Dogs have traditionally been known as Man’s Best Friend, but these days the term seems hopelessly outdated. Sure, part of it is the fact that man is used as a sexist stand-in for human. But besides the politically incorrect phrasing, the sentiment itself no longer rings true. Today, people are less likely to think of their dogs as companions, and more likely to view them as their children – or to use a term that’s in vogue right now, fur babies.
Some might say this is a case of self-indulgence on the part of modern dog owners. And honestly, when you consider people (you know who you are) who throw birthday parties for their dogs complete with barkday cake and decorations, it’s hard to disagree. But there’s also plenty of evidence that dogs actually embrace the role of surrogate child, and even treat humans as surrogate parents.
When Did Dogs Become Children?
There have always been people who have treated their pets like children. The difference is that these people were once thought eccentric or even a little nutty, whereas today no one bats an eye at such behavior (at least, until it goes to bizarre extremes). It’s hard to pinpoint when this change of attitudes happened, but easy to speculate on why.
For one thing, dogs are no longer considered working animals to the same extent they once were. Almost every breed around today was bred for some purpose, but today it’s almost baffling to think of many of these dogs being gainfully employed (consider the Yorkie, who was bred to be a ratter in garment factories but now serves a luxurious lap ornament). While dogs undoubtedly still do lots of important jobs, the average person doesn’t need a dog to do anything other than be cute and lovable.
Another change is that more single people are now getting dogs. In the past, dogs were family companions whose main purpose was to keep the kids entertained. Today, they’re much more likely to live in a home where there are no kids – where they, in fact, become the kids.
Finally, people’s attitudes about animal treatment in general have evolved over time. Many people who grew up with outdoor dogs would never dream of making their dog sleep outside now. As they’ve come out of the doghouse, dogs have gotten a lot closer to humans – both physically and emotionally.
How do Dogs Feel About All This?
A dog’s reaction to being fussed over generally ranges from complete indifference to mild annoyance. It can actually be pretty funny to watch overzealous dog owners go to great lengths to pamper dogs that would rather be drinking from the toilet or rolling in something stinky. Sometimes the recipients of this misplaced affection get a look in their eye that clearly says “What the hell is my human up to now?”
But even if they don’t understand human ways, there’s reason to believe that dogs do fit comfortably into the role of fur baby. Thousands of years of breeding have turned domestic dogs into neotenous wolves (neoteny is the retention of juvenile traits in adults). Experts say adult dogs behave like 4-6 month old wolf puppies. In other words, dogs are, quite literally, big babies.
In the absence of a canine mother, dogs readily accept humans as surrogate parents. In one recent study, adult dogs were observed using their owners as a “secure base” – a protector they can return to if they run into something scary while investigating their surroundings. This is the sort of thing both puppies and human children do.
Where’s the Harm?
It might strike you as weird or just plain wrong, but there’s little harm in people treating their pets like children. A lot of people have a deep-seated need to nurture, and coddling a pet fulfills that need. About the worst thing you can say is that the time, money, and energy they spend pampering an unappreciative animal could be of better use elsewhere.
Of course, the other big danger is that you could wind up with a spoiled rotten pet – a doggy diva that expects to be treated like royalty. Most of us know little monsters like this, who turn up their noses at unbuttered popcorn and refuse to sleep anywhere but on the bed with their owners. They’re a perfect reminder of how far dogs have evolved away from their wild origins.