Are Pets Part of the Family?

My grandparents lived on a small farm in St. Elizabeth, Missouri. They had a dog. The dog’s name was “dog.” When I visited the farm as a young child, I tried to make friends with the dog, but he just growled at me. The closer I got, the louder the dog growled. The dog had good communication skills. I knew the “dog” meant business. Dog lived in a home made dog house and ate table scraps. My grandparents thought of him as an animal who had a role to play on the farm: keeping the wolves out of the chicken coop and away from the dairy cows.

My mom left the town when she turned 18, and met my father in St. Louis. Soon after my parents married, they lived in Italy and later moved to an army post in Texas. They had a dog. This dog had a name, but I can’t recall it. They cared for the dog and spoke of fondly of it, but the dog ran freely around the base and wasn’t allowed indoors. Years later, I was born, I got permission to get a dog. Ceaser was an indoor dog who was undoubtedly spoiled, but was still thought of as a dog, not as a member of the family. This was about 45 years ago.

Growing up, my wife always had cats. We met in Ohio, and I started learning about cats soon thereafter. I learned to appreciate them, especially when they were kittens, but I never cared deeply for them. I was a dog person. One day, we visited the Bowling Green Human Society to adopt our first dog. We went to look at “Lady,” but she wasn’t having a good day. So, the volunteers showed us around the facility (it was brand new) and we met the house cat, Colby-Jack. This was a special cat allowed to run freely around the cages. Since Lady was not a good option for us, we were introduced to Bailey, a dog who had been adopted twice but was returned both times. Bailey was a 7 month old Great Pyrenees who weighed about 70 pounds. We were told Bailey would probably gain about 20 more pounds. We liked Bailey right away and we thought Colby-Jack was really cool. So, you guessed it, we came for Lady and ended up with both Colby-Jack and Bailey. Fortunately, when we arrived home and put the two together, Colby Jack wasn’t scared of Bailey. The Great Pyrenees breed is one of the hardest dogs to train. The difficulties in training them are compounded by their size. Bailey grew not to be 90 pounds but became 150 pounds. These dogs are bred to independently walk fence lines and guard sheep, so they don’t like taking orders. As my training efforts failed, I started reading training books. Most books offered bad advice, at least for this breed. One book suggested that the dog owner had to get the Great Pyrenees to love the owner before asking them to do things. This was the best advice I read.

Bonnie, in the photo above, was left (without permission) at Noah’s Ark in Locus Grove. (Check out Noah’s Ark if you have not been there.) My wife and I do volunteer work for a cat (and dog) rescue group and the vet who does the spaying and neutering for this rescue group also does work for Noah’s Ark (which rescues unwanted zoo animals). So, Bonnie ended up at the “big house” where the cats and dogs are lodged for the rescue group while they wait for adoption. We saw Bonnie soon after Bailey had died and ended up adopting her. Bonnie was also difficult to train. She is a hunting dog with high energy and a strong will. We wanted to train her right, so my wife took her to “puppy kindergarten.” She gets a considerable amount of attention.

My wife and I think of our cats and dogs much differently than my family did years ago. We consider their needs before we think of our own. Bonnie is a member of the family and a spoiled one at that. Yesterday, she went to the vet get her teeth cleaned. To do so, they had to give her anesthetic. Her teeth are clean and she’s doing well. My grandfather would wonder about our sanity–taking a dog to get her teeth cleaned–if he were alive today. Times have changed. Now pets dress up for Halloween. There are pictures of pets alongside kids in the rear widows of people’s cars. Atlanta has several pet hotels designed just to give dogs a vacation. Pets have play dates and people talk about their pets as if they were babies. The dog’s life is not too bad.

Why are pets now so much more a part of the family than before? Part of the reason is that pets fill a void in our lives. They give us unconditional love. They are always glad to see us. They won’t betray us. The relationship is not complex. We feed, groom, and exercise them. In turn, we tell them what do to, and most of the time they listen to us. That’s a big ego boost. While I would agree that many of us probably overdo our relationships with our pets, there are things that we can learn from our relationships with them. A relationship needs regular, daily attention. People have to care for each other. Praise goes a long way. Unconditional love is powerful. Criticism only works if it is given out of love, is timely, and encourages solutions. Pets are definitely part of many families and the families are often stronger because of them. Who cares if we are crazy?

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