Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Do We Treat Dogs The Same Way As Children In Our Modern Families?

The line between dogs and children seems blurred in families.

A new online survey by Kelton Research, involving about 1000 people, shows that the status of dogs as family members is changing. It appears that in the minds of the Americans who responded to the survey, dogs are becoming more important as family members, particularly as children. Most recognize that this represents a change in attitude since nearly 60% believe that their dogs are currently more important in their lives than were the dogs that they had during their childhood days. Two out of three also feel that they are more caring and treat their pet dogs better than did their mother and father.

Perhaps the most striking thing to come out of this research is that the pet owners of today seem to blur the lines between children and pet dogs in many ways. For example, 81% of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, equal in status to children. It appears that dogs have become such an important part of the family that 54% of Americans now consider themselves to be "pet parents" rather than "pet owners". Apparently this change in attitude seems to occur the moment that the dog joins the family.

dog pet puppy baby child children
That many families seem to equate dogs to children seems to be the major finding of the study. The research shows that pets have become such an important part of the family that more than half of the dog owners (58%) are comfortable using nicknames for themselves such as "Mommy" and "Daddy" when talking about themselves in reference to their dogs. In fact 35% even refer to their dog as "son" or "daughter". The idea that we are thinking about our dogs more like parents than pet owners is also supported by the fact that 10% of the dog owners celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day with their dog.

Dogs are often the target of conversation, with 77% of pet owners admitting that they talk to their pets as if they were family members. Furthermore, other research has shown that when we talk to our dogs we tend to use language and rhythms that are much the same as those that we use when talking to children. Following in this vein, psychologists have noted that it is quite common for parents to have two or more nicknames for their each of their children, which they tend to use in different situations. This survey shows that the same is true for dogs, with two thirds of the sample admitting that they had two or more nicknames that they used for their dog.

While dogs are treated like children in the matter of communicating with them, there is more important evidence suggesting that dogs have been elevated beyond the status of mere animals into true family members who not only have the same rights and entitlement to affection that children do, but also have the same obligations. Thus nearly 72% of dog owners who have children seem to apply the same disciplinary standards to the dogs as they do with their kids. Yet, although they may be disciplined, these pet dogs are also given special privileges and prerogatives in the home. The results indicate that 62% of the dogs have their own chair, sofa, or bed.

The parallel between the way that children and dogs are treated is reinforced by the fact that 81% of dog parents know their pets' birthdays. In addition 77% have celebrated this occasion by buying him or her a present to mark that day. In addition 74% of pet parents said that they like to share at least one meal with their dogs each day, with three quarters of them choosing dinner as their favorite. Dinner is also, of course, the traditional time for families and children to spend time together.

It is easy to recognize that you are dealing with proud parents when you walk into their home. This is because there are pictures of the children that are prominently displayed. Again, we find that dogs are now being treated similarly. On average dog owners have about seven photos of their dogs displayed in their homes or offices. Also 23% of pet parents have a photo album dedicated to only pictures of their dogs, and 16% have started scrapbooks for their pets. Furthermore, in much the same way that parents can seldom be found without a photograph of their children with them at all times, 71% of pet owners admit that they have at least one picture of their dog that they carry with them.

Analysis of the intimate and casual conversations between members of a couple shows that, when they are parents, they tend to speak a lot about their children. According to this survey, dogs, much like children, tend to occupy a large portion of the conversations of couples. For example, 79% say that they talk more about their dogs than about politics, while 55% discuss topics that include their dog more than topics concerning their human friends, and 48% say that they talk more about their dog than their jobs. Perhaps a bit of a surprise is the fact that 57% say that they and their partners spend more time chatting about their dogs than about sex.

The reason for this change in status, with dogs becoming virtual children, is not directly addressed by the survey. It is likely however, that one reason might be because more North American couples are childless, or have fewer children. Another probable factor is that with increasing life spans, parents suffer from a sort of "Empty Nest Syndrome" for a longer period of time while they get to watch their children move away, perhaps to another city or a distant locale. In such cases it is likely that dogs can serve to satisfy our need to nurture, in much the way that human offspring do. In that way we come to view them, and to treat them, as the children who are not currently there in our family.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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