Dogs Are People, Too!

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An author recently asked for the rationale behind an edit I made to her article. The sentence originally referenced something that worked well “in dogs and people.” I changed the sentence to read “…in dogs and humans.” I explained that “Dogs are people, too!” – but I don’t blame her for her confusion. Language constantly evolves to reflect the knowledge and ethics of the day, and we’ve taken some steps at WDJ that she was unaware of – and some of my writers have taken steps that I’m still not quite ready to take.

In most dictionaries, the definition of “people” implicitly means “humans” – so perhaps my edit was not necessary. But even dictionaries have to be taken with a grain of historical salt! I saw one definition that I scoffed at: “People: Human beings, as distinguished from animals or other beings.” (First off, humans are animals! And what “other beings” was the dictionary referring to?)

But I have a hard time differentiating between “personhood” and “people” – and I agree with the modern behavior scientists and ethicists who think we should extend our definition of “personhood” to our animal companions. There’s a great quote from the famed primatologist Jane Goodall: “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings.” Goodall started her career in an age when scientists were forbidden to attribute any sort of emotions or intentions to the non-human animals she was observing – this was termed “anthropomorphism” and was deprecated as indicating a lack of objectivity – and she found this limitation ridiculous.

Today, the idea that our animal companions should be referred to with the same terms as inanimate objects (“it”) is preposterous. This is one of the reasons we have always used gendered pronouns for dogs in the magazine (he, she, and if we don’t know the gender, they). And it’s clear to anyone who loves dogs that they also feel love, jealousy, rage, fear, anxiety, sorrow, joy, mischievousness, and more.

If we acknowledge that all dogs (and all animals) have a “personality” – a unique set of behavioral traits, expressions, reactions, and emotions – why can’t they be “people”?

27 COMMENTS

  1. I agree 100% with your assertion that dogs are people, too! In my family of origin we have held this to be true since I was a young girl. I usually get a chuckle from others when I refer to dogs as people, but I believe that since the furry ones in our lives are very much a part of our society and culture, they are obvious members of the “people” category.

  2. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I don’t think it is for those of us who live closely with and love our animals (and accept that our animals are simply part of our family–as much a member as a human member of the family). I hope my animals are people–I talk to them, I cuddle with them, I work with them on their manners, I play with them, I spend time with them, etc. And I’d like to think I’m not some weird little old lady who “talks to her dogs and cats”.

  3. I adore my dogs. They are clever and gifted. As they have passed through my long life, each one has been so unique, and all have been special. But….they aren’t people. I am grateful for any progress our nation and the world has made in its treatment of animals. I don’t want to live in any state that allows humans to possess exotic wildlife as pets, or that permits cruel animal husbandry practices such as puppy mills or fur farms. However, I think sometimes laws backfire, as when CA made horse slaughter illegal. Now unwanted horses are shipped from auction to Mexico for slaughter, so they have to endure a long trip under adverse conditions in addition to slaughter that we (CA) can’t even oversee. You cannot make CA owners care for their elderly or unsound horses, or elect to humanely utilize them in CA instead of selling them for a pittance to the killers. Each step towards establishing personhood for dogs is a step towards making them illegal to keep as pets, or in making keeping these dog/humans as pets so onerous that it is impossible for ordinary people. And dogs can’t exist without man, so it’s a step towards them being eliminated as a species.

    • I’m in total agreement about drawing a line at *legal* “personhood” — I’m only arguing for the acknowledgement that each dog is a unique individual with a full complement of thoughts, feelings, and desires. In my mind, they (and all animals) *are* “people” — just not people with legal rights in our world. I admit, it’s tricky!

      When I alluded to not yet being willing to take steps that some of our contributors have taken, I was actually referring to the use of “owner.” For many reasons, abandoning use of that term is problematic for me.

      I don’t think anyone is right or wrong in this murky area. It’s interesting to hear what everyone thinks.

  4. I love my dogs, and they are absolutely part of my family. But dogs are not human, they are domesticated animals. Anthropomorphizing them in this way is not good for either dogs or people.

    • I DO NOT think that referring to them as “people” is anthropomorphising them. Then the trouble with Humans is that they anthropomorphise themselves as so much more superior to other animals,

  5. Sorry, they are individual sentient beings but part of their attraction is they aren’t human or people. I see a lot of problems like resource guarding occur because people think dogs need to learn to share, like their toddlers.

  6. I definitely agree with Leslie and Susan. It’s not at all fair to expect dogs (or cats) to be people and treated as such. They are animals and totally different than people (humans).

  7. Every Puppy Class that I teach, I try and impress upon the owners that the pup has feelings just like us. And as you said feel all the feelings we feel but the problem, they don’t speak English so we have to watch for their body language to help them through their feelings.

  8. Leslie said it perfectly. In their goal to eliminate pets, animal rights extremists use “people” and similar terms to change the legal definition of our domesticated animals. I own my dogs. They are my property. I am not their “guardian” (or “parent,” for that matter). Apart from that, as Liz and Susan said, calling them people causes all kinds of problems for dogs whose owners treat them as children. Furbabies…yuck.

    And let’s face it, if you want unconditional love, you better get a dog, because you’re not likely to get it from people.

    • I agree about guardian and parent — although I do imagine that my dogs think of me as a “mom.” But so does my 29-year-old son, and I don’t treat him OR my dogs as children. And on the other hand, I would never call my dogs my “sons.” Personally, I think that creepy.

      Everyone is different. Again, it’s interesting to me how much we’ve learned about animals in the past century, and to imagine how much we might learn in the next, and how what we’ve learned has changed our language, and might still.

      I appreciate hearing everyone’s thoughts.

    • Well, PETA does want to eliminate pets but not in a good way. Declaring them people only makes PETA guilty of hundreds of thousands of murders a year. I’m all for having them go through the court process of condemning a “person” of a capital crime worth of a death sentence if it would stop them slaughtering adoptable puppies and kittens.

      If dogs were persons then I would be the legal guardian of mine and if anyone harmed them I could sue in court. If they killed them I could take them to court and have them put in prison for murder. I would much rather someone that killed an animal through abuse be put in prison than pay some sort of paltry fine because that living being they killed was just “property.”

  9. Yes, dogs – and other non-human animals – DO have personalities, feelings, etc., that make each one unique, just as each human is unique. However, beyond being kind and humane in our treatment of them, calling non-human animals “people” or attributing human characteristics or instincts to them is just asking for trouble.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with people calling their pets their “fur babies”; or calling themselves their pets’ guardian or parent. It’s our individual right to call our own pets whatever we choose to call them, and to refer to ourselves as their “pet parent” or “guardian”, as much as it is our right to name our human children and call ourselves their parent. And I challenge anyone to tell me I’m wrong. If I want to call my dogs my “babies”, I’m going to do so; and anyone who doesn’t like it can go stifle themselves. BTW, my dogs ARE my babies, my fur babies, and whatever else I want to call them. And I’m too old to care whether anyone else likes it or not.

  10. I sort of like “people” for how inclusive it is. Word meanings are always evolving and I’ve kind of embraced the idea that “people” has stretched to include our dogs.

  11. Okay, you hit a nerve with this blog and conversation string. I have railed against the term anthropomorphism for decades because it looks at intelligence, emotions and behaviors from the wrong direction as it implies so called ‘human’ emotions to dogs and other animals. But what we observe when we see happiness, joy, worry, concern, affection, apprehension, etc. in dogs and other animals are ANIMAL emotions, not ‘human’ emotions. And since humans are animals, it stands to reason that the emotions and behaviors that we express are animal emotions and behaviors. Some animals, snails for example, don’t have very complex behaviors and emotions but they have them. They fear for their safety, they feel positively towards good habitats, food sources and mates. The farther you go up the evolutionary ladder in animals who have developed large brains, sentience and especially complex social lives … the more complex those animal emotions and behaviors are. So let’s just do away with the term anthropomorphism because it’s incorrect and misleading. It harkens back to the biblical chain of creation with humans perched at the top which was a popular scientific philosophy back in Darwin’s day. And Darwin proved pretty conclusively that thats not what’s happening at all. Humans express animal emotions and in very very complicated ways as we all well know! Let’s allow other animals to express their complex emotions and behaviors, too, but let’s just not call it anthropomorphism.

  12. Every creature, from mice to elephants, is a sentient being. I have worked with many species for a long time, and I love them all. HOWEVER, we (and they) will be a lot worse off if they are granted legal status as “people”. Only the animal rights RADICALS are promotimg this. Animal WELFARE advocates have worked for multiple decades, without fanfare or recognition, to provide the best care for their patients, companions and helpers!

    • Well, I object to the term ‘creature’ — but them I am not a creationsit,. Animals!, We are, we are human animals ‘Homo sapiens’. Dogs are canine animals “Canis familiaris’.
      Then I’ve never thought of ‘people’ as necessarily implying only ‘Homo sapiens’ animals nor implying any legal status.

  13. when I was growing up in the 60s and my mom was introducing her kids, she always named them in order of age as follows: chris, petie, marybeth, john & boots (GSD). boots was always the kid with the funny nose!!

  14. Chambers Century Dictionary
    Person . . . a living soul or a self-conscious being . . .
    Personality . . . individuality . .
    People . . . a set of persons . . . a set of animals as if forming a nation . . .
    There is nothing wrong with calling dogs people — they certainly have personality, and are definitely self-conscious.

    • Chet of the Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn refers to dogs as “the nation within” since they are a nation within the nation of mankind/humans.

  15. Chambers Century Dictionary
    Person . . . a living soul or a self-conscious being . . .
    Personality . . . individuality . .
    So I see nothing at all ‘wrong’ with referring to dogs as persons.

  16. I am not a linguist so do not know what terms other languages have but person doesn’t seem to cover the animals we live with that have personalities and souls. I would not refer to a cockroach or amoeba as having a soul. A virus has no personality.

    But my dogs are not soul-less beings. They have personalities. They have likes and dislikes. They have their individuality and their quirks. I certainly don’t need to expound to the choir.

    But I’m not sure person is the term to use as it has too long been associated with human animals and there are also legal implications. Perhaps we need a new word, but I have no idea what it would be, nor would I attempt to categorize which living beings get to be persons and which do not. I think the decision between dogs and amoeba might be easy but there are plenty of living things that would live in a grey area of are they or aren’t they?

    My dogs have feelings, they have emotions, they have personality quirks, likes, dislikes, they express themselves as best they can and having lived with them I am perhaps better at interpreting what it is they want or don’t want, like and don’t like. No one can convince my my dog does not have a “soul”. If you want to call that personhood, then so be it.

  17. WOW!! From what I first perceived as a relatively light-hearted lead, “dogs are people too,” morphing into this extraordinary, oh-so-deep discussion, and from so very many different perspectives. This is one I must share with several friends.
    Perhaps I am viewing the entire subject all together waaay too simplistically, but I don’t know that “naming” other animals as “people,” or not, is truly relevant. It seems to me that all “animals,” including humans, have their individual attributes associated with their own species. Albeit many of which are shared intra-species. For instance, puppies will do what puppies do (chew on anything, go potty anywhere, jump on everybody, etc) until they’ve been taught basic manners that allow them social acceptance in the world of humans.
    However, the same essentially applies to young humans, who are also known as “children.” Chickens are going to act like chickens. Yes, they are a bird, in some ways very similar to, but not the same as, say…a hawk, or a penguin, or a humming bird.
    Yet, as Nancy has already pointed out, each and every comment is absolutely valid. Thank you all so much!
    Hmmm. Perhaps this subject warrants some more careful thought.
    Or not – ? 😊

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