Dogs, Children and Toy Envy

This topic was prompted by the angry outburst of a young woman who declared she was not that different to the dogs she trains.  I was impressed by the passion of her statement; one that some would consider an insult to their own intelligence.

It’s a question I am usually hesitant to voice on account of my family’s screw-faced disdain for four-legged things.  But since blogging has given me an emboldened sense of self-confidence, I thought I’d ask it here.

How different, really, are dogs from us?  Can they legitimately be called a child substitute?

A couple of years ago I happened upon a documentary that gave me all the ammunition I would ever need in defending my pooch spoiling ways.

On account of the incredible smarts of a dog in Austria, The Secret Life of the Dog puts a canine’s intellectual capacity on par with a child aged two or three.

This was proven, not only by the undeniable size of the dog’s vocabulary, but by it’s remarkable skills of toy recognition.  (It’s amazing what a bit of positive reinforcement can do.)

While the skeptics among us are busy squabbling over the science, let me just say I’ve personally witnessed two types of sentient being in no doubt whatsoever of the validity of this claim.

You guessed it.  Dogs and children.

The Christmas before Pepi’s brain broke, we went camping.  Best Christmas ever.

Next to us was a cute family of four, also trying to escape their relatives.

On Christmas afternoon, the little four year old girl wandered over for a bit of Christmas present show and tell.  The books went by without a whimper.  But then she made the mistake of bringing out the sparkling unicorn.

It might have been bigger than Pepi, but as far as he was concerned, that toy was, “Mine, all mine!”

The more she snatched it out of reach, the more incensed he became until, alas, poor Pepi had to be locked away in the tent and reprimanded.

Upon my return, her pronouncement that Pepi was a “naughty boy!” was disproportionate to the size and status of a little scrap of dog.  It smacked, just a tad, of triumph over rival.

Then there was the time my Neephs came to visit.

“He’s got soooooo many toys!” declared my three year old niece, and then the kids closed in and counted…one…two…three…SIX toys!

“Such a nice big bed!!” she squealed.  “I wish I had a bed like that!”

She would have climbed in with him, were it not for the self-protective yelp that Pepi gave.  The yelp of one’s belongings under siege.

To everyone’s credit, most of the kids I know are very good with Pepi – and likewise, he with them.  But there is something about the way they interact.

Some illuminating, though slightly worrying experiments on foxes in Siberia, show the way we have bred dogs to be frozen at an infantile stage of life.

Were it not for this, our dear little pups would be far more aggressive, cynical and, funnily enough, a lot less cute looking.

Which brings me to the conclusion of this little tale.

There are two resounding complaints I hear from a different brand of silver fox:

(1) That they don’t see their grown-up children enough.

(2) That their children didn’t turn out quite the way they hoped they would.

So here we have it, the real reason why people have dogs:

They never grow up or leave home.  They rarely disappoint.  And most of all, they love us cutely and unquestioningly for their entire life 🙂

It makes me wonder if this is also an unconscious reason behind the cosseting or curtailing of our teens.  Who is it that really isn’t ready to let go?

Of course, Dr Peter Rowley-Conwy also raises the question of parasitic relationships, but I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

The moral of the story is, who could ask for a better child substitute? In the words of Dr Morten Kringelbach “What we get in return is probably sometimes much greater than what we put in”.

Do you have a similar story to tell about children and dogs? Or is this just anthropomorphism dressed in expert clothing? Please do share…


  1. Coleen Patrick says

    We don’t have dogs in our house–yet. I always say I will probably get one after my kids go off to college. 🙂 Does this mean i think they are like kids? Hmm. Interesting question! I do think that dogs have souls, and they also have smarts–some more than others. But humans don’t all have the same level of smarts either. 🙂

  2. lynnkelleyauthor says

    I’m a dog lover, and ironically, more so when my kids were grown! We have four kids and ended up with four dogs. I went to PetSmart one day to buy something and the Humane Society had puppies that needed to be adopted. I couldn’t help but stop and look at them. My husband wasn’t too happy that I brought a new puppy home, but Sheila turned out to be one of the best dogs we’ve ever had! I used to laugh and tell people we replaced the kids with dogs!
    At one point we had five dogs when our son couldn’t keep his dog because the dog was jealous of the baby and started snapping at her. We had a big yard then.
    When we moved into our apartment, our son took his dog back, and our granddaughter is two now and the dog doesn’t snap at her anymore, so that worked out well. We’re allowed to have two dogs now and I’m so glad because I didn’t want to give them up. The hardest part about having a dog is when they get ill (like Peppi) and then pass on. It’s hard to say goodbye. Some of my favorite books are dog stories. I love real life stories about dogs rescuing people, especially babies!

    And, yes, dogs are like having a perpetual three-year-old!

    • says

      I think it’s fair to say, Lynn, that you know what I’m talking about 🙂 ! Those dogs must have kept you very busy, but by the same token, there’d have been a lot of love in your household…As for puppies and pet stores – it wouldn’t be the first time someone got sucked in! Which is why I have to give them a very wide berth 🙂

  3. says

    Hi Alarna,

    I have just read your blog on dogs and children. It made me chuckle. I have noticed similar things in regards to my own dog, Watson a little Chihuahua. Watson comes to work with me everyday and I realize I am very lucky to be able to do that. What gets me are peoples reaction to him. When we are on the tube he has randoms coming up and petting him, no polite question ‘Is ok to stroke him?’ No they just charge ahead, adults mainly children ask, most totally don’t acknowledge that I am actually holding him. I ask you would they do the same to someone’s child?

    A similar attitude I have experience with people at work. He loves being at work and getting the attention, but sometimes he wants to sleep or snuggle in his puppy crate. Which some don’t seem to get and when he doesn’t respond the call him bi-polar dog. But he is a dog, he may be small and cute, but he is not a toy (he has lots of toys like your Pepi) and they need to respect his space and his toys. (As he takes them to the back of the puppy crate out of reach.)

    • says

      That’s great that you can take Watson to work with you! But you’re right – they are not a toy! (I have to confess to having enjoyed messing with my nephew’s mind by telling him Pepi was a toy dog, though…oops). I guess when we look at it from their point of view, it’s like being lunged at by giants, so no wonder have a ‘snappy’ reputation (bi-polar seems a bit extreme though – poor little Watson :)). Surprisingly, I’ve found adults and kids to be quite respectful of Pepi. Whereas other dog owners often presume its ok for their dogs to be in his face, because he’s just a ‘cute little thing’ and their dogs ‘just want to be friends’. Maybe it’s my bad training, but sometimes the chi in him has other ideas 🙂

  4. says

    We’ve had seventeen dogs, mostly rescued. Technically they belonged to each of the children and my husband. You can guess who was their mother! I used to say that I treated my children like my dogs, and my dogs like my children. When my children left home they never liked the new dogs – they said I spoiled them like I’d never spoiled the others( ie them).
    And I always say to people, don’t get a dog unless you want to live with a toddler , as they will always need feeding, walking, bathing, brushing, and cuddling. Rescued dogs give you even deeper love that other dogs. Dogs are divine!!!

    • says

      You brought a tear to my eye with this comment, Valerie. Seventeen dogs definitely qualifies you as a dog lover, and funny that your adult children are still a little envious 🙂 But seriously, you are absolutely right about dogs as perpetual toddlers – sometimes people don’t realise what a true commitment it is. I know I didn’t. But just because they are small and can’t talk, doesn’t mean they should be trivialised. Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

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