Is your dog your child?

It’s funny when I ponder the word “own” to describe my place in my dog’s life. I can’t imagine telling someone that I own a child — biological, adopted, or otherwise. And I feel that the word “own” — when it comes to describing the inclusion of a dog in my life — sounds so arrogant, because it implies that dogs live with us and have no control over who they love and where they wish to be. If a dog chooses not to live with you he will find a way to leave — though he may destroy a whole door jamb in the process and you may not mind his absence so much after all. People are not much different.

When asked if I own a dog, I frequently find myself replying, “Yes, I have a dog.” But even then the word “have” implies that your dog is an object or a thing, a possession of sorts. For example, “I have a goiter” or “I have a Stanley drill” is one thing, but “I have a dog” makes it sound like he’s lodged in your side like a third arm or something. And, truly, what else can one say except “I have a dog”? I could say that I “live with” a dog or that I “coexist” with a dog, but people might need more of an explanation. Often, I delight in saying that I gave spiritual birth to a second child who just happens to be a dog.

Parenting a dog

But, as with all children, no matter how good a parent you are, your little ones are bound to act up at the most inopportune times and places. Part of being a good dog mom is not to sweat it if your pooch doesn’t behave as Miss Manners at the dog park. The only people who will go home gossiping about your little lady in all likelihood have nothing better to do with their time. Too many dog mommies get unnecessarily strung out over the behavior of their furry charges. Just let go of it. Kids are kids, even if they are dogs.

Think of it this way stress is to humans what one brand of dry-only dog food — day in and day out for 15 years — is to dogs. Seek out new alternatives to enhance your life, one of them being get over dog stress. Any parent who has more than one child will tell you that he or she is much more relaxed now, having learned from the first child that it’s not necessary to spray Clorox on the shopping-cart handle or hide in the baby aisle the entire time Junior is having a tantrum. Children teach us patience — perhaps that’s the miracle of tantrums, shedding, and destroyed furniture.

Levity goes a long way

When it comes to excuses for my dog’s behavior (she’s not perfect, nor am I), I try to use humor to diffuse any stress she may cause me or others. If you can make someone laugh about it, then you’ve got it in the bag. Very casually I’ll tell people she is my second child, who, due to some bad genes somewhere in my family, was born with excessive hair growth and bad teeth. I’ll go on to explain that her tail is something we had surgically implanted for balance to help with vertigo. Then I’ll finish with an appropriate apology for the drool on their Manolos or other cherished accessory.

As a behaviorist, I am supposed to clarify that “dogs are not people too.” But they do seem to know how to push our buttons to get attention. They also seem to know just what kind of facial expression to throw at us when hoping for the rest of our ice cream or French fries. (Fortunately for me and my dog, I have cut out most fat from my diet.) And, like the husband you forget needs some mothering too, dogs have no idea that something as natural as shedding can make you speak in tongues from time to time. Anyone have some holy water?

There are so many similarities between dogs and children. My child eats out of a bowl and so does my dog. My child has been known to beg for food on more than one occasion, and so has my dog. My child whines at me to take him to the park; throws up in the car; breaks toys, glasses, and collectibles — and so does his sister, my dog.

It really is OK to treat your dog like your child, as long as you don’t get the two and their unique needs mixed up. Spot may enjoy eating a Lunchable with twenty-five first-graders, but it really isn’t proper food for him. Likewise, it would be awful to confuse your biological little one with a pet and send him off to the groomer instead of pre-school. Express your animal love freely, but remember: Robby’s toothbrush is the blue one with the rocket, Spot’s is the red one with the bone, and your husband’s is the one that you’re often tempted to clean the tile with when he’s in the doghouse.

Colleen Paige is an animal behaviorist, the Editor-in-Chief of Pet Home magazine and the author of The Good Behavior Book for Dogs. She offers advice to clients and readers alike, ranging from dog and cat training and pet friendly interiors and garden design to pet nutrition and pet safe pools and homes.