Similar and Different

(or "The Mismeasure of Dog")

Written in response to an article by Dr Michelle Gaspar, DVM, in which she considers the term "pet parent" to be a "trap" because it directs attention away from the many ways in which dogs are different from humans, ways that we humans should celebrate and value. I respond that the compatibility between our species rests on both the differences and the similarities between our species, and that terms like "pet parent" and "fur kid" are legitimate metaphors that reflect the important truth of our feelings of affection and responsibility.
I am probably over-sensittive to disparagement of the parental analogy, simply because these terms have become highly politicized in recent years in the ideological warfare between the so called "animal rights" fanatics and what might well be termed "ownership rights" fanatics.
The phrase "The Mismeasure of Dog" comes by analogy to "The Mismeasure of Woman" by Carol Tavris, which in turn plays tribute to "The Mismeasure of Man" by Stephen Jay Gould.

Similar and Different : "the Mismeasure of Dogs"

by Pam Green, © 2016


Dr Gaspar in her article "The Pet Parent Trap" (Nov-Dec SCBDC Mini-Bulletin, also available on the internet) is of course quite right in saying that dogs are different in some ways from humans and that these differences are (or should be) part of the reason we value them. But dogs are also similar to humans in other ways and these similarities are much of the reason our two species can understand each other and get along together so well.

Dogs and humans evolved as species that live in socially cooperative groups , with social hierarchy to limit intra-group conflicts and prevent violence. Both are cursorial hunters (run their prey down) which hunt in coordinated groups, though wolves were almost exclusively hunters whereas humans were omnivores and gatherers as well as hunters and in transitioning from wolves dogs were semi-omnivorous scavengers of human left-overs and modern dogs can and will cheerfully eat almost everything their human family eats (with a few exceptions that are toxic to dogs --- so humans can eat all the chocolate themselves)..

Dogs and humans remain playful into adulthood and are drawn to many similar games. As Patricia McConnell points out, just watch the evening TV news to see that our species is very "into" games with balls, as are dogs. Games with balls and other toys often are games of "Keep Away", daring the other player (or team) to take away the toy, though it's only humans who add the element of scoring by putting the toy through goal posts or into a goal basket. We also "play fight" a lot, as do dogs, though some of our play-fighting games are very symbolic, such as chess and others are very close to real battle , as in the paint-gun wars.

Dogs understand our gestures and body language better than do our genetically nearest species, chimps and bonobo (specieswith whom humans share over 98% of their genes), and we understand dogs better and more naturally than we understand cousin chimp and cousin bonobo.

It's highly likely that dogs and humans have influenced each other's evolution for at least 30,000 years as shown by archeological evidence for (morpheologically non-wolf ) dog skeletons in conjunction with human ones, and quite possibly 100,000 years before that as shown by mitochondrial DNA evidence.

similarity and difference, both essential to our bond

Dogs are very similar to us in some ways and very different in others.

They have abilities we essentially lack and we have abilities they essentially lack. So some of those differences may strike us as "superior" and "inferior" insofar as the quality under consideration is considered "valuable" (as defined by human values, which may differ greatly from canine values). (Note : dogs probably would consider some of human abilities as "superior": and as ones the dogs would wish to have. Opening the fridge and using can opener spring to mind. But dogs probably don't think in terms of judgements as to "superior" / "inferior") In all scent-work the dog is incomparably superior and can do work of huge value to humans. Likewise the dog's superior ability to control the movement of sheep and cattle

In some of these differences , dogs just seem plain "weird" to humans (and no doubt vice versa), such that we may never be able to imagine or understand the other's point of view.

Now that dog mentality is finally considered a kosher topic for scientific research, evidence is accumulating for ways in which their mental processes are more complex and sometimes more similar to our own than previously proven. Likewise hard evidence of canine emotion and the brain basis for emotion, similar to our own in the most basic emotions. Many of these findings simply prove what those of us who live with dogs and observe them have long suspected or known.

We are bound together both by our differences and our similarities.

Now it's also true that adults and children are both similar and different and are bound together by both the differences and the similarities.

Just as dogs are both similar and different to adult humans and adult humans are both similar and different to children , dogs are both similar and different to children and to the relationship each has with adult humans. The feelings of affection we have for our dogs are more similar than different from those parents have for their children. Likewise the feelings of responsibility for welfare and well being (though I'm sure many people are glad that they needn't provide college tuition for their dogs)

Note : the biological and evolutionary basis for feelings of parenttal bonding to children and to animals, espeecially to pets, is the topic of "Made For Each Other, the biology of the human - animal bond", by Meg Daley Olmert, which brings together the science studies of the hormone oxytocin and its relation to neurochemistry, effects on behavior, together with archeological and anthropological studies on human - animal relationships and animal domestication. and, of course, Belyaev's foxes. Oxytocin is the primary hormone that bonds mammalian mothers to offspring and it's also the key player in bonding humans to pets.

One could say the same for differences and similarities between women and men, as Carol Tavris discussed at length in her book "The Mismeasure of Woman". Likewise for differences and similarities between different ethnicities and cultural groups. Similar in many ways, different in some ways (with "inferior" and "superior" defined by the socially dominant group or gender), and just plain different (hard to understand) in still other ways.

Basically any two individual humans are both similar and different and for any two who are friends their friendship rests partly on the similarities that enable them to understand one another and to enjoy some of the same activities and partly on the differences that make them interesting to each other and enable each to enrich the other's range of interests. Try that analysis on friends and family members whom you like and you will see it fits.

We are bound together both by our differences and our similarities.Similarities create easy understanding and differences create (or should be viewed as creating) interest and enrichment and value.

Note : some of these categories are objectively / biologically " real" and some are socially / culturally "constructed" , taught and learned And some are partly real and parrtly constructed. It can be very hard to determine what is real and what is constructed.
The categories of dog and human are certainly a biolgical reality, though we humans have an old and disasterous tendency to lable some other humans as "sub-human" or "not really fully human" , and at some periods during the process of wolves becoming dogs humans must have culturally designated those transitional canids as "not really wolves", "not to be feared", and finally as "first friend" (Kipling's term).
The categories of child and adult have some biological reality (with a biological division marker of puberty), with further biological realities as to stages from infant through older child, but every culture also constructs rules of child vs adult rights and responsibilities. Eg the Jewish Bar Mitvah in which the 13 year old boy declares "today I am a man". Eg laws on when one may drive a car, drink alcohol, consent to sex, or marry, and rules about when one is criminally responsible as a juvenile vs an adult.
The categories of male and female have a biological reality, usually defined either by chromosomes or by external physical anatomy, though intermediate or indeterminant or hermaphrodite infants are less rare than most people assume. (And there's the possibility of "chimerism" or individual being a mosaic of two genetically different kinds of cells. Easy to create mosaic mice; done in labs in late 1960's. We really don't know what the incidence may be in humans) But gender roles are very much culturally constructed and differ widely between cultures (go read Margaret Meade). Gender self-identification may have some biological elements and some culturally constructed elements.)

Generally , I essentially agree with probably 90% of what Dr Gaspar wrote.

Minor Point : I have a little commentary on her discussion of people's greater willingness to spend on medical care for their biological offspring vs on their pets, which is mainly that most middle-class parents do enjoy health insurance for their human children but not for their pets (we don't thave ObamaCur and ObamaCat), and this financial resource very much affects ability to spend and thus also their willingness to spend. Often a rationalization for inability is needed, and "just a pet, not my child" can supply that need...

But my big quarrel is really with her title, with the idea that there is something illegitimate or inappropriate about the term "pet parent" or referring to pets as "kids", "furkids", etc. I may be oversensitive to this aspect because this genre of terminology has become so politicized in recent years. I wish she'd used a title more on the lines of "Dogs and Humans : Celebrating Our Differences".

parent/kid as metaphor or analogy

"Pet parent" and similar terms are simply a metaphor or analogy that emphasizes the person's feelings of affection and responsibility for a beloved dependant creature.

I think the only time that the "pet parent" analogy or metaphor becomes a "trap" is when we forget that it is an analogy or metaphor, not a literal and absolute truth. When we focus only on the similarities and forget the differences, especially differences in cognitive abilities and potential to live independently at maturity.. (We also get in trouble with children when we forget that they are different from adults , though that difference changes quantitatively and qualitatively with maturation and education)

All good books on dog behavior and training discuss at length the cognittive abilities, learning abilities, etc of dogs and the ways in which these differ from human children and adults. One does always have to keep these in mind when dealing with dogs. Eg that while a delayed reward or rebuke can be effective for an older child or an adult, it is utterly incomprehensible and ineffective for a dog. Eg while a human can be taught something by a verbal explanation and diagrams, a dog cannot. Eg while a human can explain his thought by language, a dog "speaks" by body language.

We humans live by language and think in metaphor and analogy (and hypothesis and logic). "She walks in beauty as the night" expresses an emotional truth but not a literal one. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" acknowledges that the comparison is only partial and fanciful. (I leave it to the Lit teachers to supply further examples)

personal footnote

A final footnote : as a long time SF reader, I have often looked in wonder at my dog or horse and thought "I am communicating with an alien species". Not an extra-terrestrial alien, but truely something different from myself . something truely rich and strange. And someone very much loved.


Related topics :

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1/20/2016 revised 2/29/2016
return to top of page return to Site Index