Why I’ll Always Be a Dog Owner

I had another post planned and half-written for today but something came up in the blogosphere over which I can’t stop ruminating. Pamela at Something Wagging This Way Comes always has insightful ways of looking at the world of dogs and her most recent post has inspired a plethora of almost equally insightful comments. While I am sure I have touched on the owner versus guardian debate in the past, after reading Pamela’s thought-provoking words, I found myself formulating a very different opinion that I reckoned might be worth adding to the discussion.*

I could be wrong, of course, but I’m going to share it anyway.

I know it’s not very cool these days to use the word “owner” when describing one’s relationship with her dog. It used to make me uncomfortable too. Shiva is an independent being and I have no right to own her any more than I have a right to own the bear in the forest. Or my practically husband. Owner is the legal term as according to law dogs and other pets are considered property. I don’t know about you, but I have never smiled lovingly at my coffee table. Nor have I ever taken my couch on a family vacation. Anyone who has ever lived with a dog in any meaningful way knows they own us just as much as we own them.

But what does that even mean?

According to TheFreeDictionary.com the word “owner” means:

ย Of or belonging to oneself or itself: She makes her own clothes.

That which belongs to one: I wanted a room of my own.

To have or possess as property: owns a chain of restaurants.

To have control over: For a time, enemy planes owned the skies.

My sister is my own sister, in a way. She doesn’t belong to me but she is my own. No one else has her for a sister but me. Shiva isn’t my own dog. She lives with both myself and my PH. She loves and is loved by both myself and my PH. She is our dog. Does this mean we own her? Does this mean I own my sister?

Surely not. As I say, my sister doesn’t belong to me, but my dog kind of does. She isn’t my neighbour’s dog or my third grade teacher’s. She is mine – or ours.

I’ve already mentioned that I don’t view my dog as property, so the third definition is out. Shiva isn’t a possession any more than my sister is. She is family.

The fourth definition gives me pause. Technically, I do have control over my dog – I only wish I had control over my sister. We live in a human-ruled world and are subject to human-created laws. These laws make no sense to canines. It must seem totally bizarre they are allowed to run on one patch of grass but not on another. In order to survive in this world dogs depend on us to show them the way to behave. Autonomy, though I am sure it is something dogs desire, is not typically possible in their every day lives. If we want to keep our dogs safe, we have to control them.

Regardless of all this, the term “owner” still sounds off. Let’s look at two of the other words people use instead. “Guardian”, for instance, and “parent”.

According to TheFreeDictionary.com the word “guardian” means:

1. One that guards, watches over, or protects.
2. Law One who is legally responsible for the care and management of the person or property of an incompetent or a minor.
3. A superior in a Franciscan monastery.

From the outset this seems to suit our relationship with our pets perfectly. We do guard, watch over, and protect our animal companions. We are also legally responsible for the care and management of our dogs. However, I don’t feel this definition fully encapsulates what this responsibility entails.

Dogs rely on their humans for pretty much everything. Not only do they need us for their basic needs of food, water, shelter, and veterinary care but they need us to show them how to live. Our dogs’ actions are a reflection of our teaching. If Shiva one day slips her collar, runs loose in the neighbourhood, and then attacks another dog or human, this is my fault. She is not capable of making decisions on her own, at least not in a wider context. I am the one responsible for her actions in the world.ย  In my opinion, the term guardian doesn’t go far enough to explain this complex relationship.

How about “parent” then?

According to TheFreeDictionary.com the word “parent” means:

1. One who begets, gives birth to, or nurtures and raises a child; a father or mother.

2. An ancestor; a progenitor.

3. An organism that produces or generates offspring.
4. A guardian; a protector.
5. A parent company.
Obviously I did not give birth to Shiva, though I do my best to nurture her. Nor are my parents her ancestors, nor is she my progeny. But again, I am her guardian and protector and I do care for her in a way not unlike a parent cares for a child. I feed her, I sing to her, I clean up her mess, and I teach her all she needs to know. In many ways she is like having a toddler around.

The one major thing that bugs me about calling myself a pet parent is that it relegates Shiva to the role of a child. Shiva is not a child and has never been so as long as she has lived with us. She is very much an adult dog with an adult dog’s brain and an adult dog’s sense of the world. She is not a baby and is fully capable of doing most things for herself.

What she isn’t capable of is navigating on her own the very human world in which she lives. Even if she were, the law and all of it’s on-leash rules, gets in the way.

In the past, I have frequently referred to Shiva as my partner or teammate. In agility, this is pretty accurate. We both have a job to do and can’t succeed without the efforts of the other. Often in our every day adventures, this can also apply. It is us against the world and we are on the same side. She looks to me for guidance and I look to her to communicate what she needs. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the word “partner”, as much as I like it, really works to describe all aspects of our life together.

I like to think of Shiva as my buddy, my companion, and maybe even my friend. But these words do imply reciprocity that isn’t there. To be frank, she doesn’t owe me a dang thing. I, as the human, owe her everything. Her only job is to be herself. I am the own who chose her to bring her into our home, I am the one who is in charge of providing for her needs. She is only in charge of being Shiva. There is no doubt even with all I do for her I still gain more from our relationship than she does, but she doesn’t owe me that. She doesn’t have to put up with my silly antics or the way I like to lay on her hip as I watch television. She doesn’t even have to like me if she doesn’t want to. I will still have to keep taking her for walks and buying her dinner.

I owe her. She doesn’t owe me.

Given all this, for lack of a better term, “owner” remains the only word left to use. It places full responsibility on the human for the care and behaviour of the dog, as well as empowers the human with the ability to make decisions for the dog that said dog cannot make for himself.

Is it inadequate? Heck, yeah. Our relationship is too rich and too complex to be described in one word. But one word is all we have. Until they invent a better one, I guess I am stuck with it.

*It should go without saying that I have nothing but high respect for Pamela and her personal values. I understand where they are coming from and even though I slightly disagree, I recognize that this is nothing more than a personal choice. How I feel bears no judgment on how she feels.

20 thoughts on “Why I’ll Always Be a Dog Owner

  1. Wow, great post!

    I especially love how you touched on the parenthood problem which might prevent someone from seeing their dog as an adult. For me, that’s a secondary but still important reason I don’t think of myself as Honey’s mom. As old as I am, I’m not old enough to have an adult “child.” (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it). ๐Ÿ™‚

    But I also find it a problematic term because I didn’t have a positive relationship with my mom. I was terrified of her growing up. And I’d never treat a dog the way I was treated as a child.

    So once again, the words we choose to describe our relationships with her animals says a lot about us and very little about them.

    As for the “owner” thing, I wonder how much of my discomfort has to do with my intense awareness of human enslavement in my country. I know people who brag about having a house old enough to feature slave stocks in their basement. My current town was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. I can’t hear the word “owner” in relation to a sentient being without thinking of my country’s history.

    As a citizen of the country that provided refuge to slaves, I wouldn’t expect your response to the word to be as visceral. And I think your look at the different meanings shows you have a nuanced understanding of all the meanings behind it.

    So glad you took this on. I can’t wait to see the rest of your comments.

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  2. Logical – I really enjoyed Pamela’s post this morning. I will stand by my comment there – the boys are our friends. Yes, we have paper stating our guardianship (or ownership) over them, but we still consider them our friends. We make them partners in our life, not objects to collect. I like your article too – it really brings up different aspects to the topic.

    Sam

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  3. First, I ADORE both you AND Pam and I love how you BOTH made me think.

    Pamela…I also had a HORRIBLE mother who to this day, I have no relationship with. She was abusive and that is all I will say here…but I think I understand.

    Now, on to this post…I LOVE how analytical (why did it put a red line through that??) you are…you make me THINK and I love that!
    This was fabulous and both you and Pam now have me scrambling for just what the heck my place IS in Dakota and Cody’s lives? ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Well stated, Kristine, as was Pamela’s post. Being in California I have been pressured by people on line and in person to help promote the term “guardian” which I really don’t like. It seems like a silly attempt at doggie political correctness. Years ago my human children let me know in no uncertain terms that as much as we loved our furry family members I was not their Mommy or parent. Raising children and raising dogs require whole different sets of rules and a completely different mind set. Both respond best to positive reinforcement but our expectations are much different.

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  5. I really enjoyed Pamela’s post and I love yours as well! What I said on her post was that I refer to Bunny as “my girl” or “my dog” and I refer to myself as “her human.” I feel that we equally belong to each other, even though we might take care of each other in different ways. I feel like you that I am legally responsible for my dogs, as well as responsible for seeing to their well being. I’m not sure that they are required to do the same thing in return for me to feel that they have some ownership of me, though. They own me with a look!

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  6. For lack of other words, I do tend to use “dog owner”. “Guardian” is a good one, though…I haven’t really thought of using that one. It bothers me a little less than using “dog mom”, which I’m really not comfortable with. I enjoyed you rpost just as much as Pamela’s……you’re very right. Our dogs don’t owe us. We owe them!

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  7. Great post! I’m a little late to the party – but we are guilty of calling ourselves “mom” and “daddy” – we don’t have kids – and they are our kids . . .I know, we’re weird ๐Ÿ™‚

    I hate the way the law considers them property. That is one of the reasons I dislike the word “owner”. Another great post . . thank you!!

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  8. Interesting post and discussion. I’ve never really thought that much about it. My hubby and I refer to ourselves as “mom” and “dad” when channeling the pets. As in, “Hey, mom, don’t forget to give me my Greenie!” or “When are we gonna go for a walk, dad?” But in reality, I don’t think we ACTUALLY think of ourselves as their parents. Although there is no doubt that they are part of our family.

    Guardian seems to be the best fit for me – both in connotation and definition. But really, none of those words can possibly accurately describe the depth and complexity of our relationship with our pets, can they?

    Thanks for a great post!

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  9. Determining the relationship between me and Kita – and every other dog or cat I have had as part of my life seems pretty easy. She is just the dog. Same as the children are the sons. I do not believe you can “own” another living person or animal. I am responsible for her well being -legally and morally. She gives me unconditional love and companionship. She brings joy and laughter. But I don’t own her any more than I own my husband or my sons and daughter in laws. I have chosen Kita to be part of my life – having to define a term as to what she is – is not important. She is just here.

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  10. Great post, and a discussion my husband and I have had many times as well. I do think none of the terms quite do it. Hey, let’s invent a new one! Something that’s a cross between pet parent and guardian and owner and caretaker and friend and…. whew, I hope the word doesn’t get too long!

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  11. I love the way you broke this down, Ms Tonks. Like everything else, it is a grey area. I believe it’s the intent that’s important. Like you, I call myself a dog owner though I’ve never thought of Georgia as property. She is definitely family, yet is under my control and has to be because that’s the way the world works. If she does something bad, I have to own it because she’s my dog. I also prefer the word “owner” to “mummy” which smacks of anthropomorphism to me. Cushion calls himself “daddy” and sometimes refers to Georgia as his daughter which can make me cringe. I respect dogs as dogs. Their lives are their lives, though they live with us. I don’t think they’re stressing over this issue themselves and just hope we look after them the best way we can, feed them well and love them lots!

    I find it easier to call a garbo a garbo too, and not a sanitation expert. Guess I’m just rude and out of touch ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Love that you sing to Shiva. Does she glare at you or walk away like Georgia does to me?

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  12. This is certainly an interesting rebuttal to the mentioned post (which I also commented on). I call myself a ‘Dog Auntie’ for Wesley. I do not like the words parent or Mom to describe the relationship between me and any dogs, because these words are for human children. I don’t object to others using them, they’d feel very weird coming out of my mouth though.

    Guardian is, in my opinion, closer to what I’m trying to convey. Considering that you are someone’s Guardian if not their parent, this suits me fine but is a bit awkward sounding. I guess I’ll stick to ‘me and this puppy hang out together’ until I can come up with something better!

    -Collegedog

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  14. Wow I love your post just as much as Pamela’s!! Thank you both for being so insightful and making us think deeply about our relationships with animals!

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  15. Wonderful post Kristine, we refer to ourselves as mom and dad, perhaps it’s habit from having kids, I don’t know. I didn’t have a particularly good relationship with my mother growing up, which is probably why I tried so hard with my children to be the ‘perfect’ mother, although I can assure you I fell short many times.

    I hadn’t really given much thought to what I call them until Pamela’s post, which I loved. Having read this post, now I’m not sure what I’d call them.

    I would say how we relate and interact with our pets is far more important than what we call them. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  16. I have read both posts and both were excellent and have had me thinking. But I can only come up with one way I have gone. First I have 3 adult children, and two dogs (Newfs). The word have is the only one I use even though both are different relationships. When my children were young I used the same terms my children and my pets; my meaning they live in my home. I love them, take card of them and am responsible for them. Each was called by name so we would know who I was speaking to. Obviously my love for my children was different that my pets but it was love. Since my children are adults and no longer at home I am no longer their Mom in the same way. They are responsible for themselves, etc. so I am alone except for my girls (Newfs). Empty nest is hard to adjust by I now feel that I am Mom to Newfs Lexie and Mica and that is how they recognize me. I have the same jobs I love them, take care of them share their lives, fun, and problems. So now I “have” not own two dogs. Note: I have a Husband also and he feel the same way.

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  17. I’m obviously so far behind on my blog reading… I think I feel much like you do. The term “owner” doesn’t encompass my full relationship with my pups, but I’ve never found great comfort with any other term either. Lots of other people call me Bella’s mom or Tavish’s mom, and it doesn’t bother me, but I generally would not refer to myself that way.

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