“My Pets Are my Children”

453px-Nika_iiWhen you first got a pet–any pet, but especially a dog–how long did it take to start referring to yourself as “mommy” or “daddy?”

No time at all, right?  For most of us, it wasn’t even a conscious choice.  When that fluffball comes bounding up to you, it just feels like the natural thing to say, even for people who neither have nor want children and generally like to maintain some dignity.

Back in the days of yore when, believe it or not, I actually attended the infamous Mars Hill Church, this was one of Mark Driscoll’s hobbyhorses.  He and his assistant pastors all loved to talk about the silly things people do for their dogs and how they’re putting their pets on a pedestal and treating them like gods and, above all, how pets are not children.

I won’t bother with a full rebuttal, since it’s obvious from the clip that this is a blindered stock rant rather than a substantive analysis; Driscoll seems unaware that we do things for our dogs not because they are in charge, but because they are helpless.  680px-Gismo-Anzug-01But I wonder how many people went away ashamed that they loved their dogs too much–not that they were giving attention to their pets that ought to be given to their children or anything like that*, but simply that they were showing too much affection, period, and ought to suppress it.

That’s nonsense.  As long as no abuse or neglect is happening, there’s no right or wrong way to be a pet owner.  Dogs do have a biologically defined relationship with us, one that has developed over our 30,000 years of shared history, but it’s one that would make Driscoll renounce evolution all over again.

Evolutionarily, dogs are our children.

6a010535647bf3970b0168ebbd4f64970c-800wiThe concept is called neoteny: As humans selectively bred gray wolves to be more docile and obedient, what we actually selected for was younger traits.  Dogs, in fact, are genetically just wolf puppies that never grow up, as demonstrated by traits like drop ears, seen in wolf cubs but not adults.  This applies to behaviors, too: For instance, herding dogs that instinctively chase prey without attacking it are behaving like wolf cubs that have developed basic hunting behaviors but haven’t yet learned to kill their prey.

Other pets also fall into this pattern.  In the wild, adult cats don’t mew to communicate.  Mewing is a kitten behavior used to get the attention of the mother.  When I hear Sweet Pea mewing at me for food while her kittens mew at her for food, it’s easy to observe the similarity.

450px-Funerary_loculus_slab_with_names_of_Antigona_and_Aristopolis_(c._300–250_BCE),_Alexandria,_Egypt_-_20070817You may know that the idea of a pack of unrelated wolves lead by a dominant alpha pair is a misconception.  In fact, wolf packs are basically nuclear families, composed of a mated pair and their offspring.  Thus, when you make yourself the “top dog” to your wolf-puppy dogs, you’re quite literally casting yourself as their parent, who they instinctively look to for food and protection.

So the next time you tell your dog to “come to Mommy,” don’t feel silly or frivolous.  You are just interacting the way that dogs and humans have for thousands of years.

Images from Wikimedia Commons (here, here, and here), except for wolf cub, from Zooborns.

*The substance underpinning the rant, such as it is, is Driscoll’s common theme that things and people ought to belong to sharply-defined categories and that blurring the boundaries is a huge transgression.  He’s on even weaker ground when he applies this teaching to dogs than when he applies it to gender; there aren’t even any clobber verses about dogs.

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