Is Your Attentive "Parenting" Hurting Your Dog?
Updated: Oct 25
The last few years we've observed the acceleration of a long-term trend: a pronounced rise in dog anxiety. We see it all the time: a plethora of anxiety-induced problem behaviors including separation anxiety, destructiveness, people and dog aggression, etc. This trend is clearly worsening. But why?
I've talked to many people, including pet professionals, about this, and most have observed the trend, but not everyone agrees on the cause. Here's my theory.
As a high school and university teacher I saw a similar trend in young people, many of whom felt anti-depressants were essential to their daily lives. Some had legitimate needs of course, but I thought, There's no way all these kids should be on drugs for anxiety and depression. Should they? What's going on here?
My theory about dog anxiety began forming when I noted that the rise in dog anxiety mirrored the rise in anxiety in young people. See where I'm going?
The anxiety-related problems in dogs and children seem similar. Individuals, canine or human, have worries, sometimes minor or imagined, and a general sense of anxiety, malaise, and depression even when given every advantage a young individual can have. They lack confidence and independence. They generally cannot function as whole, healthy individuals without constant help and they rely on others, including their parents, to determine their self-image. Not to anthropomorphize, but you get the idea. In my anxious human students I noted that a high percentage anxious students had over-involved parents, the classic "helicopters" who hover and to make sure they are Johnny-on-the-sport to solve their children's problems. But of course the job of a parent is to guide a child while he or she succeeds and fails based on their own decisions. A child cannot grow into a capable adult unless he or she is allowed to struggle and fail. Dealing with those experiences gives a kid confidence and independence and teaches him or her to deal with real life including its difficulties. Failure is not only healthy, it is essential, for children and dogs.
As society has begun to view pets less as personal property and more as members of the family, pet welfare has improved dramatically. People invest more time, effort, and money. However, this societal trend has also, it seems to me, led to a rise in helicopter pet parents who anthropomorphize their pets and treat them as actual children. This may be observed most clearly in households where people have no human children.
Witness how we now refer to our pets. We call them our "children." We call ourselves their "moms" and "dads." We talk to them in baby voices, buy them every toy imaginable although they only play with a couple. We go to great lengths and expense to make life perfect for them. We never teach them the word, "No." And we give them everything without their having earned it. Is there any wonder our dogs grow into anxious adults who cannot handle being alone, who are so insecure about meeting other dogs or greeting a stranger entering their homes that they tear things to pieces, whine and bark incessantly, and bite?
These thoughts, I admit, must sound strange coming from someone who runs a luxury boarding and daycare facility, who gives his "guests" dog treats each night on their beds, pets them constantly, and feels like they are a family of sorts.
But while we love and dote on them, we do not smother them. We do not make their choices for them. We do not clear problems from their paths. In fact, we create every opportunity possible for them to deal with things on their own and to have to make decisions and live with the consequences. We have clear expectations for behavior. If you bark or whine incessantly, there's a scolding, a firm, "No!" or a light spray with a water bottle. If you show aggressive body language toward a dog or person, you are scolded soundly or given a bit of poke in the ribs and a clear, "No!" We set up clear, consistent rules, let the dogs make their own choices, and then let them deal with the consequences. We do not refer to ourselves as their "parents" or to us as their "mom" and "dad." We do not clear every obstacle from their paths or erase every difficulty. And most importantly, we do not feel anxious for them no matter their situation because dogs, who are genetically programmed to sense our emotions, will believe there's something to worry about and act accordingly.
"What can be bad about doting on one's dog?" someone might ask. "What is wrong with taking exemplary care of one's animals and wanting the best for them?" Nothing. Absolutely nothing -- unless doing so leads to the kind of over"parenting" that prevents our dogs from standing on their own four feet.