We're All Guilty, But Most of Us Don't Even Know What It Is

American pets are getting more naughty by the minute. As the demand for dog behaviorists and for prescription medication to combat “Doggie ADD” and anxiety continue to escalate, we have to wonder who’s to blame for this hazardous trend. To answer the question, we must first understand the phenomenon behind treating pets as humans.

As the number of kids per household declines, the number of pets is increasing. Baby boomers are quickly becoming empty- nesters and replacing their grown two-legged children with four- legged ones. Look no further than the proliferation of the term “pet parent” versus “pet owner.” In fact, a full 83 percent of pet owners now call themselves their pet’s mommy or daddy.

One possible incubator of anthropomorphism leads directly to the burgeoning pet retail industry and the marketers who want every one of your pet dollars. Now a $45+ billion annual jackpot for companies–larger than the entire U.S. toy industry–pet care spending has reached unprecedented levels of growth and staying power despite a recent turbulent economy.

“By buying pets human-type gifts, we are making ourselves feel good and making them happy”, says Bob Vetere, chief operating officer of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. According to marketing strategist Lisa Lehr, this trend suggests a hugely profitable strategy for entrepreneurs in the pet business to position pets as members of the family. The unfortunate consequence, however, is a misguided view of canine psychology that’s given rise to undesirable dog behavior in countless homes.

Expecting a dog to think like a human is fairly widespread among pet owners. One reason that ancient Fido likely earned the title “Man’s Best Friend” (instead of another type of animal) was his remarkable ability to adapt his life to fit with ours. It is this very skill set that is likely the cause for our frequent misreading of his intentions and motives.

Dogs ultimately need rules, boundaries and limitations. When dogs live with humans, the humans become the dog’s pack. For this modern relationship to succeed, the human must be perceived as the pack’s leader. To a dog, receiving constant affection, gifts and accommodations without rules, boundaries and limitations goes against every grain in a dog’s instinct.

All but the most chronically anthropomorphic dog owners can improve their relationship with their dog and ultimately their behavior if they make a valid effort to understand their dog’s unique emotional makeup. Whereas throwing your dog a birthday party (hey, I’ve done it!) or filling a holiday stocking with treats is not a heinous dog-behavioral crime, people should be wary when their own actions impinge on providing proper timing and fair corrections for their dog.

When a dog is in any state other than being calm and submissive (e.g., if he’s aggressive, obsessive, scared, hyper or anxious) and wegivehimahugorpatontheheadandtellhimit’sOK,itis comforting to us, but it only feeds the state of mind for the dog, making the experience more intense; the dog sees us as being a weak leader.

For example, many dogs are naturally afraid of fireworks or thunder. During such an event, the dog is in a weak state of mind. If we step in and comfort the dog in a way we understand (e.g., hugging or baby talk), he actually sees us as being weaker than himself at that moment. If your dog is in a weak state of mind and then is surrounded by a weaker state of mind, his original fear is only intensified.

Anthropomorphic “parents” often discover that their dog has separation anxiety (sometimes manifested by destructive behavior). In a pack, the leader is allowed to leave. However, the followers never leave the leader. If your dog instinctually sees you as the follower and you leave him, the situation causes so much men tal anguish that he begins to take it out on your house, or worse, on himself.

Whether it’s the pet marketers to blame, or the glut of Hollywood films now portraying pets as humans, giving dogs mixed leadership signals throws him off balance and confuses his psyche. Whenever we try to evaluate canine behavior using human values, we run the risk of misinterpreting our dog’s emotions and motives, while making minor behavioral issues become chronic.

The next time you want to join the 64% of dog owners who engage in a little kissy kissy with Fido on the bed, let the conventional disciplinarian in you take over and remind yourself that it’s not only OK to treat your dog like a dog, but it’s the best way to live in complete harmony with him.