The Baby Construct
If you want a child, have one, or adopt one. Just don’t make one out of your dog.
The need for humans to nurture is eons old. It’s natural, and good. It’s not even limited to humans: all parenting mammals show an innate drive to nurture, cherish, and protect their young. It’s preservation of the species, clear and simple- an effective way to ensure survival, and pass along the genes of successful animals.
But what of dogs? Should we cherish them in the same way we do a human child? Is that their purpose in life? Are pets simply surrogate kids, here for us to love on like some Raggedy Ann, or Teddy Bear? Or, are they more than that? Do they have their own complex, species-specific behaviors and phenotypes which define them, and which require us to treat them accordingly?
Forgive the multiple questions, but I’m filled with them today. My point is this: I believe dogs deserve to be treated as dogs, and not humans. They have their own precise behaviors and physiology, which do not include being swaddled, burped, coddled, or dressed. They don’t want to enroll in online dating, have their nails painted, take Rolfing classes, go to a French restaurant, or get their fortunes read. They do not want to wear jewelry, sunglasses or perfume, or get plastic surgery. Honest. That's just you projecting onto the dog.
Dogs DO want to smell dog butt, play, run, eat, wrestle with other dogs, chase cats, swim, find stuff, poop and pee, bark at strangers, roll in garbage, catch and fetch, and, well, be dogs.
The penchant for applying human characteristics to animals is immensely common. Just spending ten minutes on Facebook will reveal photos (many photo-shopped) of lions cozying up to lambs, horses hugging children, or Chihuahuas dressed up like Elton John. Ugh.
The real issue here is anthropomorphizing, or the need to humanize your dog, out of a desire to parent something other than an actual human child. Dogs are easier to care for than babies; they are mobile and responsive when only a few weeks old, and don’t need constant care for eighteen years. They bond quickly, and can communicate far better than a three month-old person can. They aren’t helpless, and don’t require a financial outlay of several hundred thousand dollars. They are smarter sooner, and generally more compliant than kids. Babies are cute, but they can’t fetch your slippers.
Unfortunately, this opens dogs up to the increasing phenomenon of humanizing, which, in my opinion, is a form of objectification. When a dog becomes a fashion accessory or squeeze toy, it’s time for a bit of self-evaluation. It becomes a little too "Baby Jane" for my tastes.
I have seen near-insane degrees of this “baby-fication” in my twenty-five years of training. They include:
• An elderly lady who’d set a place at her table every evening for her Yorkie, and serve the dog the same food she ate, off of fine china. The dog would stand on the table and lap water from a crystal tumbler.
• A fellow who carried his Pekingese everywhere in a sling, even at home, never letting the poor atrophied dog walk.
A woman who kept twenty toy dogs of varying breeds in her apartment, and spent the entire day having nice chats with them.
• A woman who wheeled her bonneted pugs around in a double-decker baby carriage, and had individual, water-filled baby bottles for them to drink from.
• A grad student who knitted a sweater for her whippet from hair she collected from her other dog, a Great Pyrenees.
• A man who insisted on keeping his beagle diapered for years, instead of housetraining it.
• A married couple who fed their Pomeranians by hand for their entire lives, for fear that the dogs might otherwise eat too fast and choke.
These situations are nuts, and symptomatic of people who desperately need to nurture something, but either cannot (or won’t) have a child.
News flash: it’s not cute, or kind. It’s patronizing, and harmful to the dog.
Each of the pampered dogs above showed profound anti-social behaviors, particularly toward other dogs. They had no confidence whatsoever, and simply did not know who to be. Genes pulled one way, human wants the other. They bit, barked, cowed, chewed off their hair, got sick often, ate poop, and acted like feral terrors at the veterinarian. And, most of them lived shortened lives. To add insult to injury, the people all asked me for behavioral help for their poor dogs. Guess who needed the behavioral help?
Domestication does not make dogs human. It does not matter that we have selectively bred them, manipulated them, trained them and altered their appearances for 20,000 years. It doesn’t matter that they, unlike other animals, make honest eye contact, and show near human emotional reactions. It means nothing that they are so tractable, and engaging. They are still four-legged canids with species-specific traits that do not match your own.
Dogs can smell a roast beef sandwich from a thousand yards. They can hear the high-pitched chitter of a mouse while you busy yourself in the garden, unaware. They can run much faster than you, and have hair all over their bodies (I know, some of us have uncles like that). They are innately suspicious of strangers, and constantly vie for status and control with dogs and other people. They have a different menses schedule, and a brain the size of a peach. They think in concrete terms, and are incapable of abstraction. They get fleas and ticks easier than us. They do not understand consolation. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Like humans, dogs can be spoiled. Dogs can become pushy and rude. Dogs can be violent and scared and contrary. Or happy, or content. No argument there. But how they learn to be any or all of these things depends in large part on you; give them constant gratis attention and reward, without any quid pro quo, and they will slowly become pushy, neurotic little nitwits. Expect no obedience from them, and they will happily oblige the chaos. And, treat them like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and you’ll end up with a crappy dog who you have to cloister off somewhere and make excuses for.
Instead of trying to make your dog into a proxy person, try to make yourself into a proxy dog. They can't think like you, but you can understand things from a dog's point of view.
Do me a favor. If you need to envelop some small creature with a nurturing lather, just volunteer at an orphanage, have a child, or get a guinea pig. Otherwise, respect your dog’s species-specific traits, and end the babying.