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:
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:
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. 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.
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.