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March 2016: Pet Attachment: Questioning the Unquestionable?

Most leaders I know think they are lucid, and believe their decisions are guided by facts and hard evidence.

The vast majority of us don’t imagine ourselves to be emotionally out of control. Nor do we believe we project our emotional needs on others.

Well, here’s a litmus test:

If you’re a parent, a business leader or a spouse, and you want to better understand how emotional factors influence human decisions, pay attention to pet trends.

I began thinking about this in earnest when I encountered a dog who acts like the center of the universe. At our first interaction, this delicate canine was perched on a chair, eating blueberry cobbler from a pan on a kitchen counter.

The eyes of this floppy-eared spaniel, named Minnie, beckoned with unapologetic entitlement.

Minnie’s owner, a kindly woman named Missie, lives alone. Missie found Minnie at the local Humane Society, after her previous pooch, Sugar, died from complications of diabetes.

It was interesting to me that Sugar died of diabetes and that Missie named her dog Minnie. Both oddities begged for investigation. So I asked.

“Well,” Missie said, “It wasn’t my intention for Sugar to die of diabetes, but sometimes, you know, I lacked the discipline to refuse her table scraps that she shouldn’t have eaten. Sometimes I gave her cornbread, or chicken with barbecue sauce, or chocolate-covered raisins – God, she loved raisins – but supposedly those foods are no good for dogs. I guess her pleading eyes always got the best of me.”

“And what about Minnie’s name?” I asked.

“I named her Minnie because before Sugar, I had a spaniel named Maxie, whom I absolutely adored. I thought it was important that Minnie have her own identity so I named her the opposite of Maxie, you know, like minimum vs. maximum.”

Missie epitomizes the pet craze that has taken hold of America.

Thirty-nine percent of US households own at least one dog, an all-time high. (The percentage of households with dogs has been on a steady increase, while cat ownership has remained flat).

Doggie clothes, pet organic specialty foods, pet medications, pet cemeteries and pet insurance options are multiplying like fruit flies. Annual pet nail manicures, dental cleanings, massages and workout facilities are on the rise.

Check it out: you can now buy electric pet massagers and doggie nail polish (“in four cool colors!”) on the internet.

In a survey from October 2013, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found that 52.6% of dogs and 57.6% of cats are overweight or obese in the United States. The biggest concern with this issue is that 93% of dog owners and 88% of cat owners “thought their pet was in the normal weight range.”

Founder of APOP and veterinarian, Ernie Ward, said pet obesity “has the greatest collective negative impact on pet health, and yet it is almost completely avoidable.”

Humans are now endangering their pets through over-protection. Coddling has become a widely-accepted form of pet-abuse. Protests greet cat-haters and dog-fighters while the sugar-poisoning of pets begets yawns or sentimental approval.

Would our pets live longer if we scaled back our emotional neediness?

Consider: 76% of dog owners say they have given toys or presents to their pets on Christmas. What’s next: pet high chairs for the Thanksgiving dinner table?

The increased humanization of pets, the human/animal bond, and pet owners’ dedication to their pets’ health, have all contributed to a new trend that is driving growth in the industry: According to a survey, 70% of pet owners are willing to spend extra to ensure the wellness of their pet.

Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2011 discovered that owners who view their dogs as family members spent $438 on average at the vet, compared to $266 spent by households that saw their dog as a pet/companion, and $190 by those who viewed their dog as property.

Not surprisingly, the USA’s 31 accredited veterinary colleges and universities are at least as difficult to get into as medical school.

In 2014, Gen Y pet ownership increased. The majority of GYers view their pets as “furry babies” rather than companions. These new pet “mommies” are more willing to spend large sums on their pets.

Capitalizing on the steadily intensifying emotional attachment between owners and pets, in 2013, Petco changed its tagline from “Where Healthy Pets Go” to “The Power of Together.”

The Missie-Minnie bond epitomizes this emotional fusion. Here’s a pooch that dons Halloween costumes and winter coats, and is a special honoree at her own birthday party. Missie spends more on Minnie’s annual teeth cleanings than she does on her own.

What does this have to do with leadership?

Think about the many ways in which the emotional neediness of parents – worry, insecurity, over-protection, etc. – leads to the dismantling of confidence in children.

Ponder how over-functioning family business owners foster learned helplessness in their adult children employees.

Consider how misplaced “helpfulness” can insult and degrade people who are deemed to be “disadvantaged.”

No, dear reader, this blog is not about pets.

It’s about leaders like you and me, and our unregulated emotional need to be important to another creature – human or otherwise – at their expense.

It’s unsavory and wildly unpopular to suggest that we are projecting our emotional needs on our pets to the point of abuse.

I’m stopping short of that politically-incorrect assertion, but I am asking myself what explains our increased pet-coddling fervor.

And when should attachment to pets – or other humans – begin to raise eyebrows?

3 Responses to “March 2016: Pet Attachment: Questioning the Unquestionable?”

  1. March 01, 2016 at 10:54 am, BrookDocD said:

John – you put your finger on an issue that I could not have described. The pet craze befuddles me, but in terms of an illustration of our need to be important to someone/something – you’ve connected the dots for me. I look at my own children’s needs (or lack there of) and their confidence (or lack of it) and have to ask myself what am I doing to foster this?? Thanks for the eye opening article…

  1. March 01, 2016 at 6:40 pm, Matt V. said:

Great article and take John. Close to home as I’m living in a dog-centric community here in Northern CA and I often see undisciplined dogs with coddling masters. It give one a reason to pause and wonder how this kind of leniency plays out in how we align with certain front-runners in the current prez. campaign. One in particular is like a big clumsy and rude dog who keeps making a mess and knocking things over…and the reaction from many is one of admiration. It’s about time more people shouted “heel!!

  1. March 02, 2016 at 12:18 pm, Andrea Schara said:

Possible factors:t we use to have a lot more children and live a lot few years. It is odds on easier to survive now than one hundred or thousands of years ago. We are programed socially to cooperate for care-taking of others as to survival.

Thanks John, your humor is appreciated as to the challenge of seeing the tendency to over, over, over function in the name of love..

We need more humor in clarifying these automatic response, which, upon reflection, seem maladaptive.

We humans seem to be in the midst of changing conditions making it more difficult to perceive the world around us, we look for love and someone to save us and have a difficult time self regulating. Apparently we need to “love” the seemingly helpless

Now we have two or fewer children born. We are not replacing those who die in most industrialized nations. There is a growing fear of immigrants,and a growing population in non industrialized nations and are living way longer than expected.

Perhaps our feeling system is going haywire – the need to nurture and protect gets focused on love objects that seem easy to control, dogs etc. Our old instinctive brains have just gone a bit over the top.

Who knows if seeing this automatic behavior can enable change for the human?

  1. March 06, 2016 at 10:12 pm, Ann Marie Hoff said:

I read this article hoping there would be some nugget of information I didnt currently know. Being an animal communicator, I see a wide spectrum of how dogs are treated. I come from a farm, and grew up with the belief that animals should be trained, respectful and obedient. I somewhat changed that belief when I realized I could communicate with animals.

Yes, some people do coddle their animals. Animals that don’t live with humans are never overweight, so their is some mechanism functioning that supports weight gain. I see many pets that take on their humans emotions.

When I go to pet blogging conferences (yes, there is such a thing) the dogs there tend to not be trained. They will get on the table & eat your food, or a stranger incessantly in the mouth while their owner thinks it is “cute”. I do not condone that, but it is also not my place to tell someone how to treat their dog, anymore than I should tell someone how to raise their kids. What bothers me more, is this undercurrent that are angry that pets are “SPOILED”. My dogs love me, and so I love them back. They still have to live by rules, but I carry them sometimes and love on them. Many times I have strangers say, “your dogs are spoiled!” like they are calling me the N word for pet owners. It is obvious these people believe life should be hard. That dogs should know their place, and it isn’t being cherished.

My dogs love me beyond measure. I repay that love by treating them with love and respect. I believe that words like “hard” and “spoiled” should be taken out of modern vocabulary. Graciousness and love need to be allowed.

The woman who owns “Minnie” may be treating her dog like a child. May even be feeding the dog foods that shorten their lives. How is that different from the real tragedy we have going on in this country: that over 50% of people and 66% of children are overweight? Could it be because “Coke-cola” is equivalent to “AMERICAN”? A beverage that has no nutritional value? A beverage that CAUSES diabetes? A beverage that 50% of the cost goes to advertising? How people treat their pets isn’t isolated, it is how they treat themselves and others. One of the downfalls of capitalism is that all advertising starts by convincing you that you aren’t enough without the product they are advertising. Unfortunately, the realistic outcome of that consumption is not usually what is displayed in the ad

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