I have more 'pet' names for Gus, my Cocker Spaniel, than I can count. He is my 'little wan', my 'sweet boy', the 'cutest of the cute' and just about every other endearing moniker you can think of. I love him so dearly I can't imagine my life without him, and frankly, I don't want to. He's my rock, my sweetheart, and I adore the very earth he walks upon.
Now, all that said, I want you to try to imagine this scenario for yourself. You walk into the house of a new acquaintance. You don't know each other well but a friend of a friend had a feeling y'all might get along. You're feeling positive about making this new acquaintance into a new friend. Amazing!
Suddenly, this person demands that you "Sit!". He even gives you a hand signal. When you don't, he asks it again. This time, it's more demanding. Tentatively, you sit down, unsure what to make of this behavior. Your "acquaintance" approaches you again. "Down!" He commands. You freeze. You're not going to lay down in his house. Is this guy kidding?
You're probably wondering what the heck I am getting at, and you can definitely imagine just how off-putting and confusing this scenario would be if you actually lived it. You're not a dog, you don't deserve or expect to be treated like one. Right?! Right.
And yet, here's the rub. We are doing this to our dogs every day.
"Camille, what the heck are you talking about?"
Very frankly, I'm talking about the infantalization, and humanization, of our pet dogs. Let's go back to our weird scenario with our new "acquaintance" to help me further illustrate what I'm trying to say here.
Imagine that you are actually moving in with this person. There are no other options for your living arrangements - you're a stranger in a strange land, and you have to make it work in this place if you want a good life for yourself. So you do it. You "sit" when he asks you to sit. You lay "down" when he asks you to lay down. It's weird, but heck - you're safe, you're warm, you're fed, and sometimes, when he's not asking you to do weird stuff, you may even feel a little at home. And yet, time and time again, you realize he's treating you like a dog. Even though that's not what you ARE. You're a human being - a living, breathing person, and this arrangement simply will not do.
After awhile, you begin to act out. You refuse to comply with this guy's demands and orders. You insist on being treated as the human being you are, and to your utter dismay, he persists with his weird demands. The situation cannot stand.
Here's where my very strange analogy has to end. Unlike dogs, we humans have a measure of autonomy that will allow us to extricate ourselves from a situation as bizarre as the one I describe above. And bizarre it is.
Guess who doesn't have that same choice?
When we decide to treat our dogs like infants in puppyhood and toddlers in adolescence and adulthood, providing for every want, giving in to every demand, and expecting a kind of reasonableness or rationality that an animal simply isn't capable of in return, we do these beautiful creatures an incredible disservice. As their behavior escalates to nearly unmanageable levels our of sheer confusion, we become angry, despondent, and desperate to figure out what went wrong. We ask ourselves:
"Is it genetic?"
"Did I just get the bad seed of the litter?"
"Clearly it's just a bad dog. That's just the way it is."
And much, much less frequently.. "Did I do something to cause this or that behavior?"
That latter question is the one we must be asking ourselves. It allows us to reflect on our treatment of our pets, bringing to the forefront questions surrounding the need to set good expectations and boundaries from the beginning of our time with our dogs right through to the end. We must take a hard, long look at whether or not we are giving our dogs the respect they deserve for the noble, brilliant animals they are, not for what we might desire them to be. And for all of our anthropomorphizing of dogs, we do them a terrible, terrible harm, because we never get to truly know them. Their quirks, their myriad personalities, what drives them, what turns them off - all of these important, essential qualities are lost in our desire to make them more human.
Do your dog a favor. Learn about him or her as a dog. Educate yourself on what dogs need, on how to set healthy boundaries in your relationship together, on nutrition, play, enrichment, and what constitutes a good life. In this way, you can ensure a long-lasting, loving, functional relationship for all the amazing years you have to come.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Pet Services and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA)