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They’re Not Just Furry Four-Legged People
There’s greatness in being a dog

“The only difference between them and us is they have four legs and we have two,” the woman said. She was expanding on her previous comment that she has a new baby and was picking up photographs of her new little girl. When some other people in line for their photos politely leaned in to look, she was very offended when one man said, “Oh, you have a new dog! I thought you had a new child.”

I’m confident that this woman was expressing how important her dogs are in her life and how much she loves them, but it’s possible that she chose her words in a way that was purposely misleading. The man who replied was genuinely surprised that her new addition was a dog and not a human, but I don’t think he was putting her down—just expressing his confusion. While I think it’s common to consider dogs as important and as loved as people, that’s not the same thing as considering them to BE people. Just because we love them doesn’t mean they are the same as we are. Their differences are part of what we love about that and I see no reason to deny that. Clearly, on a strictly factual level, there are many more differences than the number of legs we have.

It’s important to understand those differences if we are going to get along with each other and provide what our dogs need for a happy, healthy life. As responsible dog guardians, it’s essential to understand basic differences such as how they perceive our actions, what might frighten them, and how they like to play. We need to know that loud sounds and intense smells may upset them. It’s useful to know that, unlike people, most dogs prefer scratches on the behind to hugs, and that some foods that are good for us are dangerous to them. The list of the differences between people and dogs is extremely long.

I think that the viewpoint that dogs are just furry versions of people who happen to have four legs does them a great disservice. Dogs are their own unique and wonderful species. They deserve love and respect for who they are rather than for being like us in various ways. It seems to me that the attitude that dogs are people has a subtext that people are the best and that dogs are so great that they are honorary members of our species. I prefer to think of both of our species as amazing (since they are my two favorite species, after all!) without implying that one is better than the other.

It reminds me of a famous Star Trek quotes in which Captain Kirk says, “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s human,” and Spock answers, “I find that remark . . . insulting.”

Dogs are definitely family members, but they are not human ones. I think it’s respectful and loving to recognize that dogs are so deeply loved because of who they are as dogs. To be a dog is glorious, and I see no need to suggest that they are anything else.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

photo by Kevin D. Clarke/Flickr

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