Monday, February 19, 2007

Dog is not a four letter word

Very dear friends of mine became parents today. At 2:30am they delivered a baby girl; a beautiful, healthy, precious bundle of joy who will enrapture them and wind their hearts around her little finger. They're first time parents so when my husband and I told them, repeatedly, that their whole life was about to change they nodded and agreed, but anyone could see that behind their smiles they didn't truly understand the brevity of their old life or the upheaval they will soon be experiencing in their new one. And that's fine - no one can really prepare you for something in which you have no experience with - but there is one big red flag that waved at me from behind their heads when we have had these discussions and it troubles me.

You see, this new baby girl will be brought into a home where two very pampered cats and one much doted on dog already live and reign with velvet covered iron paws. As their friend, a person with more than a few years of pet ownership and a handful of years of experience training dogs under her belt, I felt it was my obligation to tell them that not only will their lives change but that their pets' lives would change too. When I have told them this their smiles widened and I got a knowing look.

"Oh, nothing will change. We'll still love them and treat them exactly the same as we do now."

Those of us who love animals and owned animals before we were parents know the feelings we had/have for these beloved pets. They were our first babies; we bought them special treats and took them on pet-friendly outings. We visited dog bakeries looking for just the right all-natural cookies and bought the finest collars and leashes. Dog daycare, veterinarian-approved boarding kennels, and grooming bills that rivaled our own, we spared little expense. Surely, the love we felt for these animals could not be eclipsed.

And then the baby came. Wow. It's amazing how some things can change.

In my line of work I hear countless stories of "problem dogs" who, according to their owners, were wonderful before the kids came but then started acting out when a new baby was brought into the house. Stories of people who feel the need to give up their dogs because they just can't handle the extra work. What they don't realize, or don't want to recognize, is that these problems could have been avoided. And it makes me sad, really sad.

These people, my friends included, also don't realize that it's not their dog's problem. It's theirs. People are the cause of more dog behavior problems than you might think. Would you like to know why? Because dog owners are not treating their dogs like dogs but like little furry children.

It's commonly called "anthropomorphism",or "the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to nonhuman organisms or inanimate objects." Dog owners commonly attribute human behavior to their dogs. Love, malice, jealousy and revenge are human motivations and behaviors that dogs know nothing about, at least not in a human way, but we insist on believing otherwise and that is very dangerous. For both us and our dogs.

Let me give you an example. My friends, the soon-to-be-new parents, told me when I asked where their dog would be sleeping (to paraphrase):

He'll continue sleeping on the bed with us, we don't want to hurt his feelings.

Hurt his feelings? I saw red flags popping up all over the place. What happens when the baby comes home and their dog, a very friendly and very large Golden Retriever, wants to cuddle? I can tell you what I think will happen, before long that dog will be unceremoniously kicked off the bed and off the couch. His feelings won't be hurt, but he'll be confused as hell and if you ask me that is really not fair. Not that he'll be relegated to the floor but because his life as he knows it will change, quickly. And that's just one way that his life will change. Will his owners spend as much time petting and stroking him? Probably not. Will they cut his walks short on occasion? Probably. And in countless other small ways his life will change, but they're not preparing him. They're going to lavish attention on him right up until the end, thinking that they're doing right by him. But they're not. It's like pulling the rug out from under someone who's not looking. Not fair.

Another example of anthropomorphism, at its most blatant (and used very effectively, if I do say so myself), is the latest Pedigree commercial. Why does that commercial cut us to the core when we see it? Well, aside from the dulcet tones of David Duchovny's voice, the music, and the ridiculously cute canine faces, it's the narrative. The dog is talking to us.

"I know how to sit, how to fetch and how to roll over. What I don't know is how I ended up in here. But I know that I am a good dog and I just want to go home."

Don't feel bad if that commercial strikes a raw nerve in you. It's supposed to. But think of it this way - does a dog know good from bad? Not really, not in the way that we do. Good and Bad are abstract qualities that a dog would never think about, mainly because it doesn't have the intelligence to do so.

Mata H., a contributor at Blogher, wrote better than I could why this commercial gets to us in the psychological sense, so I'll let you go over there and see what she's written. In short, however, we see ourselves in the dog. Yes, I am a good boy/good girl. I don't deserve what was done to me. We're, in part, rescuing a part of ourselves when we rescue these dogs.

But what do my friends and their dog have to do with this Pedigree commercial? I do believe that my friends and others like them are treating their dogs in the manner in which they themselves want to be treated.

Let's get down to the irony. Why do you think so many of those dogs ended up in those pounds and shelters to begin with? A good number end up there because people put heavy burdens on these animals that they could never live up to. Dogs act, for lack of a better term, dogish. They are dogs who pull and bark and dig. Dogs who jump on our clean clothes with muddy, scratchy paws. Or dogs who don't come when they're called. They're dogs who are expected to live in a human world but were never properly taught how to do that.

Not fair.

I don't expect that the dog belonging to my friends will end up in a pound. For all of their naiveté they do truly love him and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep him happy. And the best part is that they've taken the years they had with him before the baby to give him as much training as possible. I'm just afraid that some damage will be done in their desperate attempt to keep him happy. Because, in the end, they are doing these things, for good or bad, out of love.

The love of dogs is a heady emotion for those of us who feel as if we can't live without one and the Pedigree commercial is extremely persuasive. But before you rush out to adopt the first cute face and wagging tail that sits before you in your local animal shelter after watching that commercial for the hundredth time please remember this...

You're getting a dog, not a mini version of your damaged psyche, if I may be so blunt. You're bringing an animal, with all of his or her canine behaviors - for better or for worse - into your home and into your lives. The least you can do is make a concerted effort to make that transition as easy as possible. And whether you're adopting a dog or already have one at home, do everyone a favor - yourself, the dog, the workers at the pound - please treat the dog with respect.

Treat him like a dog.


cooler*doula said...

Ah, that Mrs Chicky. She's funny, she's smart. I do like to visit. No doggies here - I love me a hound, but Lord knows I lack the energy for dog AND toddler. We visit the neighbor's dog instead.

Julie Pippert said...

I am so ready to be erudite on this issue that all I can squeeze out is

oh YES



How eloquent. ;)

I've always said, "It's a DOG...a real, live, living, breathing DOG, not a room accent or outfit accessory."

But I like, "it's a dog, not a mini version of your damaged psyche" much, much better. ;)

Someday, ask me to share (offline God help me) a story of a relative who got a dog...and how that ended.

The more we have to spread ourselves across our dependents, the more they have to accept a bit of compromise of us. And the more we have to accept that all things can't be equal.

Life is different for my pets after we added in the kids. However, we take our responsibility and do our best to set up for success.

GL to your friends!

mo-wo said...

I love dogs. I love them being dogs. It is really irritating to me when then can't live their lives out as nature intented but instead get anthropomorphized as you say.

Happens really often these days. Too often.

great post! and I usually can't read longer posts!

Anonymous said...

Oh if only we lived closer to you...You'd have my dog behaving so nicely....

I love this post. And I so know what you are saying.

They are in for a rude is the dog.

Irreverent Antisocial Intellectual said...

You mean carrying your pup arond in your purse is wrong? :-)

Mamacita Tina said...

See, yet again, you confirm my suspicions that my family needs to wait on getting a dog. I don't have the time or the desire, and the kids really don't have a clue yet. It's just my husband who keeps pushing it, and yet he won't be the one home on a daily basis to deal with it. A dog is a responsibility that should be shared by all of us, and until the kids are actually old enough to be asking for one, we can wait.

Heather said...

It's all about the pack hierarchy, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been volunteering in animal rescue for many years, I can't tell you how it makes me apoplectic - HOMOCIDAL even - when people call up the rescue (or show up at the pound, etc) to say that they have had a child and now don't have time for their dog... that they've had for three years, or eight years. God.

Why don't people ever get rid of their first child b/c they had a second? Or even better, get rid of their kid because they decided to get a puppy. I'd like to see that one.

Thanks for the blog, sister. You are wise in the way of dogdom.

Anonymous said...

Ack. That would be "homicidal". I have nothing against the homosexual lifestyle...

Kristi said...

That was great. I hope your friends and their animals have an easy transition. With the right attitude and discipline everyone can be happy. We have a wonderful lab, but sadly a three-legged one, who is the best family dog EVER. Yes, she is last in line these days, but she has adapted well to having four children to watch out for. At 10 1/2 years, she has made her place in our hearts forever.

Fairly Odd Mother said...

A-men to all of this. My two cats were my first kids, yet they have had to make such a huge adjustment since the kids have come along. We've had some rough patches but I would never give up on them! It broke my heart every time a family pet was brought into the shelter (I used to volunteer) b/c the family no longer had 'time' for the pet. I also get upset when parents adopt a pet and expect a 6 year old, or 10 year old or teen to 'take care of it' exclusively! What are they thinking?!?!?

Anonymous said...

That breaks my heart. We lucked out and have the best dog in the world and somedays even that feels like too much to handle and his need to for attention, the fraction of what he used to get drives me nuts.

Blog Antagonist said...

Oh jeez, I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. I guess I am a hopeless antrhropomorphizer. I love that word.
Anyway....I have cats, always have, but as the first of many of our friends to have children, we often heard things like "Oh, I know...Bubbles is so picky about his food too!" when I was talking about my child. It drove me crazy. They are dogs. Beautiful, sweet, loving and loyal, but still dogs.

Great wisdom in that post Chicky.

Which prompts me to ask...whatever happened to your business venture? You clearly have the know-how to make it work.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear. Boy, did you nail it.

Thank you for reminding me that I'm still not ready for a pet. I don't know when I will be, but I'll do my darnedest to live up to what you've written here.

Creative-Type Dad said...

Oh my God. You must know about 4 friends of mine who just had their first baby.

I don't understand why people put that burden on animals to be humans. It's so crazy!

Unknown said...

Buh-RILL-EEE-Ant! You really nailed it, Chicky. Boy, I think every single shelter in the world ought to hand this out to perspective pet guardians.

This is exactly why we still don't have a dog, although I want on so badly that I can actually feel doggie longing. That damn Pedigree commercial makes me cry every time I see it. It's good! But we just can't take on a dog now. Our one Worthless Pet of the feline variety is more than enough work for our family.

Bravo for this post! It's excellent.

Rachel Briggs said...

fantastic post!

I work for a National Animal Welfare Charity in the UK, and we get loads of animals brought in with the "simple" explanation "I've just had a baby".

And???? Didn't you consider the impact that might have during the whole 9 months of pregancy? Silly me, of course not!

Kids and babies can work beautifully together - my son's relationship with our two dogs is wonderful. The other day we were talking about things you cannot buy with money. I said "love". My son surprised me by saying you could buy love with money. "What do you mean"? I asked. "Well, he said, you can buy a dog, that's the only way love can be bought". I thought that was pretty great!

how else can we teach the adults of the future about the joy of owning and properly caring for their dog?

But you are so right - remember the dog is a dog, and treat him/her accordingly...

Avalon said...

This piece of brilliance written the day after my 26 month old Male tried to steal an entire dish of cooked chicken from the stove. my Mother was furious, calling him " sneaky". I not-so-gently reminded her that HE is a Dog and she is supposed to be the responsible human! Bravo Mrs. C!

Redneck Mommy said...

Bravo Chicky! Bravo!

Although, I take issue with the whole "furry little children" line. As we all know that is really what my chitlen are. How could they not be with my DNA flowing through them?!

I thought long and hard before I brought Nixon, the World's Greatest Dog, Ever. into our home and our lives. I knew I needed someone to help me grieve and to cope, but I also knew that a dog is just a dog.

Thankfully, we've got the hierarchy thing down pat, mainly because my husband is an emotionless ass, I mean wise man.

Nixon is at the bottom of the food chain and he is happy he is there. And so are we.

I hope your friend's pooch adjusts well.

Kate said...

Excellent commentary. Your observations on our relationships with our pets "pre-kids" is dead on. I have had my cat now for over 12 years, and we were attached at the hip until my first son was born. She's turned into a grumpy old "mewt" as we call her, but I do try to cuddle with her and give her well-needed attention. She used to sit on my lap on the couch on lazy Saturday afternoons. Those were the days.

She's a little cranky, so she doesn't co-mingle with the kids too well. I don't have any idea what a dog would be like, but I can say that I had no plans of giving her up when I had my kids. That would be just plain mean.

Mama en Fuego said...

Best thing I did was make my husband read a book about preparing our dogs for the baby. Our dogs love our daughter, they are very careful and loving around her. Now if I could only get them to sit the first time I tell them to. LOL

Anonymous said...

I learned to treat our beloved dog like a dog from one of my fave shows The Dog Whisperer ...

gingajoy said...

yep. that little Dog Whisperer dude really knows his stuff. We were lucky enough to get a dog *after* we saw the show, so we've not fallen into too many bad habits.

My dog is 95lbs and all muscle. If we didn't have a pack mentality with her low on the totem, I'd be toast. Hell she even submits to my 4 year old when he commands "DROP" when she's taking off with his heffalump.

The Domesticator said...

True, true, true, Mrs. C.
We had our dog for six years before the first kid came along. We made every effort to help him adjust to the new family member. We let him smell and lick the baby, which my parents found appauling. But, we never wanted him to feel slighted, and we wanted him to accept the baby as part of "the pack". It worked because our expectations were realistic, and we planned for it. I wish everyone did.

Binky said...

My husband's friend actually asked us several times if we were going to get rid of our dog once our baby was born. I was completely shocked by the question. I think it was more a commentary on him than on his perception of us as cruel and unusual people, so I let it slide. We've worked hard to make our household a happy place for all inhabitants, and so far, so good.

Jenni said...

We had our pets before we had kids, but they were always pets. Our dog is a wonderful playmate for the kids, but he is still a dog. When I recently told a friend that we would not be allowing the dog into our new house (only the mudroom and basement), she was appalled. She seemed to think that if we treated a dog like a dog then we were, well, dogs. Can't win.

Ericka said...

spot on! i've frequently wondered what was wrong with us as a society that we consider it okay to treat pets as people. we're not doing anyone any favors with it.

i have 2 cats. i love them dearly. but, they are cats. through painful experience, i've learned that if you call your animals "furbabies" or have anything in your house proclaiming cats as "little people in fur coats," we are probably not going to get along, 'cause you're probably nuts.

i had an acquaintance who lives in hawaii get nasty with me the other day because we were debating her allowing her cat to roam free outside. i feel it's irresponsible in the extreme given hawaii's designation as "world capital of endangered species" to allow a hunter like a cat free to snack at will. she actually said, in all seriousness, that HER cat only hunted "non-native rats and millipedes" and it was okay to let him roam. *headdesk*

sorry for the length. you hit a nerve. adds credibility to my thought that most people are idiots who shouldn't be breeding anyway.

Mama en Fuego said...

{{GASP}} Jill said the name that should not be ...well named.

I'm going to go hide now.

Damselfly said...

I know our poor cats' lives haven't been the same since our baby came along. It's tough when your baby wants to be held all the time. It's hard to lean over or squat down to pet them when you're holding a baby. And I really don't want their hair on my baby's things, so I keep them off him and his things. They've been pretty good about that.

kittenpie said...

Oh, god, I feel for our cats soemtimes. The look of desperation in their eyes is pathetic to behold, and no amount of evening after-bedtime lap time is quite enough.

Chicky Chicky Baby said...

DB - your comment made me giggle.

But I'm trying not to hate on anyone who loves He Who Speaks Too Softly and carries a big PR team. As long as they recognize the truth in what's left for the viewers to see after all the editing, and leave the rest of it for the pooper scooper, I'm okay with that.

Sparky Duck said...

I cant help it, my 2 little furballs are parts of my psyche because I have one damaged psyche :)

Anonymous said...

This is a really great post. You should really consider submitting it for publication somewhere.

Debbie said...

I really, REALLY dig this post - I mean, hell, hell yes. It's so true.

I even tried to spell it out for some friends who were just engaged recently, and had gotten a puppy, I mean, I spelled it o.u.t. I explained how we'd sort of ruined our dog, 'cause we treated her like our baby, and now she's been shunted to the sidelines and doesn't get it and we're all sort of devastated about it, and they just looked at me and smiled gently, as if to say, "um, yes, maybe, but we would never do that to *our* sweet, little princess doggy." and that's when I knew I was wasting my time.


Major Bedhead said...

Well said, Mrs. Chicky.

I have a dog. She's a great dog. She listens to me (most of the time). But I treat her like a dog, not like a furry person. My sister and her partner have a dog who is totally neurotic, won't walk on linoleum floors, freaks and trembles and stands in corners if you so much as look at her cross-eyed and they do nothing about it except baby talk to her and try to coax her and baby her and it drives me crazy. They are amazed when I tell my dog to lie down and she does, when I tell her to sit and she does.

I wish more people took your advice.

ms blue said...

You got to love when dear friends become parents. Congrats to them!

You write the hard truth wisely. It is difficult for people to not humanize the things we love. I still can't help but place intelligent, philosophical thoughts running through a pet's mind. It is more fun to think of poodles weighing in on Freudisms when they bark.

Deb said...

Okay I agree with you. I hate that I do, but I do because I humanize all things that I love, even my car. But not to the extent that I do my kitty-kitty and my puppy dog.

I too am expecting my first child so this really got me thinking, because I worry a lot about when the baby comes home, what will change and how will it effect my puppy dog. So you said a lot and I may have missed it, what do you suggest doing to make the transition easier, other than treating the dog like a dog?

Anonymous said...

We have many pets and our dog baby. He thinks he's one of the kids, I am sure. I had a Westie when my first child was born and she scooted over in the bed to make room for him when he jumped in. She wasn't too happy about it, but we were careful and everyone co-existed just fine. Our current dog came from the Humane Society when my oldest was 4, the twins almost 3. He's great with them, probably because they were here first, but he definitely thinks he's my child, too.

I guess I just wanted to say that in maybe 1%, they can be babied and sleep with you and get along with the whole family, too. Even with new babies. Mine are so much a part of my life that I'd never dream of getting rid of one due to a change in our family. They ARE family.