Dogs and kids

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When I was a kid, my dad referred to his and my then-stepmother's dogs--when I was young, a Husky-mix, Sheba and a hound mix, Shiloh, then later a Rottweiler, Khan, and an Akita, Kuma--as my brothers. It always drove me nuts. The dogs were smelly. The dogs were hairy. The dogs drooled. The dogs were...dogs. They were not my brothers. It seemed devaluing to me, as a human child, to be referred to with the same terms as dogs.

What I didn't know then, and I do know now, was that my dad loved those dogs so much that if he'd felt half of what he felt for them for me I'd have had a much better parent. I ought to have been honored to be compared to them. My dad makes no excuses about preferring dogs to people.

And the older I get, the more I see the old man's point.

As I mentioned previously, I'm not planning to have children. There are a bunch of reasons for that, including my certainty that I'd be a shitty mother. And given the likelihood that I'll never parent, I will never be sure that the way I feel about my dogs is anything like the way I'd feel about kids. However, given the way people talk about their relationships with their kids, I think there are definitely similarities. I take my responsibility to my dogs, as dependant creatures who cannot survive without me, very seriously. Things that some pet-owners consider luxuries--high-quality food, interactive toys, top-notch vet care--are necessities to me. I believe that I owe them to my pets. And I am bonded to my dogs in a way that many pet owners aren't. They are never more than a few feet away from me when I'm home. I miss them terribly if I go on any sort of vacation. I worry about their health, their happiness. When Chance died, I grieved as I never have for a person.

This doesn't mean that I think my dogs are people. They are a seperate species. Treating them like human children would make no sense. They don't have human brain function. They have short life spans, and prey drives, and they will never use toilets. I am not trying to make a one-to-one equation between dogs and kids. Rather, as a childless person who plans to remain so, I'm arguing that in many ways, the roles my dogs play in my life mimic the role of your child in yours.

And people find that really, really insulting. Really insulting. For a long time, I haven't been sure why. Then I started thinking about how I felt, as a kid, about my bad referring to his dogs as my brothers. And I think people are having the same reaction to me now. Partially, they just think a comparison beween dogs and kids is ridiculous. Partially, they are horrified that I'd belittle the role of children so much as to compare them to dogs. And they are wrong, just like I was. It's not about belittling kids. If my dad had loved me and taken care of me like he did his dogs, we'd have a much better relationship. And if I thought I could parent kids as well as I take care of my dogs, I'd probably consider having them.

As a sidenote: Someone asked me why I always limit these rants to my dogs and don't include my cat. The truth is that I don't feel the same way about Atticus as I do about the dogs. I love Atticus, but my relationship with him is not reciprocal in the way it is with the dogs. I wish that I did. But cats don't speak to me the same way dogs do. They obviously do for some people, for me they don't. Which isn't to say that my cat isn't well taken care of--he is--but it's not the same.

18 Comments

Heh, when I talk to my father on the phone he'll still tell me to "say hello to your brother" and hold the phone up to his cat. I'm totally ok with a cat being part of the family, but not sure how I feel like being pushed out of favorite child status for someone named 'Squeaker.' GX

You just don't feel the same way about Attacus because he is completely oblivious to any other object. Attacus' only question to answer in life is "How would laying on this thing feel?" Everyone says that people who don't have kids can't imagine what it's like to have kids. I think that's probably true, so I wouldn't go so far as to equate anything with it, not having kids as comparison. Also, no matter what I really think having kids is a completely different realm of responsibility. Your dog can't go on a shooting spree. Your dog can't become addicted to smack. Your dog will never get tens of thousands of dollars in debt and ask for help. Your dog will never be married to someone who beats them up. Your dog can't get raped. You will never have to pay for your dog's multi-thousand dollar wedding. Your dog will never become president. Your dog will never get a doctorate. Your dog won't cure cancer. Those are things parents find their human kids involved in. And those can be way way more heartrenching and monetarily disasterous and crazy levels of responsibility I cannot imagine. They can also be accomplishments that must bring so much pride in personally CREATING another being that does something so great. And that cannot in any way be similar to having a dog. Sorry. It's levels of magnitude more serious. Also, the only people who seriously talk about their animals as kids usually are annoying yuppies who buy their dogs organic cookies and bullshit and live in lofts. And I hate those people, so that makes me anti-the serious calling of animals your "kids." It doesn't make me angry so much, as make me think "that person is ridiculous." In the same way, can I call my computer my kid? I won't go anywhere without it and if it's injured I freak out. That sounds ridiculous if I am not joking, right? And sort of pathetic? Exactly.

Yeah, you don't get it. That's cool. Whatever.

Hi there! I'm a first-time reader, and I'm psyched to see you posting about dogs and cats as siblings. When I was growing up, our cats and dog were always considered to be Orca's and my siblings. In fact, my parents hung a huge photo of my doggy sister Zoe next to much smaller photos of my human brother and me! It never bothered me at all, and now that I'm expecting a child of my own (through adoption, doncha know), I make sure to tell our dog and cats they they'll be having a little brother or sister soon.

Just pointing out that when you talk to people who have actual kids, with really huge responsibilities, they will probably think you are 1. joking, 2. silly, or 3. an ass.

I think that caring for pets calls upon many of the same skills and traits (empathy, self-sacrifice, patience, etc.)that are needed in parenting, but they're just not fundamentally the same. The level of risk exposure, and potential reward, is just not on the same scale AT ALL. The level of investment -- in money and time -- is magnitudes apart. I mean, I routinely leave my dog at home for hours during the day. She sleeps. No one cares. If I did this with a child? D.C. jail, here I come! I love my dog. I really do. But let's get real here -- it takes me 30 seconds a day to feed her. I will spend roughly one-third of the first three months of my baby's life just feeding him or her. It took me a few weeks to housebreak my dog. I'll need a few years for kiddo. The minimum amount of time I could get by spending with my child would probably feel like harrassment to my dog. We keep pets chiefly for our personal pleasure and use. There is a broader social responsibility involved in raising children. As far as society at large is concerned, all I have to do to be a good dog owner is keeping her from biting people and shitting in other people's yard. The potential contribution and damage my child could do in society at large knows no bounds. Biting and inappropriate shitting are the least of it, and a stage most human kids are well past by kindergarten. My goal in raising a child is to turn out a responsible, contributing citizen. I couldn't do that with my dog if I wanted. Her little paws would struggle with the voting machines. People who talk about loving their dogs "like children" often praise dogs' ability to give unconditional love. Guess what? Children don't love their parents unconditionally. Parents do tend to love their kids unconditionally, though. Fools. If you want the experience of giving, giving, giving to an adorable but ungrateful creature who could show up 10 years later on Maury saying you were the most vile person ever, have a kid. If you want to *receive* unconditional love, better stick with dogs. Which brings me to my last point: Why compare your dogs to children? They are all adult animals, no? Some with health issues? Why not compare them with the elderly? Or the physically and/or mentally disabled? Oh wait, that IS clearly offensive. Maybe we should re-think this kid thing, no? Maybe dogs don't need to be "like" anything to be treated well. Maybe we should just love them like dogs.

Also, while I totally understand that you grieved when Chance died, do you really think you could look a mother who lost her child in the eye and tell her "I know just how you feel"? As much as I have loved every dog I have ever had, and as sad as I have been when I lost them, I know I couldn't. My grandmother lost one of her adult sons to suicide. This was almost 10 years ago. There are still days she can't leave the house over this. Same for my great uncle who lost his daughter 20 years ago as a teenager in a car accident. He still hasn't moved a thing in her room.

I agree with the other posters that the reason people find it so offensive is because there are so many worlds of difference between having a dog and having a kid. I've got two pet rats. Is that the same as having a kid? Of course not. It's not even the same as having a dog! Its not the same level of emotional or financial or temporal committment. I would never compare my rat to your dog, just like I would never compare my dog to a baby. They just aren't the same... Like Mary Ellen, I think its best to leave the comparisons alone, because they just aren't fair to anyone.

ME, that was a great comment. And Jess is right, the comparisons aren't fair to anyone.

Hrm. First, regarding Chance, all I can say is that I have never grieved for a person like that. Perhaps I just haven't lost anyone close enough yet, but I hope not. You are right that I wouldn't compare that grief to a mother's or anyone else's--but I will compare it to any I've felt, and it doesn't compare. On the subject of unconditional love, I don't believe my dogs love me unconditionally. In fact, I don't think they love me at all, really. I'm not sure they are capable of it, or have any interest in it. I don't know that, I can't ask them, but it's not about unconditional love for me. It's about giving back to the world, taking care of creatures that wouldn't survive otherwise, and getting real joy just out of seeing them happy. Finally, to Mary Ellen's comment that maybe dogs don't need to be "like" anything to be treated well, if that were the case, I'd never be making this analogy. The fact is that dogs aren't treated well. The fact is that they are considered disposable, to be given away or even killed when they become inconvenient. If dogs, all on their own, were instilled with enough social worth for that to stop happening, then I'd drop the analogy.

Grace: "The fact is that they are considered disposable, to be given away or even killed when they become inconvenient. If dogs, all on their own, were instilled with enough social worth for that to stop happening, then I'd drop the analogy." Scand: That comment just makes me think about some members of our human society (e.g., homeless, poor, uneducated, criminal, people of color, combinations of some/all of these) and the fact that *they* still do not enjoy the privilege of not being disposable when they become inconvenient. Part of me wants to say that dogs don't stand a chance of being afforded the rights you think they deserve if these rights are still denied of some humans. The other part of me, tho, wants to say that the dogs have a much better shot at those rights because they have the advantage of being "cute". I don't think either of these say anything good about human society.

I don't see the point in comparing. I think it's potentially insulting to parents to compare your pet to a child (unless you actually have children and fully understand the difference), and I think it's potentially insulting for others to tell you how much you do or don't love your pets. I loved my pet fiercely, but that changed pretty drastically when human children showed up. Obviously people's experience with that vary.

I've never understood the incredibly strong reaction people have to this issue. I didn't understand it back at Ms. when it was suggested that parents - especially good parents - would be offended by the comparison and surely I'd change my mind once my daughter was born. I haven't. Pets aren't people. Raising a pet is in no way the same as or as serious as raising a person. For all the reasons people have listed here, and more. But I know plenty of people for whom their pets serve roughly the same role in their lives as children fill in others' lives. It's not a perfect comparison, but then, lots of comparisons we make aren't. To each her own. (FTR, the way I felt about Lizzi changed dramatically and overnight when Ellie was born. I never, ever thought that could happen and I'm still a little stunned by the change. But I love the way the two interact now, and I'm not offended when people call Lizzi Ellie's "big sister," although I don't do it myself.)

I've been thinking about this a little more today. I think it would change things if you (Grace) kept it to a statement like, "I love my dogs like they're my children", rather than saying, "I love my dogs like you love your children". This definitely bypasses the point of contention between you and the people who don't see the comparison, and I think it's a okay statement even given your own human childlessness. Or is it your point that you believe you love your dogs like other people love their children? First off, I don't think you should have to show that to get people to understand/respect your relationship with your dogs. Also, I would have to agree with others that there's no way you could know that, even though it's something that people _think_ they know all the time about other subjects. I'd say the same thing to those other people, too--there's no way you can know what other people really feel. I might just be wasting my time arguing semantics, but it does seem to me that those two assertions are different, and it would help if you clarified which one you actually are putting forth here.

since people treat other people very poorly, i don't know how comparing animals to people will help them be treated better. I think even saying "I treat them LIKE they are my children." is suspect since *I* don't have children and I don't know how I would treat children. It's like saying "I'd be exactly the same if I were raised in China.": suspect, a needless comparison, and unverifiable. In the fact that you have said you don't think you are responsible enough to have kids, you are clearly making a distinction between dogs and children and how we have to treat them differently yourself!

Why can't Grace compare dogs to kids if she wants to? It's not like it hurts any children if she does! Or is it like with gay marriage - if gays can get married it will mock het marriage? Are your marriages and children so frail that they get somehow damaged if somebody else claims the word? I hesitate to tell people IRL that I love my cats like they love their children, although I know I love my cats more than some people love their children. I bet if I told somebody that my (now dead) cat was my soulmate everyone would be on my case saying "my husband is my soulmate and don't you dare compare cats to him". I'm totally glad that I don't have a kid or a husband to be so defensive about.

"Or is it like with gay marriage - if gays can get married it will mock het marriage? Are your marriages and children so frail that they get somehow damaged if somebody else claims the word?" Are you sure you want to use this comparison? Because I happen to think lesbian and heterosexual women have the *exact* same fundamental rights, something the vast majority of animal welfarists would never claim about skinks and 7th graders. So it pretty much comes across as yet another offensive and ridiculous comparison. But hey, you mentioned gay marriage, so I'm sure it's all appropriately liberal, right?

Hmmm. You'll probably never read this comment, because it's June now, and this post is from April, but I am a parent, and I can think of one major way that parenting a child is very different than parenting a pet. (Not arguing with you, I agree with much of what you say.) When I think of my choices with my child, I have to think of the kind of adult she will grow up to be, because she will be out there in the world, making choices and decisions without me, helping or hurting people, in a large part based on my actions now. So I need to get it right. With my dog, she gets only the best food, two walks a day, regular check ups and lots of love. But I don't worry about her character, and whether she'll be a good person when she grows up. Otherwise, yeah, I think pets are a LOT like kids. Sounds to me like you're a great parent to your pets. :)

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