I am my dog’s mum but is my dog my baby?

Caroline O’Donoghue has a puppy, and is beginning to learn about the strange contradictions of Dog Internet

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I have a puppy. It’s a new thing. Today, I have had her for one week: 168 hours total. During those 168 hours, I’ve spent roughly a third of them calling her a clever girl, a good girl, the best girl in the world. I have spent another third of those 168 hours trying to train her, and she’s taken to the project pretty gamely. I have spent the final third trying to sleep while she cries sorrowful puppy tears, desperate to be in my arms rather than in her crate.  

Look: I am not going to sit here and try to tell you that having a dog is like having a baby, because it isn’t. Babies take years to potty train, whereas Sylvie is peeing outside after five days. I’m not trying to say that my puppy is better than your baby (although, let’s face it, I probably privately feel that way) but my puppy is certainly easier than your baby. Having a dog is not like having a baby.

But it’s not not like having a baby, either.

I think people get confused about where the line is with dogs. When is it OK to treat them like your children, and when is it OK to treat them like the animals that they are? The more dog books you read and the more Cesar Millan YouTube videos you watch, the harder it is to differentiate.

“The point is that we always have to remember that dogs are different than people, no matter how much we consider them to be a part of our lives and families,” says Cesar, the dog expert that my partner and I knew nothing about a week ago, and now quote as though he were our family doctor. Cesar says that we must treat Sylvie as though we are pack leaders and she is the weakest and therefore least important member of the pack. We must be firm, unrelenting, disciplined. Turn a page though, and it’s all about how we must empathise with her,  and understand that she’s away from her mother, and prevent her from becoming too emotionally distressed. It seems like mixed messaging: remember that your dog is not human, but use human emotions to understand how she feels.

I’m reading all of this while in my dressing gown, at 4am, with a whining dog. The comments don’t make things any easier. Some owners can’t bear to hear their dog crying, so they let them sleep in their beds. Some owners make them sleep in a box outside. The dog internet, I am learning, is incredibly intense: think social media after Cecil The Lion, but all the time. There are wars over who is being cruel to their dog, and it makes me wonder if I am being cruel to my dog. Is my dog a baby or isn’t she?

We are overloaded with the urge to love and care for our pets, but totally incapable of separating that love into something that’s appropriate for an animal who doesn’t speak English

My dog ownership comes at the same time as a curious news story about Lena Dunham’s dog, Lamby. Dunham, who adopted her rescue dog some years ago, decided that her dog’s aggressive behaviour wasn’t manageable, and after working with several trainers to try to correct his behaviour, Lamby was adopted by one of the trainers. Dunham still supports the dog financially, and seems to be getting on pretty OK with her two one-year old poodles. This all happened a few months ago, but blew up at the weekend when the shelter Lamby came from claimed that the dog’s behaviour had been perfectly charming when they had him.

Since then, the dog internet has been going full Harambe on Lena Dunham. Her Instagram posts, which have always been a target for trolls, have gone nuclear. Give your dog away? What if your parents had given you away? How could you just abandon a member of your family like that? Just what kind of sick monster are you?

Giving your dog to a professional trainer after his behaviour has become unmanageable doesn’t strike me as cruel, particularly if you’ve tried and failed to fix your dog’s issues after four years. It only seems cruel, really, if every time you read the word “dog” you replace it with the word “child”. And that’s the funny thing about pet-owning in the 21st century: we are overloaded with the urge to love and care for our pets, but totally incapable of separating that love into something that’s appropriate for an animal who doesn’t speak English.

And weirdly, the way we talk about pets seems to have changed at the same rate we talk about childcare. As most of us will remember, childhood used to be a case of your parents locking you outside between 10am and 5pm all summer, instructing you to “go play in a tree or something”: the same treatment was extended to pets. Now, a child’s time is monitored by present adults, “playdates” are set between parents who mutually decide that the other is not a psychopath, and toys are carefully appraised for their political as well as developmental advantages. With pets, it’s the same: behaviour monitored, psychology considered, dog websites firmly bookmarked in your browser.

I don’t have kids, and I haven’t had a dog for long enough to know whether these developments are positive or not. Maybe there’s a middle ground we should be finding: somewhere between “go play in a tree” and “ooh, maybe don’t play with that piece of wood with the rusty nail in it”.

I may never reach the right balance, but until I do, I have developed a mantra:

My dog is my baby, but she’s not “a" baby.

My dog is my baby, but she’s not “a" baby.

My dog is my baby, but she’s not “a" baby.


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