Then Give Me Another Word for It

I wrote this in response to an article "Fur Kids? Paw Parents?" by Stormy Hope, published in the GSD Review and on-line by CaPROC. The article criticised those who talk about dogs (pets generally) as being family members, "fur kids", etc and those who criticise dog breeders for breeding and competing.
This type of attempt to reduce pets to the status of inanimate objects has continued, largely I think as part of a very misguided effort to protect dog breeding and dog ownership from any kind of regulation.


(if you don't like parental metaphors)

by Pam Green, © Nov 2013

In "Diamonds and Rust" Joan Baez sings (to Bob Dylan) "now you're saying you're not nostalgic. Then give me another word for it, you who're so good with words"

The article "Fur Kids ? Paw Parents?" by Stormy Hope seems to be arguing against the use of terms that describe dogs as "friends" or "family members" or as "companions" to humans and that describe humans as being more like "parents" than owners of their dogs. She believes that use of such terms plays into the hands of those seeking to end ownership of pets. I disagree !!!.

I say "then give me another word for it". Because I believe that words that emphasize people's feelings of affection , protection, and responsibility for their dogs (and for other "non-human companion animals" ) are words we should embrace as being words that show how much we regard our dogs as beloved sentient creatures under our protection, rather than as mere possessions that are owned in the way a couch or toaster oven or tennis raquet is owned. Words of affection, protection , and responsibility are our very best arguements for why our dogs are better off with us than they would be turned back into the wild or made extinct via universal sterilization.


"Fur kids" and "pet parents" may seem to juvenilize dogs, but really it's tremendously common for people to describe their dog as "a member of the family" or as "my best friend" or "my buddy". Children often describe the dog as "friend" or as a sibling ("sister", "brother"). Ask the next hundred people you see in public with their dog to describe the relationship in 25 words or less and those are the concepts that you will hear, along with with "companionship" as their chief reason for having a dog. Yes, indeed the dog is "a being who often accompanies the person", with whom that person spends time , who shares activities that are enjoyed by both. Surveys show that something like 95% of people say they talk to their dogs . They don't talk to their sofa or their toaster oven (though they may swear at their computer). The dog is a sentient being whose company is often comforting and enjoyable, even joyful .

The term "parenting" as an analogy or metaphor is really a pretty good one, as it implies that the parent has the welfare of the child/dog as a very high priority, exercises authority benignly and protectively and always lovingly (albeit occasionally impatiently or frustratedly annoyed). (Note that Trish King wrote a pretty good book titled "Parenting Your Dog".) Granted there are some bad parents, ones who abuse or kill their human children ; we hear about this on the evening news all too often (also about kids who kill their parents) . But we almost all have that ideal image of what parenting should be : benign and loving and protective. Isn't that how we should regard our dogs ?

I say analogy or metaphor because that's what all these terms really are. No one who uses the term "parent" or "fur kid" really believes that she actually carried that dog in her belly for 9 months or 63 days. Male humans can consider themselves parents to human kids ("skin kids") without having carried them in their belly at all ; and when it comes to adoption or IVF-surrogacy, the belly was someone else's entirely.

There are other metaphors that can be appropriate alternatives to the parental metaphor . "Guardian" is the legal term for an adult who takes a parental responsibility for a sub-adult human (for whom the legal term is "ward" -- in case you were wondering --- a word only Batman fans may remember). One may also be guardian to an adult who is incompetent or unable to act for themselves. "Adopter" likewise denotes accepting a parental type of responsibility and affection. "Friend" seems to me to imply a mutual care-taking and relative equality, and that may be why this term is more likely to be used by children about their dog. Police officers , search and rescue workers, and livestock herdspersons are likely to use the term "partner", reflecting how essential the dog is to accomplishing a job as well as reflecting a mutual dependancy and care. (And, no, I don't think there is any confusion with the use of "partner" by gay couples.)

There's a few other terms not uncommonly used that didn't make it into Hope's article : "Heart Dog" , "Soul-mate", and (as I myself often described Chelsea and Bones) "the other half of my soul" .

As a rescue foster person who interviews adopter applicants, I WANT to hear the concept that the dog is a valued family member, an appreciated friend, good company. I NEED to hear something that reflects the concept that the human takes responsibility for the welfare of the dog and that it's a pleasure and priviledge to do so. Granted that if they use parent / child metaphors I do want to be sure they understand the cognitive differences between human child and dog, understand that the parental goal is for the human child to grow up and become self-sufficient and leave the parental home, etc but that the dog will remain dependant for life (usually shorter than the human child's period of dependancy), and perhaps some jokes about not having to save up a gazillion dollars for college tuition (though they'd better be saving up a lesser amount for future vet bills). Ideally there should also be awareness that dogs are superior to humans in some abilities, notably all things olffactory (and for herding heritage dogs, vast superiority in "reading" the intentions of livestock).

Now as to the worry that use of parent and child metaphors implies that a dog should have exactly the SAME rights (no one seems to mention responsibilities) as a child or as an adult human, that's totally out of line with the distinctions we already make regarding rights and responsibilities amoung different categories of humans. We do recognize many rights in a child, eg to be fed and nurtured and not abused, but we totally deny many others , generally on the grounds that a child lacks the ability to exercise those rights or priviledges responsibly. We don't let children under a certain age drive a car. We don't let children under a certain age drink alcohol. We don't let children under a certain age (varies with the state) marry , impliedly also that those children are too young to procreate and rear children. There are many decisions adults have a legal right to make that children don't. So why would any rational being argue that the rights and responsibilities of a dog would not also be limited based on the limits of their abilities. Dogs are similar to children in some ways but vastly different in others. Children are similar to adults in some ways but vastly different in others.


Hope seems to object to the term "rescue" on the grounds that this applies only to saving someone from great danger. Well, any dog in any public shelter IS in great danger, mortal danger, as the dog will be KILLED if not adopted in a timely fashion or if deemed unsuitable for adoption and goes unclaimed by a Rescue organization. "Put to sleep" does NOT mean lovingly tucked into beddy-bye with a good night story, to wake next morning to a healthy breakfast. So yes, you'd better believe that the person who adopts an animal from a shelter or from a Rescue (thus enabling the Rescue to take in another animal) has taken that dog or another one out of great danger. Likewise the Rescue person who bails a dog out of the shelter and the "foster home" who cares for the dog pending a "forever home" or "furever home" adoption have saved that dog from great danger. "Foster" implies a temporary (shorter or longer term) assumption of quasi-parental duties. "Forever" doesn't really mean forever litterally, as it's inevitable that both dog and human are not going to live forever, but it's a metaphor for a lasting commitment. I have sometimes used the phrase "till death do you part", though maybe that's a poor term to use considering how poorly it is lived up to in the human marriage context. ("if forever doesn't last forever, tell me what's forever for ?" asks the song.) I will admit that "furever" is a bit too cutesy for everyone's tastes.

Even if the shelter is genuinely "no kill" (as distinguished from not killing so long as the dog is deemed "adoptable", with later change of status possible and perhaps likely at a later date), the dog who does not get adopted will remain incarcerated for the rest of its life, not a very gratifying existance and one in which many go crazy. (The rare exceptions would be the few "sanctuary" situations that do provide an interesting and enjoyable life for animals that cannot be adopted). So again, the concept of being rescued from danger or misery is quite appropriate.

Now it can be a problem if the dog's adopter or new home uses the dog's unfortunate past, whether real or imagined, as an excuse to let the dog remain ill behaved. That does sometimes happen. Some kind hearted people let their admirable sense of empathy and compassion cause them to try to make up for the dog's real or imagined past suffering or abuse by showering the dog with uncritical love . In doing so they abdicate the parental responsibility of setting limits and teaching acceptable behaviors. "The past is prelude", merely prelude, ie the starting point from which progress must begin. "Start from where you are" : the past is relevant to devising a plan for change, but the future is yours to change, to change for mutual benefit of dog and human.

It is occasionally relevant to mention that a dog is only a few days or weeks out of the shelter or other situation or that the dog has only been with you a few weeks. I confess I sometimes say that when taking into public a new foster who is terribly underweight, but more often a tee shirt covers that evidence of bad past. (It's harder to hide obesity, and I've had a few of those to remedy.)

It's certainly relevant to tell an approaching person if a dog is timid with strangers or, worse, snappish. Doesn't matter if that's because of the dog's past or because of basic temperament. From that starting point, one works to improve the dog's outlook or to manage so as to prevent any unfortunate event from happening.


Hope objects that those wanting to limit dog breeding criticise breeders unfairly , criticise breeders for "forcing dogs to breed" and criticising breeders and many others for competing in dog shows and performance events.

"Force them to breed" ? Gee, more often we are preventing them from breeding (which provokes objections too), as mating is what comes all too naturally in species that have an estrus (obvious fertile period) . To be sure excessively frequent breeding or breeding too young is bad for any mammalian female (including human female, for whom forced breeding has been all too common in human history).

This goes back to the difference between responsible and ethical breeders, who in my view are quite rightly using terms like "breed preserver" , "breed improver", etc ("breed conservationist" would also be appropriate) and who emphasize their role as "mentor" to those who get dogs from them. ("Mentor" is also the role many Rescue/foster people take quite seriously. I used to occasionally say I would be my adopter's "fairy godmother", but I've dropped that one.). It's critcal that our good breeeders take every oppertunity to educate the general public to the standards for ethical breeding that promotes dog welfare versus the malpractices of the large scale ("mill") commercial breeders and the small scale ("backyard") commercial breeders and the "paper or plastic" or plastic breeders" (my term for the internet-advertising will-ship-anywhere-to-anyone-soon-as-your-check-clears breeders). As a rescue person I too try to contribute to this education of the public whenever someone talks to me about dogs.

By the way it's kind of interesting to me that Hope, a German Shepherd person, voices no breeding issue objection to the structural deformities that the standards of some breeds, including GSD, promote and require. The worst to me are the squashed-faced (brachycephalic) breeds who cannot breathe normally, are more prone to heat stroke than normal headed dogs, and whose protruding eyes are vulnerable to injury. To me to create a health problem through structural deformity is a real "crime against nature". Our Bouvs are not badly off in this regards, though I think the profuse coats are a disadvantage for many of them, especially where weather gets too damn hot .

"Force them to perform" (in competitions) ? Well I have trained and competed in Obedience, Tracking, Schutzhund, Ring, and a variety of types of Herding. I have trained in Agility though not competed in it. Except for formal Obedience, where one can compel a tolerable performance but where reward-based training is what gets winning performance, I really defy anyone to coerce high quality performance in these sports. The good performers are all dogs who give every appearance of enjoying the sport, usually because the basis for that enjoyment has been built into their genes.

For tracking, the dog must WANT to do it because there is no way the human can really know where the scent lies on a competition track. Moreover at training sessions one sees that if the dog is turned loose after completing the track, the dog will choose to track the route the tracklayer took to exit the field. I've had very young puppies who in their very first tracking lesson take to it "as a dolphin to water". Not surprising when you consider that tracking prey is part of how canids generally make a living.

In protection sports, I defy anyone to coerce a dog to bite with conviction. The dog must have the desire, which one can increase by frustration (denying the bite until the dog tries harder). One can build confidence, though one needs to start with a fairly self-confident dog in the first place.

In Herding, I have worked dogs with great talent and desire and have tried to work dogs with little talent and desire, and I sure can tell you that for a genuine herding dog who performs well you must have a dog who WANTS to control livestock, a dog who LOVES to herd. The dog should also have "balance" (natural judgement of where the dog needs to be positioned and to move to create the desired reaction in the stock), but this can be improved with experience provided there was some balance in the dog to begin with. The dog also has to be "biddable" to some degree, ie have some respect for the human herding partner and some willingness to obey, but this can be improved with training. (I must add that a really good herding dog will refuse to obey a handler's command that is just plain wrong, that would cause the stock to bolt. Chelsea taught me that, often with a look that said she thought I was an idiot.)

In Agility the dogs generally seem to be enjoying themselves a lot.

Now it's true that some of these sports do have non-zero risks of injury, which is also true of most human sports. But dogs romping through a field on their own can also get injured. (And feral dogs get hurt worse and more often.)

I can't really comment of my own knowledge about breed ring conformation competition. But I have known dogs who sure think that standing pretty to get pieces of liver is "a nice job if you can get it" (Chelsea would have loved doing this). Standing on the grooming table maybe not so much fun. Traveling in the car or motor home ? well how many of us have found we must spell the word "C-A-R" if we don't want our dog to go into an orgy of anticipatory excitement ? Lying around in an X-pen might not be quite as good as lying on the sofa at home or lying next to the human watching TV in bed, but it's not exactly a terrible way to spend time.

However I do rather object to the term "pet quality" as a designation of something lacking. Really to be a good pet dog, the dog needs a host of virtues, such as stable temperament, sociability with humans (and tolorance of some strange or even unpleasant behavior by humans), ability to comprehend and conform to the unnatural behaviors demanded by humans, ability to stay home alone without fear or types of amusement not appreciated by the humans, and so many other qualities. "Pet" is NOT a four letter word. It should be a term of honnor.

And I will agree that under usual circumstances dogs belong on their own feet on the ground , rather than being carried in human arms or in purses or riding in strollers. Still I have seen elderly and infirm (unable to walk easily) dogs enjoying participation in the walks of their people and other dogs by being carried or strollered. I've used a two child jogger cart myself in that context, usually on a temporary basis. Use of a stroller for sick or injured dogs or cats is not unusual at the UC Davis VMTH. For very small dogs , being carried or strollered can make good safety sense in situations where humans are very crowded and not watching out for dogs underfoot. I see this at events like the UC Davis Whole Earth Festival. These are all situations where the dog's safety , welfare, comfort are being served, even though the dog might prefer being back on the ground.

in conclusion

So if you don't like the terms most people use to describe their affectionate and protective feelings towards their dogs, well " then give me another word for it" !

And "if you're offering me diamonds and rust, I'll take the diamonds" --- because I can sell them to pay off some of my vet bills on dogs whose owners didn't treat them as loved family members and who threw them away, who didn't care if the dog lived or died.


Related topics :

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 11/18/2013 revised 10/25/2015
return to top of page return to Site Index