Thursday, 10 September 2015

Your "Fur Baby" Is Just A Dog

Skilled dog trainers and cutting-edge canine researchers are always telling us not to anthropomorphize our dogs.  Bestowing human traits on dogs leads to poor training decisions, as scientific information is subsumed by beliefs about what dogs ought to know and be able to do.  

People like Alexandra Horowitz and Temple Grandin have helped the cause of animal welfare by reminding us to see the world from the animal point of view when deciding how to create the ideal environment for them to thrive.  The more we anthropomorphize our dogs, these trainers and researchers say, the less well we will be able to treat them, at least in regards to training.  So it would be tempting to conclude that if you love dogs, you should try not to see them as human. 

And yet, there is no denying that in recent years there has been an explosion in the use of terms like �fur baby� to refer to dogs.  Just last week, I saw a car with this bumper sticker: 

So why is it that we are so certain of the badness of giving dogs human traits when we�re training them, but so sure that this is the right way to see them when we�re talking about their value and relationship to us?  What could lead to this kind of dissonance?  

I suspect that there is an element of speciesism underlying this juxtaposition.  Speciesism is a kind of prejudice involving the belief that humans are more valuable than other animals simply because they are human.  Like other forms of prejudice, speciesism often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by individuals, and is best identified through looking at the language we use.  

We love dogs, and we want to do right by them.  When we try to express just how much we love and value dogs, however, we find ourselves resorting to human terminology, like �baby� - never �just a dog�.  This pattern of language suggests that, in our value system, something has more value when it is more like a human.  If we want to express our high regard for something, we tend to use language that points out the human-like traits it has, like �my dog�s so smart�, or �dogs are amazing because their brains process emotions like ours do�.  

But what is wrong with dogs just being dogs?  Why do we have to humanize them to justify the love and care we give them?

I think that the insights that researchers and trainers have given us about training dogs can carry over to valuing them too.  They have shown us that it�s possible to relate to dogs by understanding the world from their point of view as well as from ours.  Although language like �baby� and �furkid� doesn�t necessarily do any harm, we should be careful that it isn�t leading to a distorted picture of what a dog really is.  We can see a dog as an animal without minimizing our love for them or our obligations to the ones that we take into our lives and our hearts.