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Ashley Gork/MEDILL

Pierre in his Isaac Mizrahi raincoat

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Desi Ganz, 52, of Bolingbrook and Cheslie Nelson, 23, from the Gold Coast describe their intimate relationships with their dogs.

More than a friend: Our fixation on pets

by Ashley Gork and Elspeth Lodge
March 13, 2013


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Desi Ganz plays with her dog, Pierre. She considers the dog her child.


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Oscar wears snow boots to protect his paws from the salt and ice.


Ashley Gork/MEDILL

Oscar plays with his favorite toy, meant to stimulate his brain power.


Ashley Gork/MEDILL

Information from the American Pet Products Association


Ashley Gork/MEDILL

Percentages of a 2013 $55.53 billion dollar estimate. Information from the American Pet Products Association

Frederick the Great, the emperor of Prussia in the 18th century, had a wing in his palace built for his dogs. He would dotingly replace the furniture and the curtains when the dogs savaged them.

The Pulitzer Prize prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill had a Dalmatian named Blemie. She was spoiled with a four-poster bed and a leather raincoat designed by Hermes.

And actress Elizabeth Taylor bought her Maltese, Sugar, a diamond-studded collar.

People have been treating dogs as their family members for a long, long time.

The big difference is that it used to only be people with lots of money, said Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the author of many books on the intelligence, mental abilities and the history of dogs.

“Obviously, you have some people who become pathological about this, but there are fairly few,” Coren said. “The vast majority of people tend to treat their dogs as family members, but they recognize at the same time they’re dogs.”

The increase in dog ownership and treating dogs like children might be a reflection of our highly mobile society, he said. Extended family members no longer stay together and the effect is that a lot of people, especially empty nesters, seniors and people who have not yet paired up, decide to have pets.

For the elderly, the chance that they’ll become depressed is reduced significantly with the presence of a dog, Coren said. In fact, University of Maryland biologist Erika Friedmann has found that people who have dogs actually live longer.

This fulfills their need to nurture and the psychology behind it says that they can benefit from the solid support it brings them, Coren suggested.

Adam Waytz, a psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said his studies relating to anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to something that isn’t human— could inform the question of why humans treat their pets as kids or members of the family.

“I think people really see a lot of humanness in dogs because of the way we think they respond to us, and the way they look,” he said. So when something looks like human or behaves like one, we tend to treat it as such, said Waytz.

He suggested that there is a need for social connection: When people are lonely, they may turn to non-human things, such as pets, as a companion.

“I think there are some real positive benefits to pet ownership and humanization in this way,” said Waytz. “It makes people feel good and happy and so you know if people feel closer to their dogs through doing this I think there could be a benefit as well.”

On the other hand, he also noted that the need to anthropomorphize pets can harmful when people treat their dogs as humans in a fanatical manner.

“At least one general kind of domain of the dog-owning phenomenon has been suggested to be not very good for the dog,” he said.  “This practice of dressing up your dog in a coat in the wintertime is actually not great for the dog because dogs have their own coat,”

“This is a case where you see anthropomorphism going awry, where you see so much ‘humanness’ in a non-human entity that you fail to recognize that the dog is not like you; it doesn’t require a coat, things like that,” he added. “I do think that the way people treat their dogs has gone to the point where people might be acting in error.”

Waytz said he thinks this phenomenon is a type of egocentrism: "People think, 'Well, how would I respond if I were out in the rain?' They impute their own self-perspective into the dog’s mind."

“Instead of taking the dog's perspective, because the dog does have a perspective, it’s really just anchoring on your own perspective and thinking well just what would I want and just applying that to the dog,” Watyz said. “It might set up unrealistic expectations.”

The psychology behind this, Coren said, is pretty straightforward, “The average dog has a mind which is roughly equivalent to a human 2-3 year old,” he said. In this sense, it is easy to see pets as toddlers and to treat them as such. “And, in some respects, we recognize that and it shows up in the way we talk to our dogs.”

The way we talk to children is called motherese, also known informally as baby talk, and this shows up again when we speak to our animals.  

“You know, when you say, ‘Do you want a cookie?’ and our voices go up? And we mess with the words to make them more diminutive? And we do lots of repetition and that sort of thing? But we do the same thing with dogs, when we talk to our dogs. Because at some level people recognize that this dog is essentially like a child,” Coren said.  

“Every single year when the grandchildren come over to have Christmas with us it is expected that all three of my dogs come in with silly antler ears— these little felt antlers— and that grandpa shows up the same way,” said Coren. “As far as the dogs are concerned the people laugh and the dogs respond to human emotions and positive emotions are positive for the dogs and furthermore they call the dogs over and fuss them up and give them a cookie and that sort of thing. So as far as the dogs are concerned that’s not problem.”

Children automatically provoke in us a sense of protection and a sense of comfort and joy, Coren said. Dogs provoke all these feelings too.

Coren and Waytz both acknowledged that there are benefits for humans when treating dogs like children. Coren says that those who take this concept of treating their dogs like children too far are few and far between and that ultimately, this upward trend isn’t a problem because those who go overboard are the exception and not the rule. However, Waytz does site studies that proved there could be some negative impact on pets if people don’t consider their animals’ needs. 


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