We Should Watch Our Words When Speaking About Animals
The words we choose to describe animals affect our relationships with them.
Posted August 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Dr. Stanley Coren wrote a great article a while ago debunking the "alpha dog" theory. Although his science is spot on, I suggest that we need to take it a step further and not just consider our actions but also consider speciesism and oppressive language when interacting with the animals in our lives.
Speciesism is the concept that one species (usually humans) considers themselves superior to other species. We are all living beings and (whether or not you believe in animal consciousness), we all deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. The Golden Rule says to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and yet speciesists say that this applies only from human to human and we shouldn't treat animals well because they are lesser beings.
Our words, how we speak about and to animals, often reflect a speciesist attitude. Some people are still using words like "master" and "owner" to describe their superior position in relation to their pets. But can we really own another living being? Recent studies in the intersectionality of oppressed people and animals have shown how similarly marginalized humans are treated to non-human animals. Animaladies, edited by Lori Gruen and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, discusses the similarities between the way women are oppressed by society and how animals are dismissed, bullied and oppressed by society. Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question by Bénédicte Boisseron takes a critical race theory perspective on both the oppression of Black and Brown people and the oppression of non-human animals and how this treatment of both affects the relationship between the two groups.
As an animal-assisted therapist, my colleagues and I are very conscious of the language we use when referring to our therapy animals. We never "use" the dog, we "include" the dog. We don't "own" the dog, we are "guardians." (Some people use the anthropomorphized title of "pet parent" and I have no problem with that—it's very affectionate. I personally prefer the more formal "animal guardian"). Even the word "pet" is diminutive and has a negative connotation, as if the animal is beneath the status of the human. I use the word "pet" in a colloquial fashion but when writing scientific papers I am always careful to say "companion animal," which provides more respect to our animal partners.
Our relationship with our pets is very involved and emotional. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of people consider their pets as family members, a buddy or their surrogate child. This is why I am still gobsmacked when I hear that people still follow dominance theory as debunked in Coren's article above. Would you put a prong collar on a human child? Would you poke a human child in the jugular? Hopefully not.
To suggest that we treat our pets in an aggressive manner is not consistent with animal science. In fact, animal science strongly recommends force-free methods. In zoos all over the world, animals are trained using positive reinforcement techniques. Could you imagine poking a Komodo Dragon or a lion in the neck to get them to act? Would you hold the mouth shut of a lion to get it to stop making noise? Hopefully not. You would redirect the animal to do something more enriching and productive. That's why it is so surprising that people still believe that bullying animals and physical "corrections" (dominance lingo meaning punishment) are effective in the treatment of companion animals.
Think of it this way. You are talking a lot. Your partner hasn't had enough coffee and asks you to be quiet. You keep talking. Which is more effective for you? 1. Your partner offers you pancakes so that you can't talk while your mouth is full or 2. he puts his hand over your mouth and firmly says, "Quiet." (I sincerely hope that your partner would choose the former; if you said number 2 I hope you rethink your relationship.) As I said, we would never do this to a lion, so why do we think this would work for a dog? As with any bullying/dominance/alpha tactic, this may work once or twice, but there is a high probability that you would eventually get bit. Or your dog would become hand-shy and it would damage your relationship with your dog. My husband knows very well that if he ever tried that with me, I would probably bite.
We want our pets to respect us and to listen to our directions because they love us and want to behave. As with a human child, we want to have the well-being of both parties in mind. We certainly have to acknowledge that our pets are a different species and they have different needs, but our human children will also have different likes and needs than their parents. I have to roll my eyes every time someone describes themselves as a "pack leader." Trust me, your dog knows that you are not a dog! You will never be a pack leader (unless it is of other humans) because you are not the same species as your dog.
Why do humans always feel the need to be superior to other species? Speciesism may reveal more about our vulnerabilities and fears as humans than anything about the animals we oppress and put down. (In a similar vein, your dog is not a wolf—please don't treat it like a wolf. Unless you treat your spouse like a gorilla or your boss like a bonobo. Chimps and bonobos share 99% of our DNA. Can you imagine if we used chimp mating behavior to teach us how to act on a date? That would probably go badly! No second date for you!)
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) describes the human-animal bond as "a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors considered essential to the health and well-being of both. The bond includes but is not limited to the emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment. The veterinarian’s role in the human-animal bond is to maximize the potential of this relationship between people and animals and specifically to promote the health and well-being of both."
We love our pets, we cherish our pets, we want that mutually respectful relationship with our pets. I suggest, therefore, that we become more aware of the words that we use to describe our relationships with our pets. Let's get rid of the Victorian Era terms like "master" and "owner" and "leader" and instead speak to the mutual respect in this relationship. Let's say "companion animal guardian" and "cues" (instead of "commands"). Can we truly "own" another living being? I firmly believe that we cannot. However, we can have an enriching and fruitful relationship with another living being, whether human, dog, cat, horse, rabbit, cow, or pig. Eliminating our own narcissism from our vocabulary and building a language of mutual respect can help us achieve that "mutually beneficial" relationship that is "essential to the health and well-being of both."
American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Human–animal bond. Schaumburg, IL: Author. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/kb/resources/ reference/human-animal-bond/pages/human-animalbOnd-avma.aspx
Boisseron, B. (2018). Afro-Dog: blackness and the animal question. Columbia University Press.
Coren, Stanley. (2010). Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201007/canine-dom…
Cohen, S. P. (2002). Can pets function as family members?. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 621-638.
Gruen, L., & Probyn-Rapsey, F. (Eds.)(2019). Animaladies: Gender, animals, and madness. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.