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Respecting Our Dogs



I wonder if you can assess a person’s emotional health by watching how they treat dogs.


Dogs provide us with companionship, soothe us after a long day, help us get outside to exercise, and contribute to our stress regulation.


So why do some owners treat them so poorly?


I can guess what you might be thinking…humans will do anything for their dogs. We cherish them as our furry babies, and smother them with kindness.


But not all acts of kindness are helpful. Appreciating our dogs isn’t the same as respecting them.


By respect, I don’t mean buying Bingo the latest scented poo bags or washable diaper nappies now available online. Or seeking out the tastiest dog toothpaste – how about cavity-fighting poultry flavor for Trixie?


Those acts express caretaking, not respect. Respect means treating the dog as a creature with instincts, behaviors, and needs that are different from ours. Dogs are not human.


How can we tell when our caretaking goes too far? Dogs need and deserve basic grooming, but “treating” your pet to a nail polishing session with a certified doggie manicurist, in one of 13 colors (“drying time only 40 seconds!”) projects human extravagance on dogs. We may choose to suffer for beauty, but pets cannot.


A few months ago, I received an invitation to a “poodle baptism.” What? The dog owner even found a priest to officiate. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek note back: “I can’t make the baptism, but I’ll be sure to show up for the First Communion and Confirmation.” I could tell my light-hearted sarcasm wasn’t appreciated – someone else was chosen as godparent.


I have to wonder if we are mistreating our dogs in the name of love.


For example, you might appreciate Ginger’s exceptional behavior, such as her restraining from slobbering on your dinner guests. So you allow her to sleep under the sheets “with mommy and daddy.” Can your dog make the connection between slobber-control and co-sleeping with her owners?


Humanizing a dog – denying the distinction between a dog and a human – disrespects the dog. Dogs are not furry homo sapiens.


Respect means giving dogs what they need: discipline, exercise, and affection, in that order. So says Cesar Millan, the famed “Dog Whisperer.”


But when we treat dogs like humans, we sometimes do so at the expense of the animal.


When you’re not thinking clearly, things can get out of hand.


If one day you welcome a guest at your door, and your mastiff likewise greets your guest with a “hug and a kiss,” you might think and say, “He’s just excited.” How about: “I don’t have the sense – or the chops – to discipline my dog.” The dog has no idea why the guest is put off, the owner explains it away, and it likely will happen again.


Or when you treat your family to ice cream on a steamy day and order a double dipper in a little dish for your Yorkie, you might think, “I don’t want Morris to feel left out.” Does it matter that Morris will likely become sick?


Look what’s happening:


Fifty percent of the almost eighty million dogs in our country are obese. That means half of the dogs we own are at risk for diabetes, organ failure, and blindness because they eat too much, scarf unhealthy foods, and don’t exercise enough.


One study asked owners why they feed table scraps to their dogs. The most common response: “I want my dog to be happy.”


Fifteen thousand years ago – long before horses, cattle, and pigs – dogs became the first animal domesticated by humans. Their gregarious and cooperative temperament, and lack of fear compared to other species, led to easier taming.


Archeological evidence shows that dogs were valued for their hunting and foraging prowess. Early humans respected dogs, as dogs.


Today, dogs are not dogs, they’re four-legged humans with fur.


Where are the distinctions between owner and pet? Dogs need to be understood as dogs. Misplaced caring can, unknowingly, be as cruel as intentional abuse.


In 2021, Americans spent roughly $109.6 billion on pets. That’s double the 2012 figure. The American Pet Products Association says dog owners coughed up, on average, more than $1,000 annually for veterinary check-ups, medication and medical supplies, and treatment – per dog.


How many of those visits could be avoided by giving dogs the discipline, diets, and exercise they need? And what of the separation anxiety, aggression, and begging, our “kindness” stimulates? It takes a long time for dogs to unlearn non-native, human-imposed behaviors.


Caring for a dog often produces emotional attachment – that’s understandable. But riding in a doggie carriage, or donning a Halloween costume, is not helping the dog be a dog. The dog doesn’t see the point.



When humans attach to one another, we risk smothering, controlling, or disrespecting the one we’ve fused with. When we attach to our dogs, our emotional need for their “happiness” overwhelms our capacity to treat them respectfully as dogs.


Like a spoiled child, a coddled dog suffers an identity crisis. They keep loving that ice cream cone, all the way to the vet.


There must be a way to benefit from the emotional attachment with our dogs, while respecting the differences between canines and people.


Cries of outrage erupt when we treat people like dogs.


Is treating dogs like people any less disrespectful?

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