As a researcher herself, Amy always jumps at the chance to share exciting new findings on the childfree. This latest guest post comes from Shelly Volsche, a student who just recently (and successfully!) defended her MA Thesis at UNLV. Congrats, Shelly, and thank you for sharing your work with us!!
Parenting Dogs: Are Childfree Dog Owners Really Childless?
Here’s a contradiction for you. I’m a childfree mom. How can that be? Isn’t that impossible? An oxymoron? While I don’t have children, I do have two, beautiful four legged “kids,” and that is enough for me. As many women (and men) in the childfree community will attest, I’m not alone in viewing my pets as my children. Many of us have fulfilling relationships with our dogs. It is for this reason I was ecstatic to complete my thesis research and discover an interesting trend in how people teach their dogs.
I started my research simply hoping that people who love their dogs would be less likely to use strong punishments in training them. My goal was to obtain a wide sample of adult dog owners in the U.S. and ask them questions about their lives with their dogs. What methods of training do they use? How often? What sacrifices would they make for their dogs? What benefits do they feel dog ownership brings to their lives? Initially, I had no intention of this research touching on my interests in childfree individuals.
However, my results returned a sample population that was more specific than the “average” dog owner. It was more unique and wonderful. What I found was a group of childfree women who were using a common parenting style to “raise” their dogs. Nearly 80% did not have children, and 65% considered themselves their dog’s parent or guardian. This got my attention.
Now, lest you think I found a group of women toting their dogs around in purses and calling them Pooky, I assure you, this was not the case. Very few reported attachment (love) in the extreme range of “I think my dog is a small, furry human,” and only two (in a sample of 673) were using harsh disciplinary actions when their dog misbehaved. In fact, many of the respondents clarified that they still raised their “fur kid” by focusing on what dogs need, much in the same way they would focus on raising a child by meeting a human child’s needs.
Instead, this group of women appear to be applying a classic parenting style called “authoritative parenting” to teach their dogs to navigate a human world successfully. Authoritative parenting is marked by a balance of warmth and discipline, with most discipline being verbal or restraining in nature. For example, discipline may include scolding or saying “no” or grabbing an arm or collar to keep a child or dog from straying into the street on walks. My study showed these “dog moms” were highly attached to their four legged “kids,” but still understood that sometimes love means saying “no.” These “dog moms” appear to use minimal punishment only when necessary for the safety or long term well-being of those involved.
This isn’t the first time human parenting strategies have been found in our relationship with dogs, either. A study by Steiner et al. in 2013 found that people’s attachment to the dogs in their home varies with how the dog was obtained. Basically, the person who adopted or chose the dog was more attached to him or her than an individual who came into the home after the dog was already there. This is very similar to step-parenting literature in which individuals are more bonded to their own biological children than to step-children. Makes sense, really.
It also makes sense that dogs tend to be the species we pick to “parent” the most. They have many child-like traits, from forming strong bonds with their owners to showing empathetic behavior in response to human distress. They can even learn to mimic our behavior, ask for help when they can’t complete a task on their own, and steal from the proverbial cookie jar when no one is looking. Anyone who has lived with a dog can tell you just how child-like they can be.
But there are benefits to parenting a dog instead of a human child. For starters, it is much easier to move cross-country for a job offer if you have a dog. No school changes, no worries about moving the grandchild away from the family, and no pressure to remain close to an ex. Dogs also tend to be much more forgiving of those long days at the office, frequently content to accept that new bone as a peace offering. Having a dog is not the same as having a child, and yet, there is still this small, warm-bodied creature who is happy to see you, go on vacation to the beach, and play hide and seek.
This is also not to say that all childfree individuals have dogs, or that all childfree dog owners have “fur babies.” I don’t believe that any more than I believe all women should forego children. Just like having children, being childfree or preferring a dog is a personal choice, and each individual must make it for themselves. However, for those of us who have dogs, they can help bridge the gap between why we chose to be childfree and having a mutually loving relationship with someone in our care. And apparently, many of us parent our dogs.
Shelly Volsche is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her research interests include the human-animal bond, childfree families, human intimacy, and how these combine in modern societies. Her background includes years as a professional canine behavior consultant where she saw a wide variety of family structures. Passionate about learning, Shelly is constantly seeking answers to questions about the evolving human world. She currently lives with her husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Calvin and Lucy. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.