleep at night. These are the kinds of jobs American pets have. Is that good? Is it bad? It sounds emotionally vampiric to me, but what do I know? I've only been a dog owner for six months.

I understand that people have similar relationships to their pets in other developed countries like the U.K and Japan. Is this a developed nation phenomenon? Can anyone weigh in from outside the U.S?

[Addendum 10 April 2013: Maybe Americans have brought the working dog into our homes to serve as a source of and model for the kind of unfailing respect and love we wish humans would practice. We've started to replace each other with dogs, making dogs our surrogate partners, children, etc. There are Americans who believe dogs make ideal humans, but I think those people just don't like humans.]


Mick said...

Dogs are one thing but never date a Cat owner unless you are happy to be number two, lol.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Uh, okay. Thanks, Mick.

Isis said...

I have working dogs. They do a job for me; I feed them. Despite this agreement, I’ve fallen in love with them. Do they love me? I dunno that it matters. I know they go out of their way to please me and that they have a preference for me, even though I’m not the Alpha in the household (which is regrettable). They’re very uncomfortable if I’m sad. They’re aggressive if I’m threatened. If I stop stroking them, they whine and nudge me. But that’s not me anthropomorphizing; that’s just me observing these beasts and finding it cool or interesting. Now, the beauty is in muddling through the fact that we are two different species, but that strong emotion (love, maybe) might come through in some of these interactions- despite its improbability- like in a “boy and his horse” story. This happened throughout history and it’s pretty well-documented. Kings and leaders and clergy used dogs to work, and fell in love with them. Ancient Egyptians shaved their heads to mourn their dogs’ passing, and it was buried in the family tomb!
I think what might not make sense to me and you is acting this way toward animals and ignoring our responsibility to humans who need love and attention- the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the republican. I’ve no use for people who only like animals and excessively “pamper” (abuse) them. They are ridiculous. I myself don’t feel ridiculous loving my dogs. My whole day is spent in service; and if I didn’t have pit bulls I’d want them to take on additional responsibilities as service dogs for the people with disabilities whom I serve. Every single dog I’ve loved has been a service animal (except Sushi who was very disabled himself). So, I get your angle, I think- I just think throughout the ages people and dogs have sort of co-evolved and whatever the connection- it’s pretty strong.
Swear to God, as I typed this my 88 pounder jumped on my lap; placed her head on my shoulder; sighed and licked my ear gently. That means she’s hungry.

Isis said...

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Isis - Thanks for your comments. Yes, humans and dogs evolved together to fit seamlessly as hunters, protectors and companions. I find this dynamic fascinating and am regularly impressed by how well our dog understands what we want him to know. I look with bafflement at people who think dogs reason, emote, draw conclusions and retain grudges the way humans do. Dog minds are completely different from ours. Why do some dog lovers need to believe they're similar?

Everyone - I'm disappointed that no one pointed out the hypocrisy of my feeling disgusted with Americans who treat dogs like people, when I recently took my dog to an Easter egg hunt! Did NO one catch that one??

Okay, I'll pretend someone did. Taking my dog to an Easter egg hunt is consistent with a dog's natural desire to socialize, hunt and eat. Stuffing an animal into a costume that blocks natural actions like hearing, peeing and scratching does not serve the dog in any way and just seems mean.

red rabbit said...

My dog smiles and definitely holds grudges, and has favorite toys. I once knew a couple whose intelligent English setter went and sat in traffic when they were having a nasty, relationship ending argument. It sure looked and felt like a suicide. I'm no expert, but I've been around dogs for decades. Some of them have big personalities.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Red Rabbi - thanks for your comment. I wrote that dogs don't hold grudges "the way humans do." Dogs definitely retain impressions of people and an emotional record of the past that causes them to act as if they're holdng a grudge in a human way, but they're not. They're retaining lessons from past experiences and acting accordingly, in a dog way.

Anonymous said...

stupid blog...we like our pets..

you are a moron..who cares what you think

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Anonymous - thank you for your comment.

Jetaime Lopez-Parker said...

People think this is cute and funny but its not. The reality is we are ruining the pet and ourselves. They are not human if they were or you want them to be adopt a child. Here is the sick part. Someone will get on and justify in a hypocritical way why they cant adopt a child but they can treat their dog as if he/she was one. It is not sanitary to live as a pack leader. Do you wipe your dogs butt? No but you sure let them lick your faces and sleep raw butthole on yourr furniture and bedding. All I hear is your not a pet owner you dont understand. No one addresses the facts. You all that are offended are pet owners. You just ignore the facts. The other is that humans are allowing dogs to come between relationships. You can love your animal but if you do human things with it you really truly do need a therapist. Dogs are dogs. If they arent then tell me why you didnt just adopt a child to treat like a human?

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thanks, Jetaime. I think American conflate a lot of relationships. I've seen people who wanted their workplaces to be like a family and who wanted their husbands to act like their girlfriends. We treat children like friends and parents like children and dogs like whatever we need them to. That said, I do LIKE dogs, but as dogs, not as people.