I’m reading Michael Schaffer’s very interesting book One Nation Under Dog. He talks about the term “pet parent.” When I first encountered this phrase, I saw it as, yes, a bit ‘politically correct’, as in it’s bad to think of yourself as an authority figure over another being. It’s like trying to be ‘friends’ with your kids, discussing why they shouldn’t do something, instead of being ‘mom’ explaining only with “because I said so”.
However, I thought it was good to frame the pet/human relationship in terms other than ownership or mastery. “Ownership” means complete control over and ability to acquire or dispose of at will. “Mastery” implies the same plus some innate superiority which justifies that control. So dog owner and dog master are terms fraught with the history of dominance and hierarchical power.
I liked the use of “pet parent” in shelter and rescue writings, seeing it as a way of reminding people that getting a dog or cat is not the same as getting a new dress or car. When you’re tired of the dress or the car doesn’t fit your lifestyle any more, it’s not going to distress the car or dress if you sell it or give it to the Goodwill.
Relationship of responsibility
But giving your dog away because you’re moving into a new apartment and “they don’t allow dogs”??? If you have a dog, why are you even looking at apartments where dogs aren’t allowed? If you have children, do you look at an adults-only building and then give the kids away if you really really like the apartment? Taking on a living, breathing creature makes that creature part of your life and its well-being your responsibility. The word parent stresses the relationship of responsibility and caretaking instead of the notion of possession. It also gets away from the nastier connotations of ‘mastery’.
Yes, you have to be the dog’s master in the sense that you ought to be the pack leader. But are you the master in the sense of having the right to abuse the dog? No, but it can get muddled in people’s minds. Spike getting a slap or kick every time he doesn’t sit or heel exactly right is not good ‘mastery’ of the techniques of dog training. But the right to kick or slap is implicit in the notion of being the master (i.e. owner) of something or someone.
However, ‘parent’ requires ‘child’, and so the next term circulating in the pet world was fur babies. Oh dear. Granted, some dogs it’s easy to think of that way, to coo at and cuddle. The little fuzzy ones. But a great big German Shepherd – fur baby? I did babytalk with my late Shepherd and he liked it. In my defense, I raised him from a puppy so he was always my baby. However, he quickly outgrew any possibility of being thought of as a “furbaby” in his looks and demeanor. Other dogs in the past, I never thought of as being their ‘mommy’. We were friends.
Fur Babies or Friends
My present two? They were adult when we got them, but I use ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ with them. Yes, one is little and fuzzy and likes to be carried and cuddled. But the other isn’t. I have no excuse, other than the parent/child terminology with pets has so permeated our society that I have internalized it. I catch myself calling myself ‘mommy’ to my old cat. She’s been with me since before the days of pet-parenting. I feel silly when I say it to her, we always had the relationship of friends and roommates. Something that now comes naturally with the dogs seems cloying and demeaning with her.
Does framing our relationship with pets as one of pet parent and fur babies lead us to infantilize our animals? Does it cause us to forget their natural traits? Most dogs have strong protective and hunting instincts. Your dog, or cat, can save your life. They can also take life. Do we run the risk of not respecting both those traits when we think of them as kids in fur coats?
From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Mar. 15/10