The first few times I heard someone refer to a dog as a ‘fur baby’ or themselves as a ‘pet-parent’ I found myself scrutinizing the person for signs of mental illness.
It seemed such an odd thing to say. I then remembered quite a few years earlier, someone sending me a letter, taking me to task for using the term adoption in one of my syndicated newspaper columns. The author of the letter felt that the term should be used exclusively to refer human to human. I dismissed her but now regret doing so.
If she is out there she will be happy to learn I do not refer to bringing a dog into a household as adoption, but instead as a purchase.
I also recall in some articles, using pet-guardian as opposed to pet-owner, something I no longer do. I think my heart was in the right place, but as I suspect the woman that wrote me may have surmised, words matter and my use of the word adoption may have been an example of a first stages slippery slope.
In the early stages, I think those that used terms like ‘pet-parent’ or ‘fur baby’ etc., were trying to broadcast how they personally really love their dogs. However, in recent years it has become to transform into animal rights language/doctrine where ideologists are trying to tell dog and non-dog owners how they should live with, love and train dogs.
My intent when using words like guardian or adoption was to honor the role that dogs play in our lives but I never believed that it would be good for dogs, dog owners or society to blur the line between a dog and a human. I do not think this muddying of the waters is healthy or beneficial.
I have met far too many pet-parent, fur baby, dog owners that I suspect have repeatedly had the stuffing kicked out of them in the much more challenging to navigate personal relationships encountered by us all during our lives. Loving a dog has very few of the pitfalls that relationships with humans often have. Human relationships are hard. Dog relationships are exponentially easier. I can not imagine that the best answer for a person’s long-term well-being is always or often, dog ownership. However, not everyone can afford or has access to quality therapy, and so for those that have replaced healthy human relationships with the love of dogs, I’m happy they’ve found love. Even if that love is only in an anthropomorphic sense.
There are also childless couples that declare that their dog is ‘family,’ and they proclaim to all that will lend an ear that they love their dog just the same as they would any child. However, should they have a child of their own and experience inevitably elevated oxytocin levels associated with parenting a human child(1), they receive a wake-up call and learn that up until that point they knew very little about what constitutes a parent’s love. It’s not that they stop loving their dog, it’s that through the birth of their child, and what their evolutionary biology triggers, they have (for the most part) revealed to them that they have a far higher capacity for love then they were aware.
I say for ‘the most part’ because down the road, in part in my opinion due to the pet-parent, fur-baby animal rights propaganda, even when there are serious problems relating to a dog safely coexisting with a human child (their own or others), there is still incredible fur baby/pet parent social pressure for them to give the dog elevated status equal to that of a human child- even if it puts a child at risk. Some of the more fanatical give greater than status to the dog over a human child.
Very different from not so long ago when a dog behaved aggressively towards a child the dog was almost always immediately removed from the home and more often than not, the gene pool. No one liked doing it, but it was done because it was the right thing to do.
Now parents are just as likely to be blamed, even vilified by furbaby/pet-parent advocates, for not somehow containing perfectly normal childlike behaviors and impulses found in of all things – children. I’ve yet to see anyone invent a way for an eight-year-old boy to stop being an eight-year-old boy. People in yesteryear did not put dogs down because they didn’t love those dogs. They put them down because they loved their children more.
Where I find this sort of anthropomorphic language, most concerning is within industries related to dogs – trainers, veterinarians, technicians. Hard to come down too hard on them when as I say, I also was guilty of similar transgressions at one time but I’m hoping they will begin to realize that words matter and be more careful in the language they use as they are in significant positions of influence.
Another group is pet product marketers. They have begun to jump on the bandwagon using terms like fur-baby and pet-parents. It has emotional appeal, and they must believe that if they virtue signal they will influence the consumers for whose dollars they hunger.
The use of anthropomorphic language such as furbaby/pet-parent is in my opinion now very likely playing a role in what may very well eventually prove to be significantly damaging to companion dogs and companion dog owners.
When we’re lucky, critical thinking plays a role in the forming policy or law. When we’re lucky. In North America where there are already significant cruelty and neglect laws in place, the humanizing of dogs language has already begun to backfire. The most recent evidence of this was a recent ban pushed by fur baby/pet parent animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare) advocates in Toronto, Ontario Canada, a city of 2,700,000 people.
Through some extremely unethical machinations – misrepresentation of facts and playing on the fur baby/pet parent sentiments planted in the minds of legislators they proposed and temporarily succeeded in banning slip collars and pinch collars – because fur babies and pet-parents have no need of ‘inhumane and unnecessary training tools. Even if not used abusively, they have the potential for abuse and should be banned.’
The potential for abuse bit was at least correct. It is, however, a red-herring argument as there is of course potential for abuse with any tool when you put a fool at the end of the tool. Later, through my own and the efforts of many others, the legislators became aware that they had been misled and the nonsense, at least for now was overturned.
I do have some strong opinions as to how prong or slip collars should be used as they are too often to significant and less significant degrees used in a manner that I believe to be needlessly detrimental to companion dogs, companion dog owners, and companion dog trainers. The focus of this article, however, is predominantly about language as opposed to dog training tools. Never the less, I can’t resist mentioning, what seemed to have completely eluded the furbaby/pet-parent and animal rights ideologists and temporarily, the legislators, is that if a tool can be banned because of potential for abuse, then all of our veterinarians need to replace their scalpels with spoons.
Recent archaeological finding seems to indicate that unless they had buckles or snap collars yet to be unearthed, 8,000 years ago, people used slip leashes. Admittedly not conclusive evidence but 8,000 years of use might suggest that they have both a dog-friendly and dog owner-friendly application, but it’s a hint that perhaps the pros outweigh the cons.
Legislators can be forgiven for not being up to date on recent archaeological findings, but there was plenty of evidence in their own backyards. Animal rights advocates pointed legislators heads in the direction of pet-parents and fur-baby trains of thought, and they were so busy virtue signaling to voters that they didn’t consider the following.
Slip collars were and are used not only in daily use by companion dog owners throughout their city but by their own animal control officers and the humane society. Slip collars were and are found on every grooming table in the city. They were and are used in every sanctioned dog show. Police officers and the military, when they thought it appropriate have and do use pinch collars on some of their dogs. As have people with disabilities or dogs so powerful that they require the emergency break advantage that other equipment does not.
In Florida, using the same Torontonian misdirection and misappropriated pseudo-science, similarly motivated scoundrels attempted to pressure law-makers to legislate the manner in which a dog might be trained. Guess what manner that might have been? None other than the ‘pseudo-science-based’ ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ furbaby/pet parent dog training ideology.
If ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach to dog training is based on science, it is a ‘science’ I have been unable to find any actual evidence. This is because there isn’t any. Nor will there ever be. Laboratory and other highly controlled environments (an Orca’s aquarium) are one thing. The real world (Orca in an open ocean or a dog in a busy home or neighborhood) quite another. Evolutionary biology has spoken very clearly as no higher order social species embraces ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ fur baby/pet parent pseudo-science pushed by ill-qualified dog trainers.
‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog training is only “science” to trainers that have abandoned logic, critical thought and fill that void by embracing logical fallacy and cognitive bias. It is no wonder that so many of them push the concept pet-parenting and fur-baby language.
Words influence society which influences law and policy creation. When we’re fortunate critical thinking plays a role in forming policy or law. In North America where there are already significant cruelty and neglect laws in place, anthropomorphic language may have already begun to backfire. I think it’s time for dog training professionals to pay more careful attention to the language they use. Even more importantly, to gently speak up when their peers use this type of language and go so far as to contact advertisers that do so.
Also, and most importantly of all, rather than waiting to rise in outrage when something like Toronto or Florida occurs, rise and act now. Act before it happens in your community. You can act now if you are a dog trainer by joining an association committed to defending the truth. Beware any of the “associations” that insist on ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ “science.” These are more cults and at best clubs rather than a real association. I would suggest looking into the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). It has its flaws as well but is more open than most to critical thought and approach to dog training.
If you already belong to an association, don’t just pay a membership – volunteer to do something. It should not matter that Toronto or Florida is not your community. It is coming your way.
Language is not the only factor influencing our current and future relationships with dogs, but I believe it to be a significant factor. Copious research has been done on how wording critically impacts the outcome in things like polls, surveys, marketing, etc. It has repeatedly been found that answers and response end up having more to do with the wording of the question than a person’s actual beliefs. I think it’s time to stomp on anthropomorphic language. On the surface, it is innocent enough, but as John Keating said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” He should have added, “but pay attention to the words you use, because it isn’t necessarily always going to be the way you think or necessarily for the better.”
John ‘Ask the Dog Guy’ Wade
This article above is a heavily edited version of a piece I originally wrote for the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) publication with a dog trainer audience rather than companion dog owners. I’m not sure whether it was ever published.