January 21, 2014 by Julia West
In the past several years, it seems like there has been more and more research done on dogs and their place in our lives. A recent study found that domestic dogs, like children, used their owners as “secure base” which helped them show more confidence and willingness to try new things. This suggests that dogs are viewing us, at least in some ways, as parental figures. As one half of a couple that has gone the “puppies, not babies” route, I’m not surprised to hear this. But it reminds me of a question that I’ve asked myself and others in the past.
How do we define or “name” our relationship with our dogs? Patricia McConnell recently posted her musings on the study, asking “Can a member of another species really be a member of our ‘family?’ If not, how would we describe them and our relationship to them? How might we describe their relationship to us?”. I do believe that dogs are members of my family, but I haven’t yet found a word or phrase that captures our relationship accurately. All the options I’ve encountered strike me as either too distant or too over the top. I’m playing a linguistic game of Goldie Locks and so far Baby Bear’s porridge is eluding me.
Simply saying “my dog” or referring to myself as a “dog owner” when I’m talking logistics or facts makes sense – “I’m here to pick up my dog from surgery” – but it rings a little too cold when I’m talking about our lives together. Similarly, companion sounds a bit too much like you have a ward or live-in help. It is well-suited to service dogs, such as Canine Companions for Independence, which may be family but are also live-in help. Outside of that context, companion seems too casual. The last time I posted the question of what to call our dogs, someone suggested “friend” or “roommate” which sounded both a little silly and implied the pups are on equal footing. Still not quite a match – and if they are on equal footing with me, I think it is about time they chipped in on the bills. All of the above options teeter too close towards Animal Rights lingo for me, implying that we are mere acquaintances or caretakers (I won’t get into my feelings on AR here. For now let’s just say I am invested in animal welfare, which is an entirely separate thing).
Like the study, I find that my relationship is a little less “owner” and a little more “parental”. When we are at home, Aaron and I sometimes sarcastically refer to our dogs as “your daughter” or “your son” – usually a tongue in cheek way of blaming each other for the offending Boxer’s behavior. We are guilty of calling each other “Mom” and “Daddy” to the dogs as well. It came up naturally, because we rarely call each other by name at home, so saying “Julia” and “Aaron” to them would have felt odd. And telling a dog to “go find honey” would’ve just sounded wrong. My mom is “Grummah” to the dogs and she refers to them as her granddoggers because she also views them as a version of family.
Still, going as far as using the term “furkids” makes me cringe. Most people I know who use it are perfectly reasonable pet owners, but it seems to be associated with the crazy pet people. Not the owners that dote a little more than average, I’m talking about the people who dress their pooches in cutesy outfits and tolerate all sorts of inappropriate behavior from their furry charges while cooing “isn’t that cute!” I may put a prop on my dogs for the occasional holiday card, but I’m still very much aware that they are not little humans in fur coats, so I avoid terms that imply as much.
No terms seem to fit the bill, so what is a reasonable dog lover to do? I am going to keep looking for words that accurately express our relationship. In the meantime, don’t think I’m nuts if you overhear me talk to my dogs about “Daddy” or think I’m detached if I refer to myself as a “dog owner”. I’ll have to make do with being a little too hot or too cold until I find a term that is just right.