An Open Letter to Dog People, Dogs aren’t People
Dear Fellow Dog People,
Let me begin this post with absolute clarity: I AM a dog person. Coco, Max, Sugar, Sam, Megan, Murphy, Lucy, Emma and now Midnight . . . these are the dogs of my life from birth to present, and I loved them all. I loved a couple of cats (Kitty and Gremlin) too, before I married someone who was horribly allergic to cats and had two kids whose allergies were even worse. I love animals, but I do not believe animals are people.
I’ve always been an animal lover. When my dog Murphy (my first dog who was mine as an adult) died I cried for three straight days and couldn’t go to work. I’m still traumatized from watching him have strokes right in front of me and letting him pass on my lap. I held him for a long time before I could give up his body and go home to my empty house and all of his toys. His death was unexpected, and it was painful. I know what it is to release a pet’s life and return to a house from which they are missing. I remembered CoCo leaving to be released when I was eight. I remember coming home to find Max had died. It’s never easy, it’s always sad, and it’s something you never forget.
Then there was Lucy. I loved that spunky dog. In the photos of me the day I had to let her go to a new and better home it’s obvious I’ve been crying. After Lucy tipped over our infant son in his carrier and disconnected his oxygen tank by tripping on the lines, we knew she deserved a bigger, better house with people who weren’t terrified of losing their first-born child between open-heart surgeries. We were able to find the right forever family for her, but it still broke my heart to let her go. Emma was easier because she went to live with my mom, so we were still able to see her and rub her big tummy (she was part basset hound, part Jack Russell terrier, all love).
I believe pets are part of their families, but they’re the pet part. A dog is a dog, not a human. One thing I learned from Murphy was that dogs are not human children, they are dogs. Jim and I treated Murphy like a child, and that was unfair to the dog. We took his normal dog behavior personally. We expected him to learn things and change and grow, and he was limited to what he could learn by his context – he was a dog. We were expecting him to change as he aged by “maturing,” and this was just silly – Murphy.Was.A.Dog.
When we got Lucy and Emma I was committed to respecting them for what they were. We researched and did obedience training. We had the Internet by then and were able to look up information about dog behaviors and formulate dog-centric responses. We were learning to take dog behavior for what it was, not personally.
The disruption in my life with dogs came because my human child needed so much more than the average newborn as he survived multiple brushes with death before he even turned three.
It was not a good time to have a pet. We also believed then, as we still believe, that a member of the family should not be cast aside. We had to find new families for the dogs so they could get the love and attention they deserved. I would never, ever have taken them to the pound. I worked very hard to find the right home for Lucy and even went to visit and had the family visit us before we all agreed it was a good fit. I felt so broken by having to give my dogs away, even to good families, it took me ten years before I was ready to commit to another pet. I refused to bring a new family member into our home if our home was not a good and safe place for the pet. I take this responsibility extremely seriously.
Giving up my dogs to spare them my stress and my experience as a human mother led me to truly understand why dogs (and pets in general) aren’t people. When my son was born, I wanted him to survive his surgeries. When my daughter was born, I wanted her to never lose her brother. I wanted my kids to learn to walk, talk, read, create, and excel at their passions. I wanted my children to grow up and have full lives. I wanted preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, college and careers for my kids. I wanted proms and weddings and grandchildren. I wanted Christmases and birthdays for decades. This is what we want and expect from raising human children.
Dogs are walking when we get them. Dogs never learn to speak or read; most dogs never go to work. Most dogs don’t live two full decades much less six or seven. Dogs don’t get married, and if they do it’s a crazy human thing not something the dogs choose. When you get a dog, you know underneath all of the puppy love, you know beyond a doubt that this dog will die, and most likely you will have a role in its death either by witnessing it or hastening it or both. A dog is not a child. A dog is a dog.
I have friends whose real human children have died. I have far too many friends whose children have died, whose children are buried with gravestones marking their brief lives, whose children will never graduate from school, get married, or become adults at all. Those mothers and fathers feel a physical pain from the loss of their children. They have not only felt the breach of their relationship, but they have lost the future and all the things that might have been. Those are not things that can be lost with the death of a pet.
Even when you lose a parent you mostly lose the past. When you lose a pet you lose the present, but when you lose a child you lose not only the present and the future, but you lose the potential. A child’s death steals school dances, graduations, weddings. There are no new days of throwing leaves and jumping on the trampoline, no surprises, just a keening loss. When you lose a pet you lose their presence, but a child is transitory. A human child is the human soul’s anchor to the future. For those who actually lose a child, one of the worst things a person can ever do is compare parental loss to the loss of a pet. The arc of humanity is fractured when a child dies, but the death of a pet is part of the natural order of life. Pet death is what we sign up for when we bring them home with us; it’s part of the deal.
I am dog people. I LOVE LOVE LOVE our new puppy Midnight. He’s softer than anything I’ve ever touched. He’s smart and sweet and practically potty trained himself. He’s never pooped in our house! He did eat a solar light and scared us half to death, but he’s such a good dog. I adore this animal. I am in love with him, but he is my dog, not my child. I know this dog will die. I know that, if we’re lucky and he stops eating sharp plastic shards, he will probably die around the time that my kids are leaving for college and our house is paid off. I know that I will sob, and my heart will break, and I will take some time off work to mourn his passing when Midnight dies. I know this, and I brought him home to be part of our family anyway because I love, respect, and honor dogs for being who they are.
I knew this watching the eleven-week-old puppy bound across the green grass, that even as we said hello, one day we would say goodbye. I know this because I know he is a dog. I love him for being a dog. When I catch him chewing on my computer cord, I make sure he knows not to do it again, but I do not think he’s doing anything that any other dog would not do. I don’t expect anything more from Midnight than for him to chase a ball, learn to sit still for brushing, and to lay on my feet and keep them warm. I love this dog because he is a great dog.
Dogs are amazing. They are smart, beautiful, graceful, inspiring, loving, protective, and present. In many ways, dogs are vastly superior than humans at enjoying their lives. In many ways, I prefer the company of dogs to the company of humans, but that preference is based on the fact that dogs are not human, they’re splendid, magnificent, glorious dogs. Dogs live in the present and they bring you with them into the joy of the moment. This is a gift unique to pets and babies, maybe that’s why people compare the two, but babies don’t stay babies and dogs are always dogs.
Just because I don’t think dogs are people or children, doesn’t mean I don’t think dogs are “persons.” Every dog I’ve ever met had a unique personality. I don’t think dogs or cats are “property;” I believe they are family, and yet they are not human. I understand that when people say they love their pets like children that it an expression of love. However, that false equation not only devalues the unique relationships we have with our real human children, it undermines the nature and beauty of our pets and what they have to offer in what they are. Anthropomorphizing our pets is a disservice to us and to them. By trying to humanize our dogs, we strip them of their doggness, which is why we love them in the first place. We should respect and honor them for being dogs, not try to pretend they are people. The world will be a better place when we can appreciate each living creature for what it is, not what we want it to be.