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Stop calling yourself a dog parent Some pet owners are getting confused

Puppies are not babies. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Puppies are not babies. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images


March 18, 2022   6 mins

Was Lord Byron the first “dog dad”? At Newstead Abbey, the Romantic poet’s former home, there is a stone monument topped with an urn: perhaps the most famous pet memorial in the world. It was erected in honour of Byron’s dog Boatswain — a beloved Newfoundland.

When Byron was 20, Boatswain died of rabies. Devastated, he composed a poem that captures his grief and the sense of losing an irreplaceable relationship:

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one—and here he lies.

Byron made provision in his will to be interred with Boatswain, but he was hardly the first human to form such a bond; the earliest known remains of humans and dogs buried together date from 14,000 years ago.

Until last week, I’d only ever kept cats, and didn’t really get the dog thing. Then we got a nine-week-old Labrador puppy. Now, my every moment and mood is shadowed by a creature who thinks I’m some kind of divine being, and who wees on the floor whenever she gets excited, which is often. It’s been intense.

But as intense as a baby? A few days into dog wrangling, a friend texted me to ask how “new motherhood” was going. There are plenty of articles which will tell you parenthood and dog ownership are comparable, or that you should try raising a puppy before you try raising a baby as a sort of trial run, or that the former is even harder.

And some dog-owners insist flat out that dogs and kids are on a level. “Am I comparing my dog to your kids?” asks young dog-owner Eva Hall. “Yes, yes I am”, because “I love him as much as you love your kids” and “let’s face it, he’s just better than your kids”. For those, like Hall, who see no distinction between dogs and kids, a puppy isn’t like parenting: it is parenting.

My already well-thumbed copy of Puppies for Dummies reinforces this, referring throughout to “dog parents”. Some of the products that cater to these “dog parents” are startlingly expensive and similar to the baby kit now in my loft. I’m not sure why a dog would need a pushchair, as puppies can walk from three weeks old; but you can still spend £350 on a deluxe dog buggy. There are slings, too; this one has a thousand or so positive reviews, many of which include photos of delighted owners carrying baffled-looking canines, slung like babies on their chests.

It’s true that in the case of both babies and puppies, you build an attuned relationship on caretaking and body-language cues rather than — as with adult friendships — conversation or shared interests. There are also broken nights, the cleaning up of bodily waste, and the sense that you’re in charge of creating a routine for a dependent other.

But I scarcely need list the reasons why a dog is a dog, and a baby is a baby. Yet many seem determined to flatten the distinction. And while it’s common to decry this as “selfish”, or blame the housing crisis for making human offspring unattainable, this trend has also paralleled a wider one, now decades old, away from boundaries, distinctions and formal hierarchies in the way we organise our social life.

Today household-name management consultancies extol the benefits of “unstructuring” your corporation, and “unschooling” advocates wonder if parents imposing rules on kids creates more problems than it solves. Beneath it all lies a profound ambivalence about authority that’s percolated even into the asymmetrical relationship between owners and their pets.

But while many now seem uncertain about whether love is compatible with being in authority, radical equality even with kids or pets doesn’t always mean more love. Or, at least, it doesn’t always mean the right kind of love.

Over my lifetime, the trend has been away from formal acknowledgement of hierarchies in schools, families and the wider social fabric, toward a more egalitarian style. Parenting norms have shifted toward empathy rather than pulling rank. Advocates of “gentle parenting”, for example, suggest “negotiating limits” with your kids instead of telling them what’s going to happen: not “we’re leaving the park in five minutes” but “how many more goes on the swing shall we have before it’s time to go?” “Peaceful parenting” challenges the idea that “kids are less than”, arguing that it’s wrong to use “privilege as an adult” to control children’s actions and feelings. Instead, the child’s autonomy is emphasised; some even advocate asking a baby or toddler for consent before changing a nappy.

And as more parents seek to place kids on the same level as them, something similar is afoot with pets. The “multispecies family” is so pronounced a trend it is the subject of books and academic research, and three American states have recently passed laws obliging courts to treat pets as family members rather than possessions in divorce cases.

This all suggests a deep ambivalence about whether love and authority are compatible full stop. For the egalitarians, this is never the case. Children are an oppressed class; and pets are “infantilised objects of resource in a speciesist society”, forced to live in environments that do “psychological violence” to them.

This would, I suspect, have baffled the aristocratic Byron, for all that he loved his dog. If Boatswain’s epitaph is anything to go by, for him the dog wasn’t a substitute baby but something more like a deeply-loved feudal retainer:

The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone

It would have flummoxed my farming grandparents, too. They kept a working dog, a relationship that has the same feudal undertone as the one Byron describes. Their dog was a member of the household, scrupulously well-cared-for but given clear rules that marked her out as absolutely not on a level with the humans.

In contrast, a growing number of dog owners shrink from the idea of such a distinction in status. Such people would reject the term “owner”, preferring to anthropomorphise their canines, or otherwise emphasise the parity between them: for example by donning a matching dog costume to play with them or letting them into the bed.

But this comes with downsides, too. The arguments against swapping authority for empathy in parenting usually point to badly-behaved children. And if poorly-managed children may cover your walls in Sharpie, poorly-managed dogs may just be sharp. These are the creatures that gnaw at furniture, or maul livestock or humans — and who end up being euthanised.

And along with the risk that too-egalitarian a relationship will make for open season on misbehaviour in kids or animals, comes the creeping possibility that it will do so for adults as well. For once you argue that kids and animals are on a level with adults, and their autonomy a key factor in the relationship, you’re close to claiming — as the advocates for nappy-changing permission do — that we should elicit the consent of children or animals to the way we treat them.

If you’re arguing that kids and pets should consent, though, that implies they can. On the face of it, this sounds good and compassionate. But “consent” also implies a relationship between relative equals, in which both parties have similar levels of autonomy. Where this is understood to be the case, between adults, the modern world routinely treats consent as an adequate substitute for moral rules: we don’t need to say any action is wrong in an absolute sense, if everyone affected agreed to it.

Most people understand that the difference in capacity between an adult and dependent pet or child is so great that such a “consent” model only applies in a very limited sense. But the radical push to flatten all structures pulls us in the opposite direction — and for a minority, this leads to dark places.

For it’s also now a mainstream view that consent is the sole arbiter of whether a sexual act is acceptable. So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that as parenting and pet-care have become more radically egalitarian, a few are tempted to imagine the capacity for “consent” some now ascribe to children and animals in other areas of life might apply here as well.

One recent book by a UK academic argues that while sexual intimacy between humans and animals is often abusive, it needn’t be by definition. And it may or may not be a coincidence that the same writer who declared “‘parent’ is an oppressive class” worked as Communications Director for Prostasia, an organisation that supports the “liberation” of “minor-attracted people” from stigma.

For most, the retreat from authority is not a step toward abuse, just a well-intentioned effort to avoid undue harshness when in a position of authority over kids or pets. But while authority may be misused, asymmetries of power and responsibility don’t go away just because you wish they weren’t there. Children and domestic animals are genuinely in need of adult guidance if they are to integrate into the human social fabric. Refusing to provide this isn’t compassion, it’s cowardice.

More seriously still, abdicating our responsibility to accept the obligations that come with being in authority over dependents risks abuses far worse than badly-behaved kids or pets. For pretending we’re on a level with our pets or kids doesn’t diminish the power we have over them. It just makes it easier to conceal that power, and convince ourselves they’ve consented, as equals, to whatever it is we desire. And very few individuals have no desires they’re ashamed of.

It’s not just unruly dogs that need to be kept on a leash, but also the dark side of humans. If we’re to wield power responsibly in our households, we owe it to our dependents to acknowledge where it lies.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Dogs aren’t humans and see the world very differently than we. They are hierarchical in outlook and won’t be secure unless they know you’re (benignly) in control. Put them in charge of the situation and at worst, they will become insecure, panicked and in the end neurotically aggressive. Anyone who can’t get this through their head has no business keeping a dog. It simply breeds a problem for the rest of us to deal with.
Whilst the same could possibly be suggested of children, there’s an important difference. Children can be almost as feral as dogs, given the opportunity, but there is at least hope they may, in the long run, with succour and guidance, improve. That said, both tend to live in the moment and will wreck anything decent you bring into the house, at least if my dog and kids are any example to judge by.
Love them both in different ways, of course – but being too soft headed with either doesn’t strike me as very sensible.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

It is only a matter of time before some people argue for marriage laws to be changed to include their pets.

Styff Byng
Styff Byng
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

t

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Very true, but the amount of people you see with their dog walking 10 feet in front of them on a lead indicates that most “dog parents” don’t realise this.

If asked they would assure you that they are in charge, but that the dog “likes” to walk ahead (ie I couldn’t be bothered to train it to walk to heel). What they don’t understand is that no one told the dog, who thinks he’s been put in charge. These dogs are then nervous as they are out of their depth with the responsibility they think they’ve been given.

It’s remarkable how many humans can’t grasp this simple psychological reality, purely because their own ego won’t allow it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Nick Wade
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

Quite incredible isn’t it? And by the time the dog, out of its depth, does something heinous, the owner usually cops far too little of the blame.
My own hound (a very frisky Viszla/GSP cross) instinctively circles to my left when on a lead and rarely pulls. He’s reminded why he shouldn’t, if he does – a sharp growl from me is all it takes (recalling that “no” means nothing to a dog but a growled “bah!” gets their attention pretty well – you’ve got to talk their language.) Looping his lead back around his hindquarters also helps if he’s persistent, I find. And oh, did we spend time on recall training! All paid off of course. But it’s a bigger commitment than many people realise, to own a dog and do so properly.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

My dog knows she has at least to pretend we are equals . If she pulls on the lead it’s usually because she can smell the park and gets excited or she realises we are heading in the direction of the groomer and wants to pull me in the other direction , She wants to do things she likes and avoid things she doesn’t . She doesn’t appear to care much about status and hierarchy .

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

They are hierarchical in outlook and won’t be secure unless they know you’re (benignly) in control.

Well said. This is precisely why the forbears of today’s dogs were domesticable in the first place: domesticate the leader and you domesticate the pack. The modern wokies who anthropomorphize their dogs and balk at the term “owner” have no clue about biology.

Mel Bass
Mel Bass
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Lol Richard, you describe my dog’s behaviour perfectly. Insecure, hyper-reactive, neurotic and aggressive, with at least twenty nipped victims to her name, to the point where she was nearly seized and destroyed by the police last year, after chasing and biting a passing jogger. At that time, I hasten to add, the dog belonged to an erratic elderly neighbour who had no concept of discipline or control and who would never take responsibility for her own actions, let alone the dog, which had been getting more and more out of control over several years. The dog never knew any stability or consistency in her owner’s behaviour and responded accordingly. In fact, both owner and dog were a notorious and anti-social local nightmare.
The old owner ended up in a care home last autumn, and I somewhat warily took on the dog, but she’s calmed down to the point where people who knew her before don’t recognise her. I don’t claim to be the perfect dog owner, but routine, good diet, plenty of exercise and clear boundaries have made all the difference – and yes, if people can’t grasp those basic principles, they shouldn’t have dogs.

Skip Simonds
Skip Simonds
2 years ago

“Children and domestic animals are genuinely in need of adult guidance if they are to integrate into the human social fabric. Refusing to provide this isn’t compassion, it’s cowardice.”
Ah, now there’s the rub. Given the current arc of society, at some point the vast majority of all “adults” will be merely older children who have attained the age of majority, have birthed children and obtained domestic animals, but have never been parented themselves. Where then will the “adult guidance” come from?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

If dog “parenting” and real parenting are the same thing, then why not nappies for dogs, to stop them from s**tting everywhere?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Or somebody following me around with a bag while I do it wherever I please.

Rhonda Culwell
Rhonda Culwell
2 years ago

Oh, they do have them to catch their pee. Funny site!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Because they learn far faster than human babies.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Recently in Singapore. Dog licenses. All dogs on leads, powerful breeds eg Alsatians etc muzzled in public. Fine. UK? No dog license. Recent stories of lockdown dogs untrained and now being dumped- vet bills etc. These idiots didn’t think it through did they? Easy to spot untrained dogs everywhere. Huge growth in pestilental unlicensed (untaxed?) commercial dog walkers. Our local green spaces frequently overrun with 8 or 9 dog vans in car parks. Dog shit in bags stinking in bins mar the landscape. ‘He’s only playing’? Nah- your untrained off the lead pooch runs up to me and I’m not going to grin inanely and coo over your damned dog.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I am a dog owner and agree with you (and yes, my dog is the best dog in the world).

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Never been a problem with trained dogs and responsible owners.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Apart from mine, obviously


Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Another great essay from Mary. I particularly enjoyed

“the modern world routinely treats consent as an adequate substitute for moral rules: we don’t need to say any action is wrong in an absolute sense, if everyone affected agreed to it”

We should be grateful we still have thinkers like Mary and do more to promote their views.

By contrast, I made the mistake of following the “mainstream view” link to an article written by a “Kenan Professor Emeritus of Philosophy.”

I’ve recently been reading Roger Scruton. The difference in the quality of writing, and rationality of argument, between Mary, Scruton and the Kenan numpty is absolutely stark. Spell check initially made him Kebab Professor Emeritus – much more appropriate.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

When my husband and I took on our first pair of labrador puppies (we are now on our third pair), I had next to no experience of dogs. The best advice I was given was simply the importance of the word ‘no’. I can’t say if it is true for kids (as I don’t have any), but it is crucial for both the dog and the human. For my husband love is incompatible with authoirty and he can’t say no: the dogs run rings round him, never come when he calls, or obey. They (mostly) do all three with me as I have been firm from the start. Dogs — and I’m guessing kids — need clear limits and structures, otherwise they are unhappy as well as wild.

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
2 years ago

Mary, seriously, bin the dog book and find another one that doesn’t refer to you as a parent. If they’re getting that so wrong, lord only knows what else they are getting wrong also.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

Thank you, Mary, for saying what needed to be said. If you live in a hipster town like I do, you’ve probably noticed vintage-clothed thirty-something dog parents being walked by their pseudo-progeny seeming miserable in their doggy parenthood. So often they are unable to control the animal whose care is the sublimation of their fear of real responsibility and real parenthood. The dog is supposed to be filling the void but instead it only blurs the void’s boundaries and depth. And pointing that out is impossible. It’s perceived as rude because it is rude because it’s true.

Lori Wagner
Lori Wagner
2 years ago

Dogs should be dogs. They don’t enjoy being some kind of slave to human emotional needs. That’s why you see free roaming, non-infantilized dogs in Kenya, much happier and better behaved. Also, they know any misbehavior won’t be tolerated.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Time to bring back the best show that was ever on the telly:
DOG BORSTAL!

Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
2 years ago

Excellent essay that all prospective dog owners or parents should read!

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
2 years ago

As a late dog owner (through second marriage), I totally agree with the arguments posited here. Mary is right and as Richard points out that dogs really need boundaries. Often i refer to myself as daddy with the dogs though would never use parent in anything other than irony. I would add that we don’t really know that much about whats going on in a dogs brain and that their “thinking” is dominated by the caudate nucleus which is all about reward. See the brilliant book by neuroscientist Greg Berns (How Dogs Love us) In fact said dogs love a cuddle and attentive stroking as a sign of the “pack leaders” love and regard as much as the many treats we give them. The excellent dog trainer Graham Hall (Dogs Behaving Badly) (probably the contemporary Barbara Woodhouse gives excellent advice for the canine challenged rationalist!

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago

I once said to my sister – who has a child – and a dog – that having a dog must be just like being a parent. Her response was ‘no – you can’t lock your child in the bathroom for 10 hours so you can go to work.’

Melissa Martin
Melissa Martin
2 years ago

Overheard on our walk. “Mate, this woman, right, she’s negotiatin’ with a Scottish Terrier.” Reader, I was.

Last edited 2 years ago by Melissa Martin
Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Thank you, Mary.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
2 years ago

I love you, Mary Harrington.

Moving along…the point about consent and equals in relationship seems spot on to me. Aristotle makes a similar point when taking about friendship in the Ethics – the highest kind of relationship requiring a degree of equality.

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

Absolutely. So you’d be with the French who are OK with ignoring kids from time to time?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Thank **** I’m too old to have to think about this, and can take great joy in undermining parental authority through my grandchildren.
I get told to stop by my daughter more than the grandkids do. Setting a bad example apparently.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Dogs learn faster than humans and are mostly better behaved. There. I’ve said it.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

Whilst I agree that dogs are not children, im not sure why Mary chose to include unschooling in this essay as facilitating your childrens learning does not mean your children lack discipline or become feral, i speak from experience on the matter unlike Mary.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Yikes. You went there. So I’ll go there. Others can (even those without children) judge if your children lack discipline, manners, social fluency, etc. and probably do. In other words, whatever shortcomings your parenting style produces in your children, you, the parent, are probably the last person on earth able to recognize them for what they are.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

The operative word being “if” your children lack these attributes which you then back up with “you’re probably the last person on earth to recognise them for what they are”. If and probably really stand out there. You know what they say about ASSUMPTION?!? As I said, unschooled doesn’t mean undisciplined nor does it mean uneducated.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

If you’re fixated on “if” and “probably” you’re most certainly unwilling to take responsibility for your uncomely appeal to authority. Can I let you in on a little secret? It’s a grotesque breach of social decorum to tell a middle-aged woman without children that she can’t have an opinion about parenting because she isn’t a parent. Not only is that false, it’s ugly.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

You can have as many opinions as you like, it’s just when they’re based on nothing more than assumptions, I find they reflect more on you than me. Personally I find making judgements about strangers that you know very little about to be socially questionable behaviour but obviously that’s just me. Unlike you, I have made no assumptions about you, I simply responded to the assumptions you made about and my family based on one tiny nugget of information.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Nice. Let me paraphrase your evasion. “You can’t judge my words based on what I say.”

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

You got a – Lab – as your first experience with a dog?? Eeouch! Start at the deep end, eh?

Laura Kelly
Laura Kelly
2 years ago

I’m a little late to the discussion, but I think the dog parent paradigm is perfectly valid. Dogs are just a variety of wolves and, in a natural wolf pack, the alpha pair are, in fact, the parents who boss their adult children around. Dogs are a lot more flexible about pack structure and also more egalitarian. Your average dog pack has multiple loci of dominance; one dog may get the good bed, another is first in line for food, while another may hog the pettings. But when someone like Cesar Milan takes control of a large pack, he is literally taking on the role of the wolf father: he has control of all aspects of the dog’s life. With my four (4!) dogs, my role is half mommy to sweet itty bitty puppies and half imperious Queen of the Dogs.

Suz D
Suz D
1 year ago

Animals aren’t children. To say so is insulting to both, and to ignore the complexity of both. But neither are they just Pets. I prefer to refer to them as cross-species friendships.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

The thing in the photo looks like more dog grandmother than dog mother.