A couple of weekends ago I was at a family barbecue. There we were, enjoying sausages in the sunshine, washing down the stodge with a fruit cider, when my partner’s mother jumps up like her arse is on fire. “Where is he?” she asks no one in particular, her eyes darting around the vast garden. Soon, she’s shouting. “Murray!” It gets louder. “MURRAY!!” Then my partner’s dad also joins in, and before you know it, they’re checking every bush as the rest of us stay seated, rolling our eyes and helping ourselves to more coleslaw. Because Murray is not a lost child; he’s a dog. And he’s not lost, he’s inside the house. We all know it. He is never far away. Within a few minutes Murray, a yappy little cloud with legs, comes trotting out of the house, barking non-stop as usual. Soon, his barking gets too much, and the dad takes him home and doesn’t return to the barbecue, because in six years, Murray has never been on his own before.
Later, when it got chilly and we retreated to the lounge to watch television, the mum is still worried about Murray. I listen for half an hour about his eye infection, the one she had told me about the night before. You can tell there’s something weird going on with his face – whereas before it was covered in fur, it’s kind of bald. He looks like a chicken. But none of us are allowed to make fun of him, not even now that he looks like a dirty chicken with a white afro, because of his eye infection.
A full disclaimer should sit right here: I’m not a huge fan of dogs. I am not a ‘dog person’. That might be because they’re not my biggest fan either – we have never seen eye to eye. In my life, I have been bitten by two dogs. One as a child and the other two years ago, outside Sainsbury’s. By a Labrador, also known as one of the friendliest dogs known to man. Dog lovers will say it’s my fault. (“What did you do to it?” My boyfriend asked as we waited for the bus to the hospital. “Why did you touch it?!”). That I didn’t read the signs. But you know what? Sometimes dogs are bastards. Just like cats when they swipe you. Or hamsters when they bite your fingers. Or the monkeys at Longleat when they throw poop in your hair. (Speaking from experience on all fronts. Animals hate me.)
But there’s something about the way we treat dogs these days. Back in the day, dogs were considered hunters and protectors. Now, they’re tiny, with bulgy eyes. They can’t even jump up on the sofa. They’re wearing dresses. They’re pushed around in prams. They’re vegan.
Essentially, we have ruined dogs. We call them our ‘children’. We have given them breathing problems and made them small enough to fit in a papoose. We have given them names like Princess and put tiaras on their tiny bulbous heads; called them Simon and let them sit at the dinner table like human beings.
I know very little about having a puppy, but even I know it’s pet training 101 that when you first get a dog, you assert your dominance, so they know you’re their leader. Not anymore. In some houses, dogs are king. Murray, for example, is the ruler of that house, a tyrannical overlord that dominates his owner’s schedules. He’s worked the system. He is an evil genius; despite the fact his eyes don’t even face the same way.
Dogs are being treated like little hairy babies. And don’t get me wrong – I have loved pets in the past, and I can totally appreciate that they are one of life’s greatest joys. They are our babies, so to speak. But they are not actually babies. We don’t have to treat them with the same delicacy as a newborn.
Today, it’s thought that millennials are actually opting for pets over parenthood: we know that young people tend to delay those big life milestones like marriage or children, so it’s not really a surprise that they’re adopting more pets (35%, compared with 32% of Boomers, according to this study). This is likely because they’re cheaper and offer more freedom than a child – and they’re, weirdly, good practice for the real deal (in fact, a recent study found 44% of millennials do actually see their pet as ‘baby practice’). They are the perfect in-between; dogs are something you can be responsible for without the commitment of a baby. It’s achievable parenting. And, of course, they fit well into the lives of the freelance generation – many offices (like ours) are now dog-friendly and even WeWork spaces allow dogs to keep their owners company as they work.
But, again, they are not actually children.
You are not your dog’s mum. Your dog already had a mother that would have given it the skills to survive: how to find food, how to find shelter, how to fight off anything that might be a danger to it. Then we came along and taught them how to live in a human world: how not to wee in the house, how to stop scaring the postman, how to not hump your mum’s leg when she comes around to visit. As writer M.A Wallace puts it: “We love [dogs] because they aren’t human, then spend their lives treating them like people. We don’t really want them to be animals — wild, free, ultimately unknowable — we want them to be like us, but more static and predictable. Something we can control.”
No matter how small or fluffy or well behaved your dog is, it is still an animal. Have we forgotten that they survived without our help long before we put a collar around their neck and domesticated them? Just last week I received an email asking, ‘Is your dog depressed?’ with a list of ways you’ll know if your dog is feeling a bit blue. Type ‘Gluten-free dog’ into Google and approximately 59,600,000 results come up. We let them share our ice cream. What are we doing? Instead of dogs being something nice to come home to at the end of the day, our lives and our schedules end up revolving around them.
Your dog will never be a baby, so learn to separate and celebrate their differences. Put the vegan dog food down, take them out of your handbag and let your good boy/girl run free. Throw a stick as far as you can, let it play with others. Enjoy your pet for what it is.
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