“A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
I read an interesting statistic from animalsheltering.org the other day stating that 80% of people felt their pet was part of the family. At first, I was encouraged by that statistic, but the more I thought about it, the more it troubled me.
One of the first things I noticed was the wording of the question. It seems to be asking if you consider your pet to be a family member. The dog was given the category “pet” first; “family” seemed to be a subcategory. The assumption is that the dog is a pet, and you are the owner. I don’t know of anyone who really believes they “own” their family members, with the exception of some archaic and machismo concept of “king of the castle” control freaks. People don’t own each other, and that includes family members.
The second, and more important thing that jumped out at me was the assumption that being a family member meant the two of you have a great connection. But that’s not always the case with families.
When we say our dogs are part of our family, it doesn’t speak to the quality of the relationship. I have family members who love and would do anything for, yet I certainly wouldn’t want to hang with them! This sentiment is probably experienced during uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners in many homes. There are many instances where families have a deep love for one another, but rarely spend much time together or have any other bond aside from being a blood relation. This is certainly not the way most of us feel about our dogs. Family members love one another, but that does not automatically mean that they will be close, or enjoy the company of these relations. This is why I prefer to use the term “friend” rather than “family,” because it more accurately describes the type of relationship and its qualities.
When we speak about a loving family or loving our friends, we are often speaking about love as a feeling and a noun. I’m speaking about love as an action and a verb. Sometimes, we treat our friends differently than our family members. We love our family members, and we connect with our friends.
“True friendship can only exist between equals,” as Plato famously said. Very often, we don’t consider our family members equals. For example, when people say their dogs are “family,” they usually consider them as their children, as the term “fur baby” is becoming increasingly popular. However, this doesn’t accurately describe the relationship. When we look at the relationship between parents and children, it becomes clear. As parents, we want our kids to listen to us and obey our wishes. We do this out of love and concern for them, because our job as parents is to protect our children and prepare them for adulthood and independence. This is a very different relationship than we have with our friends. We are not preparing our friends to go off and become successful and independent adults. We may advise and council our friends, especially if we possess certain skills or wisdom, but it is not a command, nor do we insist that our friends obey us. We treat each other as equals, and respect each other’s differences.
I think the family relationships most analogous to friendship are spouse or sibling. In these cases there is more of an assumption of equality, although it doesn’t guarantee that siblings become friends, or even that spouses like each other and want to spend time together. One only has to look at the rate of divorce in our culture to see what I mean.
The relationship we have with our dogs is healthiest when we consider each other, and treat each other, as friends. This means we live together without hierarchies, conditions and contingencies. We respect each other for who we are, and do not resort to manipulation or coercion to get our way. When we are faced with a conflict, we work it out together with cooperation and collaboration, and never entertain the concept of “winners” and “losers” or blame each other. As friends, we respect each other’s autonomy and independence, and offer guidance and advice with compassion and concern, yet never force or bribe. It also means we are open to receive guidance as well. As friends, we spend time together and enjoy each other’s company, not just with structured activities. We find peace and comfort just being in each other’s presence. We have undying faith in each other and are completely committed to our friendship, through good times and bad. This is unconditional love and acceptance, and the only way our friendship will grow and flourish.
The love we feel about those we consider our family is deep and unshakable. It is written into our genetic code. We will often go to “the ends of the Earth” to help our our family out. The love we feel for our friends is equally profound. We see our friends as part of ourselves, and reflections of our souls. With our dogs, the ideal relationship to strive for is to be both friend and family. We must love them as family, and treat them as friends.