Are you a dog "owner"—or a dog "guardian"?

Are you a dog "owner"—or a dog "guardian"?

Are you a dog "owner"—or a dog "guardian"?

Pets and people.
March 5 2004 10:19 AM

Guarding the Guard Dogs?

Are you a dog "owner"—or a dog "guardian"?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Last month, In Defense of Animals, a California-based animal rights organization, sent me some materials about its "Guardian Campaign." A polite letter complimented me on my most recent book, then requested that I use the term "guardian" rather than "owner" in future writings about dogs.

The benefits of relating to animals as guardians rather than as owners would be "far reaching," wrote IDA president Dr. Elliot Katz (who's no relation). Changing how we speak would help change how we act. In a world where dogs are protected rather than owned, Katz argued, it would be easier to crack down on animal abuse, end the puppy-mill trade, and stop the killing of animals at shelters.

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As a dog lover, owner of a rescue dog, and member of two rescue groups, I'm not convinced there will be concrete benefits from this metaphoric, even Orwellian revolution. How exactly will these semantic changes improve the lot of animals? Why can't we shut down puppy mills, end some cruel animal research, save the lives of dogs and cats in shelters, prosecute animal abuse, and still call ourselves "owners"?

IDA's letter proudly pointed out that San Francisco; West Hollywood; Berkeley, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Amherst, Mass., and the state of Rhode Island have already enacted ordinances changing owners into guardians. (Some of those jurisdictions have also embraced the animal-rights movement's other language crusade, changing "pets" into "companion animals.")

Although IDA cited these cities and state as evidence that the notion of "guardian" is spreading, to me it suggests the opposite: Its successes are confined to left-wing pockets. I'll be impressed when Kansas City takes up the idea.

Social movements are only as effective as their ability to win popular support. I'm currently living in rural upstate New York, and I showed the IDA packet to Sandra, a sheep farmer who lives down the road with her female partner. She was shocked. "I love my Rottweiler," Sandra told me. "But I'd love to marry my partner and I can't. I have to say I'm a bit uncomfortable with dogs having more rights than I do. Me first." Sandra had just filed legal papers to have her partner declared her legal guardian in the event of serious illness. She said she was not about to do the same for her dog.

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I reminded Sandra that animal rights don't really come at the expense of human rights—there's no reason both species can't have some protection. But her reservations are important. Easing animal suffering is inarguably worthwhile; turning animals into a kind of human is another matter.

And such a transformation seems the goal of some animal activists. My IDA packet contained a testimonial from a Michael Mountain of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. "People of other genders, races and even age groups were once treated as property in this country," Mountain wrote. "Now, it is time for 'people' of other species to be accorded the same simple dignity of being recognized, not as someone else's property but as beings in their own right."

Mountain couldn't have made the point more dramatically—or offensively. I don't care to jump in with a moral value system that equates my beloved border collies with human slaves. Nothing about this comparison helps animals. It distorts their true natures and diminishes ours.

The guardian campaign is a vivid example of the growing tendency to blur the boundaries between us and our pets. Many Americans have already stopped seeing their dogs and cats as animals. They're family members, emotional support systems, metaphors for issues from our own pasts, aids for healing and growth, children with fur.

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Seeing them the way we see ourselves—as having human thoughts and needs, human rights—is another kind of abuse and exploitation. It is cruel to crate a child, but it's often helpful and soothing to crate a dog. No human would want to spend five minutes in a kennel, yet good kennels, much maligned by deeply attached pet owners, are often the safest and best places to leave dogs when we leave home.

Seeing dogs as piteous, deprived, abused, and needy can lead us to treat them unwisely. Vets cite overfeeding and the resultant epidemic obesity as a major killer of dogs and cats in America. Yet I can't count how many times I've heard somebody say, "I feed him because I just can't bear to starve him." Or "I just can't resist when he begs for food. He's so cute." Any vet or animal nutritionist would tell these people that they're doing as much harm to their cute little beggars by overfeeding them as they would by kicking them.

People who see their dogs as humanlike often struggle to train them properly, especially if they believe they were abused or mistreated. Owners sometimes think their dogs have already suffered so much that they couldn't possibly inflict any more criticism. Yet it's that very firm, effective training that would make those dogs happier and more secure. And what about the growing number of owners who find neutering cruel or unbearable, because they would find it so? Refusing to neuter may put their own pet or someone else's in danger—causing aggression, running away, and unwanted litters. Or the pet owners who make their dogs hyper by believing they need to "play" continuously, like overprogrammed boomer children? They drag them to unruly play groups, toss Frisbees and balls night and day, haul them to an endless round of organized activities—but fail to teach them how to be calm.

The humanlike view of dogs affects the decision about when to euthanize a sick or elderly pet. I recently attended two veterinary conventions where scores of vets told me their biggest recent problem is people who see their pets as so human that they simply cannot end their lives or suffering, no matter the cost or the pain.

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There is no evidence that dogs have the kind of complex emotional lives and value systems that we do. It's one reason why we love them so much, in fact. They are neither "good" nor "bad." They don't hold grudges, act in petty ways, or seek revenge. They read our moods, but not our minds. If they did, we'd start loving them as we love other humans—which could mean a lot less than we love them now.

Dogs are not "people" of another species. They are another species. To train and care for them properly, to show them how to live in our complex world, requires first and foremost that we understand that. I owe my dogs much—more than I can say—but they are not my "companions"—as if we voluntarily chose to hang out together but none of us has authority over the others. I bought and/or acquired them. I own them. I am profoundly responsible for their care and well being.              

Guardianship, a word always applied to human beings, implies equality—the highest and perhaps most noble of all goals in this democratic nation. Ownership implies responsibility. Americans who own dogs need to be more responsible for them, literally and emotionally—not more equal to them.

The drama of the modern dog is that he is segregated from society—from work, children, public places—and then blamed for not knowing how to live in our world. The things he wants to do—have sex, roll in gross stuff, roam freely, squabble with other dogs, chew shoes, pee on every other tree—are either illegal or frowned upon. His challenge isn't to become a free and equal person in the best traditions of our society but to learn how to live in the alien world of people.

Guardianship suggests dogs have a right to live their own lives as they wish. This is impossible in our dog-unfriendly world. Ownership implies a human duty to help the dog adjust to this difficult, inhospitable place.

"Dog owner" is a proud title. It suits me fine.