Why is it important to give thanks to your pet?
As you reflect on your abundances this Thanksgiving, there are multitude of reasons to give thanks for your pets. The following example about a family provides some reasons why pets are so important.
This is the home of Jeff and Tina, Lucas and Elaina – and Lady. We can’t come to the phone right now because we are all having fun together. Leave your name and number …” This message on the answering machine reveals a lot. Lady, the family’s twelve-year-old yellow lab, is a member of the family. They live together. They go camping together. Lady is present at the dining room table, begging for scraps – usually successfully. She accompanies Lucas on his runs. She greets Jeff when he arrives home from work, and he has gotten into the habit of telling her how his day went. And Elaina has taken to confiding her deepest secrets to Lady and to Lady alone. To this family, the question as to whether you can “love” a dog the same way that you “love” another human being is a silly question. Of course you can!
What roles do pets play in a family?
Pets are often the way that families come together. Think about what it is like in a family when a new kitten or puppy comes into a home, with all the attention to the new family member and all the interaction among human family members about the new arrival. This often continues, usually less intensely, throughout the pet’s life with the family. Think about what happens when you take your dog on a vacation to a cottage, and everyone shares in the dog’s exploration of his new “home”. Pets play a variety of roles within any family.
Center for humor. People can get a feeling of release and have good simple fun with the antics of a pet. Pets can be clowns.
Goodwill ambassador. A dog or cat, through its own open and accepting nature, can spread feelings of goodwill through the family.
Outlet for being silly. Have you ever seen otherwise dignified people playing on the floor with a pet, or speaking baby talk with them? Pets can bring out what is sometimes called “the inner child.”
Recipient of nurturing. Kids, especially, learn how to be caretakers with their pets. Picture a five-year-old old child taking a dog or cat into their arms, or a seven-year-old child walking their dog on a leash.
Home entertainment center. This is especially true of younger pets. But for most, there is something to watch and find amusing.
Confidant. Pets can be the audience for our private thoughts – doubts, fears, questions, secrets, and yearnings. They don’t criticize.
Teacher. Pets often by their example and by their responses of our treatments of them can teach us moral lessons.
Leveler. Dogs are not much impressed by wealth of social status. Cats probably even less so. With pets, we all start over as simple human beings. They also teach us about the limits of our ability to control the world. Cats, we suspect teach this lesson especially well.
Fear Counselor. Pets can help us learn how to overcome our fears. This is especially true in the case of children’s ear of animals.
Greif Counselor. They are not exactly, but family therapists have sometimes suggested that someone who has lost a loved one, through death or some other painful separation, get a pet to help deal with grief.
Keep in mind that this is only a partial list. Also, keep in mind that the same pet probably plays different roles for each member of the family and that these roles may change with time. It depends on the individual set of needs each member brings to the pet. One person may not get a lot of affection from anyone else in the family. Another might need to feel needed.
My father is almost totally unable to communicate his feelings. When I first went away to college, my father could not even say, “I miss you.” But when I come home he goes on and on about how much Wrly, our dog, misses me!
The important point here is that when something happens to one member of the family, it affects all the other members. Social psychologists often see families as networks or systems. They can diagram hierarchies or triangles and other patterns within the family system. Think of a family with a husband, wife, and three kids. When the oldest daughter goes off to college, the middle daughter is now “the oldest” and has a new role to play. Dad may have lost a favorite companion for conversation, a loss that will change his relationship with his wife and his other kids. The middle daughter may no longer be the recipient of teachings from her big sister, and she may take on that role with her little brother and so on. Each change in the family begets many others. The same is true when something changes with a pet.
It’s important to see these disruptions, painful as they may be, as opportunities for growth. It’s easy to spout clichés like, “No pain, no gain”, but the fact is that change makes us rethink our values and our relationships, and this can be good for us.
Keep in mind also that each family member has a unique relationship with the pet.
Who “owns” the pet?
Everyone and no one. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Each member of the family has their own unique relationship with the pet, and each may feel a sense of ownership. A parent may feel that way because they are in charge of feeding the dog. One child because the dog is their “best friend” and another sibling may feel this since the dog sleeps at the foot of their bed. Another parent may have purchased the dog or arranged it at the animal shelter, and the dog may be a late-night companion for their insomnia.
Ownership is shared. It’s in the eye of the beholder.
What if your pet is your sole companion?
The relationship between an owner and a pet who is the owner’s sole companion can be especially intense. The pet may be the owner’s primary source of companionship. The pet may also play a role in the owner’s life as a substitute for another person who usually plays that role. An owner’s dog could be taking the place of their children who have moved away. The cat could be a person’s last remnant of a family they lost through a divorce. A spouse whose significant other has just died may have felt very strongly about a pet they loved. The dynamics of the family are simpler in these cases, but much more intense.
Some older people who live alone may use their pets as a way to structure their day. If they are retired from their job and their children have gone from the house, they may organize their lives around the time to take the dog for a walk, time to feed the cat, time to read or watch television with their animal friend at their feet or at their side. The loss of a pet can mean the loss of this kind of structure.
Those relationships are entirely normal. In fact, people have such a wide variety of kinds of relationships with their pets that it’s hard to say that any of them are “normal” or “not normal.” What is important is to understand the relationship you have with your pet, and as much as possible, to understand that of the other family members with their pets.
For Further Thought:
Describe the reasons why each person in your family can give thanks to your pet.
Lucy, you are honest and true.
You never resort to substances to cope with the exigencies of your life.
Nor do you swear,
Sure, you steal a bit of food when no one is looking.
You may not be perfect, but you are an inspiration to those of us who seek relief from
Nor are you self-righteous – a particularly unpardonable sin.
And you are so forgiving.
Oh to be able to forgive and forget like a dog.
Poem excerpt from my book, Conversations With My Old Dog