Editorial April 2002 Issue

What's in a Name?

The dog “owner” / “guardian” / “companion” debate.

Once a month, at a minimum, I receive a note from someone who complains about WDJ’s use of the word, “owner.” “By using that sort of language, you perpetuate the owner/slave hierarchy, which encourages humans to regard their animal companions as property,” is a (paraphrased) common criticism. What’s more, some readers have pressed, as a “progressive,” animal-friendly publication, WDJ really ought to be leading the drive among dog magazines to strike such paternalistic, repressive language from our pages. According to the real hard-liners among you, we shouldn’t even imply ownership with phrases such as, “your dog,” as used in a sentence like, “Pet your dog at every opportunity.”

I’m very sympathetic to these complaints. But for goodness’ sakes, what can I replace the word “owner” with?

I often use “guardian,” which seems to be the leading contender among those who hate “owner” and all the evil it implies, but others resist this solution. “The word ‘guardian’ also implies a child/parent type of dependent relationship,” someone wrote me the other day. Others worry that “guardian” seems to open the door for humans to shirk their animal-care responsibilities and liabilities. “Caretaker” and “keeper” suffer the same problems.

Whenever I can, I substitute “owner” with the phrase, “canine companion.” But let’s face it, this is a little unwieldy, and upon repetition in a how-to type of article, this would drive me nuts – and probably you, too. “Give your canine companion a reward of some kind every time she sits on cue. Make sure your canine companion is aware of the treats or toy you are using as a reward . . .”

(Say, did you notice that we alternate feminine and masculine personal pronouns in our text? We may actually have a slight preponderance of hypothetical females in our articles.)

As much as some of you readers despise the use of “owner,” there are some alternatives I just can’t bring myself to use – at least, not very often. Sharp-eyed readers may infrequently catch WDJ describing a specific human as “Fido’s person,” but it makes me feel queasy every time I allow a writer to do this. I can perfectly visualize my journalism professors doubled over in laughter as they ridicule this usage.

I may be the only dog-loving person alive who objects to the use of “mother” or “father” to describe the relationship between a dog and a human. Sorry, I am not “Mom” to the Border Collie who shares my home, heart, and (I swear) my checking account.

I don’t have a hard-and-fast solution for this semantic issue, but I’m willing to consider any solutions you may want to propose. In the meantime, forgive WDJ’s inconsistent but hopefully sensitive attempts to solve the problem.

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