Sunday, September 8, 2019

Pets and People

Mupsy was a beloved member of my family when I was growing up.  She was sweet, beautiful, and mild mannered.  She loved our family unconditionally and we loved her the same way. Like all of us, she had her place in the family tree... mother, father, daughter, sister, pet.  Human, human, human, human, dog.  That is right, she wasn't a person.  Of course, this didn't make her any less of a member of the family, but our expectations of her were different than they were for us human family members.  Mupsy was incredibly well trained.  She didn't need a leash or a hidden electric fence, she knew where she was and was not allowed to go.  But she did need us to feed her, let her outside, and meet her other needs... which we gladly did, because of what she gave us in return.  In fact, scientific studies show that having a bond with a pet helps our physical, emotional and social well-being.

And because I understand all of this, it is with great gentleness that I say... Please do not compare your pet to a human.  This is not to slight your beloved friend, or to diminish the human-like personality traits of your fur baby.  It is to implore you to recognize that there are significant differences between human relationships and those with our pets.

Pet owners, this is why those of us who have raised children cringe when you compare being a pet owner to being a parent.  According to research by animal psychologists, dogs are as intelligent as the average two-year-old child.  They are capable of understanding up to 250 words and gestures, can count up to five and perform simple mathematical calculations.  Like a two year old, they are dependent on you for their every need.  And like a two year old, they will develop a bond and attachment to the people who care for them.  Unlike a two year old, your dog is never going to advance beyond that.  And that is OK!  This is what we expect from our fur babies!

Parents of human babies, on the other hand, still have years of change to survive.  While the goal of having a pet is to enjoy the unconditional love and companionship they offer, the goal of being a parent is to raise a child that eventually becomes an independent, contributing member of society.  And with this challenge comes a certain amount of suffering and sacrifice that we wear as a badge of honor.  For example, while you may allow or even encourage your pet to sleep next to you, a parent's job is to teach our child to learn to sleep alone - despite how much we may want to do nothing but hold them after a bad dream. 

Throughout a child's life, we continue to do things that lead toward the ultimate end result of them leaving home, and hopefully starting a family of their own.  And in this process, we wake up early to pack lunches, struggle to get them out of bed and appropriately dress their little wiggling bodies, stay up late helping with homework, spending time we would rather be sleeping to instill the value of a job well done.  We hold their fevered bodies, kiss and bandage skinned knees, love them despite being told they hate us, listen and try to comfort them when they lose a friend, teach them to drive, stay up all night worrying when they are out, save money for college, go to sporting events and recitals, watch them walk for their diploma, and walk them down the aisle to give them away when they find their true love.

Speaking of true love, there is another important distinction between pets and humans.  Human love and emotion is complex.  Humans require more than a few treats mixed in with their kibble and a scratch behind the ear to develop trust and attachment.  I recently spoke with someone whose expectation for romantic love was for it to be as constant and unconditional as his dog's love.  Studies suggest that it isn't uncommon for someone who has been hurt by human relationships to turn to the unconditional love of a pet as their primary way to fulfill the desire for a committed relationship. In many cases, those same individuals who can't trust a human being are naturally also unwilling to give the same unconditional care and compassion they have for their pet to a love interest.  In this particular case, his dog was trained exclusively with positive reinforcement, while fellow humans were met with criticism when they fell short of his expectations.  While a dog might be upset when challenged for a short while, it will inevitably get over it within a few hours with little effort on anyone's part.  A human, on the other hand, isn't likely to jump on your lap and lick your face a few hours after a disagreement - at least not without some form of conversation or apology.

Are people more complex than pets?  Absolutely.  Are they worth the effort?  I guess that depends on whether your only need is to receive unconditional love, or if you're willing to put a little time and effort into understanding someone who can meet your physical needs, share the burden of other responsibilities, discuss topics that interest you, and grow old with you.  I tend to say yes, they are worth it.... and that doesn't mean I love my cats any less.