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Dog "Owner" or a Dog "Guardian"

or maybe dog "protector" ?

There's been a lot of arguement over the terms "owner" and "guardian" as related to dogs and other companion animals. I discuss the legal and colloquial meanings of these terms, which have become policicized and corrupted.

This was inspire by an article by Jon Katz, published in 2004 and reently (2018) republished in the American Bouvier Rescue League's Rescue Roundup.


Dog "Owner" or a Dog "Guardian"

or maybe dog "protector" ?

by Pam Green, © 2019

I wrote this in respons to Jon Katz article "Are You a Dog "Owner" or a Dog "Guardian", and I want to preface this by saying that I have always found Jon Katz's writings to be enjoyable and thought provoking.

It was a little strange reading this because the very attributes that Jon Katz attributes to the term "owner" are exactly those that I always attributed to "guardian". When he says "I am profoundly responsible for their care an well being" , to me that's guardianship attitude. and certainly my own attitude. I was using the term "guardian" in my writing on dogs long before it became politicized precisely because to me it conveyed responsibility for well being.

Maybe it's time for a new term, one not yet politicized or corrupted.

There are problems with both terms, "owner" and "guardian". Both terms originate as legal terms, but both also have colloquial meanings and unfortunately both terms have acquired political meanings, thus becoming bones of contention.

As a legal term a "guardian" is a responsible (competent) adult who has a legal responsibility for the care and (usually) physical custody (and some control) of a "ward" who is not currently able to exercise those responsibilities for himself for reasons of minority (sub-adult age) or incompetency or incapacitated (temporary or long term). The relationship of guardian to ward is in most ways similar to that of parent relative to child. Usually the guardian is appointed by a court or other legal mechanism. A guardian is supposed to act in the best interests (which may be the best long term interests) of the ward. The ward is a living creature who is sentient and (almost always) self-aware. In current legal use, the ward is a human being, although the concept may get extended to other Great Ape species. (Note : there are also special purpose guardianships, such as "guardian ad litem" = for the purpose of conducting litigation.)

In the legal meaning, the guardian-ward relationship is most emphatically NOT one of "equality". It is precisely because the guardian has abilities and judgement that the ward lacks (but may eventually acquire) that the guardianship is needed and created. When and if the ward is recognized to have attained equal status or competence, the guardianship ends.

I am not sure what colloquial meaning most people have for "guardian". I'd bet they think it has something to do with a protective and/or caretaking role towards another person or living being who benefits from that protection or care. I suspect that most people have never heard the term "ward" unless they were Batman fans (Robin = Dick Greyson is Batman = Bruce Wayne's ward).

I do not understand how it is that some have "politicized" the "guardian" concept to mean that the corresponding being, the ward, has full adult responsibilities and rights. Even if they think that making dog owners "guardians" means that the dog is equivalent to a child, they must surely know that children do not have the same responsibilities. rights, and privileges as adults. Children don't have the same abilities and cognitive capacities as adults, though they will (one hopes) eventually acquire them. Dogs do not have the same abilities and cognitive capacities as adult humans or as children older than 2 or 3 years old, and dogs will never acquire those abilities. (Dogs do have some abilities that are superior to humans, especially in the olfactory realm, but humans have many other abilities that are superior to those of dogs.)

As a legal concept an "owner" has the right of possession and use of some item of "property", including the right of destruction of property.. That property might be real estate (land and buildings attached to it), termed "real property" , or it might be "personal property", any property that is not land. The hallmark of ownership is that the owner can possess and use the property or can lend or rent it to someone else for their use or give or sell it to someone else to be that person's property. The owner can destroy or throw away most items of propety. Most people understand this concept, so the colloquial meaning is not dissimilar to the legal meaning.. (Though there have been human cultures that did not have the private property concept, but I'm not writing an anthropology article here.)

Most property law is relevant toŻ property which is non-living, non-sentient, though in some prior times ownership of slaves, living and sentient humans, was recognized and some property laws relate to animals, living and (in reality) at least somewhat sentient. Legally dogs and cats and horses are property. Human beings are no longer property in the USA and most of the civilized world. (Note however that in some societies where slavery was legal and common, slaves did have some rights, such as the right to earn money on outside jobs and buy themselves free. Note also that in some places today and often in the past women had very few rights and were effectively slaves. But I'm not writing a history or anthropology article here.)

There is a real need for law to take more recognition of the difference between non-living property versus living sentient property. Every normal human being past the age of a couple of years knows that there is a huge and highly meaningful difference. If I were to get annoyed with my computer laptop and in public view I were to smash it to fragments with an axe, no one would shriek out that I am a monster or mentally ill or should be arrested. (Others might well think I was acting foolishly and against my own best interests.) But if I were to get annoyed with my dog or cat or horse and in any normal person's view I were to take an axe to that animal, I would certainly be viewed with horror and I would be arrested. If I were to get annoyed with a child or adult human and take an axe to that person, I would surely be viewed with horror and be arrested.

We do have laws against Cruelty to Animals and against Neglect of Animals, though these are often poorly enforced. Some laws make minimal requiremnts for care of animals, including animals raised for food production. More recently some Divorce courts are taking the pet animal's welfare into consideration when dividing up property, thus recognizing that a pet is different from non-sentient property. Occasionally a Tort case judge will allow damages for the mental anguish of an owner whose pet has been tortured or killed in a cruel and malicious manner, thus acknowledging that the effect on the owner goes beyond any market value of ordinary property. There are some special laws that criminalize killing Police dogs and Guide dogs.

Now as to some of the particulars that Katz discusses, I have some comments. Others have made remarks similar to those Katz made.

As to people being unwilling to ever crate a dog or use an X-pen because "they wouldn't do that to a child", I must point out that a child's crib is really a crate on stilts and while a crib usually doesn't have a latch secured top on it, some parents find they must add a secured top if the kid is very agile and tries to climb out, thus risking self-injury through a fall. (The great figure skater Scott Hamilton in his bio says his parents had to add a top to his crib for that reason.) Similarly a child's play pen is really just a fancy and less readily portable X-pen. Wise parents use these tools to keep a young child safe and usually amused when the parent cannot vigilantly supervise. Wise dog owners or guardians do the same for puppies and younger dogs.

As to over-feeding and the resulting obesity (and risk of Type II diabetes) in dogs, well obesity is usually found at both ends of the leash. Ditto for obesity and Type II diabetes in children. Adults over-feed and under-exercise themselves first and the dogs and kids secondarily. Some of the problem with over-feeding is the deep seated idea in many cultures that food equals love, giving food is giving love and accepting food is accepting love. I think this goes back to the invention of agriculture when crop failures and famines were a huge threat. Maybe even goes back to Gatherer-Hunter times. (But I'm not writing an article on evolutionary anthropology.)

As to the value of "firm, effective training" for dogs, younger children too need clear and consistent rules for behavior. There are differences in methodology due to cognitive differences : children can be taught by language (verbal, written) and by the example of adults' behavior, and children can appreciate consequences that are not immediate, but dogs cannot. The most important difference is that the child as it matures should eventually become able to self-regulate behavior, adjust behavior to varying circumstances, and eventually become a responsible adult, but the dog never can do this.

As to people being unwilling to spay/neuter pets, while most men wouldn't want that done to themselves, there's a lot of women out there (shouting "Me too") who think there are some men who should have been neutered a long time ago. (I'd be greatly in favor of gelding rapists and child molesters, but there'd be 8th Amendment problems with this.) And a lot of parents may secretly wish they could impose contraception on their teenaged children until the kids finish school, become self-supporting, and live independently and therefor are qualified to consider procreating (or to refrain from same). The fact remains that humans can choose to engage in sex or not, but dogs cannot make such choices and lack the cognitive capacity to consider possible consequences.

As to euthanasia, the problem of a few people being unwilling to euthanize a pet who is terminially ill and unrelivbly suffering, in recent times many humans have begun movements to enable themselves to have the choice of humane self-euthanasia because they want the same peaceful end to useless terminal suffering that they have given to their beloved pets. Usually under the banner of "Death With Dignity" or "Assisted Dying". Now several states (OR, WA, CA) have passed laws enabling terminally ill people to make this choice. In other states people join the Hemlock Society and study copies of "Final Exit" . Many people fill out legal documents usually called "Living Will" or "Directitve to Physicians" , and carefully choose and appoint a trusted friend with "Durable Power of Attorney For Health Care".(Note that the legal requirements for these documents vary from state to state.)

None of us, adult human, human child, or dog is completely "free to live our own life as we wish". There are always restraints by law , by social custom (often stronger than law), by family and friends, and (for humans) by our internalized rules. We all got taught a lot of this by others, usually by indoctrination at an early age and later rejected or ratified by more mature considerations. (Note also that every society and every religion forbids humans to engage in one or more absolutely natural and enjoyable behaviors, eg food taboos, sexual taboos, clothing rules. But again, I am not writing an article on anthropology.)

One final comment, rather tangential : I knew this article by Katz had to be written at least a few years ago because of his reference to his sheep farming neighbor who wanted to marry her (same sex) partner but couldn't. Ever since Obergefell v Hodges, she can !. I see that this article goes back to 2004, which is even earlier (though a year after his neighbor and her female partner gained the protection of Lawrence v Texas for their adult mutually consenting private behavior). So it's possible that Katz's views have evolved since then. He's always been a very thoughtful writer, and thoughtful people go on thinking and thus may modify their views.

But it's clear that he and I both agree that we are responsible to our dogs to take care of their welfare as best we can and that we are responsible to others around us to prevent our dogs from being annoying or dangerous to them. Whether one calls this "ownership" or "guardian" is not as important as willingly and diligently exercising our responsibilities.

Perhaps a new term would serve us better. I'd suggest that maybe "protector" would be a good term for the human end of the relationship, and I may start using that term. Clearly we also agree on the value of enjoying our dogs and our dogs enjoying us and each enriching the life of the other. The word for that mutually beneficial relationship is "symbiosis". return to top of page

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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1/15/2019 revised 1/15/2019
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