The Parent-Child Dyad

I’ve had cats all my life, and like everyone else with a pet, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my pet is doing, wondering what he is thinking, and, of course, being pleased by all the cute things he does.

“Some people say my cat is a child substitute, but his pediatrician says that’s not true!”

Humans do every mammalian thing to extreme. Hey, Aphid-farming ants: bow down before the sheer scale of the manure pits alone on a pig farm. Sex? We (sort of) conceal whether we’re ovulating—that’s how interested we are in getting it all the time. Caring for young? What mammals even come close to the prodigious and promiscuous capacity for adoption – within and outside our species – of humans? (Even if it does seem like half the people you meet must surely have been raised by wolves.)

My cat’s not [strictly|exactly|only] a child substitute. I am his mother substitute.

And it turns out this works for dogs, too. This article looks at research that examines the conditions under which we learned what we think we know about alpha canine behavior (from wolves from different families, grouped in captivity, and thus in competition for attention and status). Like cats, and probably every other mammal on the planet, the most essential bond in wolves in the wild is the first-degree family bond, particularly (from a pecking order point of view) parent and child.

The article also takes aim at dominance displays for dog training, like those advocated by The Dog Whisperer, labeling as cruel the technique of rolling a dog and pinning it at its throat. This doesn’t mean that you don’t effectively train a dog by making sure it knows you’re the boss.

Says Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): “We are on record as opposing some of the things Cesar Millan does because they’re wrong.” Likewise, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) issued a position statement last year arguing against the aggressive-submissive dichotomy. It is leadership by showing a good example, not dominance, that AVSAB says owners should strive for in relation to their dogs.

Your house, your rules—just like any good, involved, boundaries-setting parent.

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