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the miscreant mutt’s alternative family

June 8, 2010

Went for a walk with the dog last night, and was surprised to run into a number of folks I’ve met before…who were convinced that Pecan was not my dog.

But she is. Mine mine mine.

Okay, maybe his too.

Aaaaanyway.  Point is here that all the folks in the park see Pecan out walking not only with me, but with Eric, with the folks upstairs, and even going for runs with my roommate sometimes too.  I can’t blame them for being a little confused.  After the mutt got her playtime with these fine folks’ puppy dogs and proceeded to stomp around in the creek (drainage ditch) along the path, I ended up with some interesting musings.

My dog has an alternative family.

Though I’ve never thought to put those words to it before, this has been a reason I’ve cited frequently for why my current living situation is so awesome.  The gist of it is that my dog looks to me as her primary caretaker (and has looked to Eric in the past, when he was still living in the same place as us), but also gets a large portion of her care from others living in the same house.  She’s really come to depend on the landlord’s family upstairs for getting some love, especially when I’m in the lab, and she adores going on runs with someone who actually enjoys running (not my strong point).  Her “family” these days most closely resembles a complex extended family unit, composed of a few subgroups of nuclear-family-like units, and others who come and go in her life (her bad aunts, who spoil her mercilessly when I’m traveling, for instance).

It seemed an interesting “test case” for alternative families to consider Pecan’s happiness, health, and safety in this structure versus her previous experience in a more traditional (by contemporary American standards, anyway) family structure.  On the plus side, she has more frequent supervision, more frequent interaction, a wider variety of interaction, and she gets exposed to a whole slew of novel stimuli she wouldn’t otherwise encounter.  She has distinctly different interactions with all the people in her life; she looks to different people when she wants different things.  For instance, she expects regular meals and structured play from me, but knows she can start an impromptu game of chase with the kids upstairs (and they’ll stand for it — they have more patience than me).

Obviously, there are negatives here too.  Constant supervision doesn’t mean consistent supervision; she doesn’t get the firm hand in training and control that I’d like when I’m not here, and it’s been a challenge to teach the kids in particular which methods of reward and reprimand are effective, and which just confuse and set back her training.  Also, some of the “novel stimuli” I refer to are quite dangerous, such as fertilizer that she thought looked tasty, and others, while not explicitly dangerous, aren’t really that good for her either (eating five pounds of cheese in a sitting is not a good habit for anyone).  Being part of a large and complex family definitely puts her at more risk.  They misjudge the control they have over her in a situation where she reacts aggressively, as well, and aren’t as educated with regard to that, so they have put others at risk too (this has changed, thank goodness).

Yet, in this one case, I think the balance definitely tips in favor of continuing the current setup.  She’s much happier now than she was living in a smaller group, and hasn’t gotten into significantly more dangerous scrapes.  Alternative family WIN!

The implications of this are…?  Well, not really anything far reaching, but it is interesting.  I’ve considered alternative family structures before, for humans, mostly through my experiences in the poly community (though by virtue of being fairly young, most of my peer group there doesn’t have kids).  There’s definitely a lot of reasons to consider a larger, more fluid family structure, mostly since it increases the support available for everyone.  And, of course, there is historical precedent, since it was the prominent structure before the industrial revolution allowed the nuclear family to be sustainable at all.  On the downside, there’s all the same downsides that Pecan experiences, not to mention the increased complexity of the family members’ interactions (which is something you don’t see with a dog as much).  It’s more of a mess to navigate, for sure.

In the end, a dog is not a child, and more broadly, humans aren’t even pack animals in the same way as dogs.  That said, the fact that my dog currently does live in a functional complex family definitely got me thinking.

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