If you are a dog owner from a family of dog owners it can be surprisingly difficult to relate to people who do not have (or want) dogs in their life. Especially those who do not have a cat or rat or parrot or even some fish, but just a house completely devoid of animals.
People who don’t really like or show interest in animals are freaks, right? Or at least a bit dodgy. Well, no, probably not.
Non-Pet Owners are Basically Just Like You and Me. No, Really.
There have been a number of studies of dog owners as people and how they compare to other pet owners and non-pet owners—and the results are all over the place. The more I read these studies that more I agree with researchers like Suzanne Johnson and Warren Rule, who concluded in a 1991 International Journal of Psychology study that when it comes to personality there is no reliable difference between these groups.
You can find individual studies that with say pet owners are more or less extroverted or neurotic or empathetic or whatever. But when you look closer the pattern is for the larger and more carefully constructed studies of people out in the community tended to find no significant effects at all. Research by Rose Perrine and Hannah Osbourne found that any difference that do exists tend to be between cat and dog owners, not pet owners and non-pet owners.
Sara Statts and others (2006) found that while pet owners felt that their pets made them happier and healthier, non-pet owners reported exactly the same levels of health and happiness. Even people living alone were not less lonely or depressed when they had a pet versus no pet.
So, be honest, do you stereotype non-pet owners? When you find someone you have just met is a non-pet owner, does a certain chill fall over the conversation? How can they not have a dog, or at least some kind of pet? Do you immediately wonder if they are a bit uptight, maybe lacking in warmth? Do you wonder what on earth you are going to talk to them about?
Dog Owner Stereotypes
When you think about it, pet owners are subject to discrimination all the time. Cat ladies are seen as socially inept. Dog owners have dirty homes. You have trouble renting a house or apartment with a pet. If you have a pit bull, home insurance companies may turn you away. Large tracts of land and most buildings do not permit dogs and thus do not welcome people with their animal companions. People interested in animal rescue are often accused of not caring about people.
As a result you might expect dog owners to be sensitive to stereotyping, but instead I hear people say things like they just can’t understand people not having pets, or that it is abnormal. When really, what could be considered normal could go either way.
How Normal is Pet Keeping Anyway?
Some evolutionary psychologists like John Archer suggest that pets (as opposed to working animals) are essentially parasites on human culture and as such pet-keeping is a “maladaptive” behavior. A counterargument might be that pet keeping occurs in most human societies and thus must be “normal” for the human species. But the countercounterargument would be that in no society is pet keeping for companionship alone ubiquitous. So it is perfectly normal for some people in these culture to not keep pets.
Even in modern western cultures where pet keeping is widely affordable, the number of households with pets hovers around 50 percent, suggesting that pet keeping and non-pet keeping are about equally normal. Although the balance seems to be tipping in the direction of pet keeping especially for families with children. By contrast leaders in Africa and North Korea have claimed that pet keeping is not a natural part of their society by a western fad that responsible people should reject.
Live and Let Live
Ultimately I think the studies that show pet and non-pet keepers have basically the same normal range of personalities, attitudes and outlooks on like should means that we are able to live and let live. Pet owning is normal and society should make allowances for it on this basis, with a minimum of discrimination unless there really is a sound reason for excluding dogs from a venue. But equally not owning a dog or wanting to be in direct contact with them is quite normal and someone who eschews all dog related activities should not be judged as a result unless they are unreasonably hostile or derogatory about it.
The only thing you have in common with a dog owner that you do not have in common with a non-dog owner is an orientation in your life toward dogs as pets. And I think it is healthy to have a circle of friends that are diverse not just in this quality but religion, background, whether they are career focused, religious, sporty, married, have kids or not, or pretty much anything else. (and yes, a woman who chooses not to have children, I know what it feel like to be considered weird for not doing something many people consider normal and a matter of course).
So maybe your petless friends will not want to come with you to a dog show or dog park, but hopefully you also have some non-dog-related interests like theater or scuba diving that dog and non-dog-lover participate in alike.
Respecting diversity is a tricky thing, and it includes respecting people who spend their lives in way we cannot intuitively understand. Including those who look down with abject horror as out adorable pup bounds toward them.
How about you? Do you have non-dog-owning friends, or do you hang only with other pet parents? Let us know in the comments.
About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).