Sociologist categorizes three types of pet guardians. Which one are you?
While dogs and other animal companions come in various breeds, it looks like their guardians may vary as well, says research from Indiana University South Bend. Cultural sociologist David Blouin, PhD, researched the relationships between man and dog, finding three distinct categories into which animal guardians tend to fall. Members of these groups—humanists, protectionists, and dominionists—hold different views on the purpose of animals, how they should be treated, and even have different—or, in one category, no—breed preferences.
What inspired Blouin to examine and categorize the ways in which guardians and their dogs form relationships?
“This interest started in college as an undergraduate. I had a professor who pointed out how interesting and random it is that we think of and treat animal species very differently, that there are animals that we eat and animals that we love,” he explains. “I find it interesting that these ideas vary across different cultures and across time.”
As a sociologist, Blouin was interested in figuring out where these taken-for-granted notions come from and how they are maintained, he adds. Study findings also apply to other human-animal bonds, including cats, birds and other pets.
“In graduate school I got an opportunity to work with the local Humane Society and they wanted to do a survey and talk to people about spaying and neutering and where they get their animals,” he says. “They wanted a big survey so I combined my interest in the topic with theirs and I was able to collect the survey data and use it in my dissertation. The Humane Society was the reason I was interested in working with dogs and cats.”
While the media often covers animal-related issues, Blouin says, he noticed an information gap; there was something missing from the coverage on the topic. “There is a lot written in the mainstream media about how much people love their animals and how much money they spend on them, and about the abuse of animals, but not a lot about what is in between, and it glosses over the complexity of people’s relationships with animals,” he maintains. “The stories are either about over the top animals lovers or abusers.”
After 28 in-depth interviews with dog guardians from a Midwestern county, Blouin determined that attitudes fell within three categories: humanist, protectionist, and dominionist.
Humanists, he explains, are guardians who anthropomorphize their pets, treating the animals like human beings that in many cases, serve as surrogate children. They are the types of pet guardians to whom pet clothes and other accessories are most appealing.
Protectionists are guardians who are more likely to have animals from rescue groups or shelters, and expand their compassion beyond companion animals to include all animals. Protectionists are more likely to be vegetarians or vegans.
Dominionists are those who view animals in utilitarian terms; they are more likely to keep a dog outside, and to have a dog for a specific purpose, such as hunting, protection, or pest control.
How do the different types of groups view one another? Although they share the common bond of dog companionship, their attitudes about animal care influence how they feel about fellow guardians.
“In general, each of them has something in common, but there is antagonism and conflicts between the groups,” Blouin says. “Most telling was when I would ask people what they liked and respected with regard to dog treatment and what they did not. People were very clear about what they liked and what they didn’t; this is how they framed who they were.”
For example, protectionists and humanists may be critical of one another. “Some protectionists say, ‘I know people who are crazy about dogs and treat them like kids and overdo it,’” he says. “Then humanists complain about protectionists as being over the top and say they want to infringe their beliefs on them, because some humanists see animal rights and rescue as infringement.”
“Dominionists are the most different from the other two,” Blouin adds. “Protectionists and humanists thought poorly of people who don’t let animals stay inside, or give them cheap food, or keep them chained in the yard, for example.”
While Blouin uses these three categories to classify animal guardians, there is room for overlap between the groups. “These are ways to describe different types of theoretical categories, no one falls neatly into just one,” he explains. “There are certain ideas, values and treatments, but people often pick and choose multiple [factors].”
Other research findings revealed that gender differences, generational variations, and breed preference between the different guardian categories.
“I couldn’t really generalize, but other research has shown that there is probably a gender dynamic,” Blouin says. “Men are more likely to think of their dogs in athletic, masculine terms, as companions to do stuff with, like go hiking, and women are more likely to have emotional attachment with, for instance, a smaller dog.”
Baby Boomers, facing an empty nest, are more likely to move toward a more humanist approach with their animals. “If they have children and the kids move away, and they continue to have animals, the attachments become more intense due to the empty nest,” he explains.
How people acquire their dogs, Blouin says, is often based on previous experiences. “Past experiences with animals affected how people got them in the future,” he notes. “And childhood experiences were important; people were more likely to get dog of the same breed as one from their childhood.”
Humanists, he says were more likely to prefer a particular breed of dog because they had had that kind of dog before. “For instance, if they had a Chihuahua in the past, it was common for them to get a Chihuahua again.”
Protectionists were least likely to have a breed preference. “Protectionists had a more universal concern, so they would get their dogs from shelters, or have rescue dogs; they did not have the breed preference that humanists did,” Blouin says.
Dominionists had little preference between purchased or rescue dogs, but they tended to prefer breeds that were larger and that they could use for hunting or for protection, like a German Shepherd.
Survey findings also revealed geographical differences in terms of attitudes towards animals. City dwellers tend to have a closer companion relationship with their pets, while people in rural areas were more likely to view animals in a utilitarian light, rather than emotional.
This difference may also be class-based, Blouin adds. “In the U.S. and other wealthier, more industrialized countries, people are becoming more attached to companion animals.”
One particularly noteworthy finding related to people with children versus people without. Blouin found that relationships to animals changed over time, and that some attachments lessened due to the expansion of the family to include children. The group that reported the greatest change between their pre- and post-child relationship with their animals was the humanist category.
When humanists had human children, suddenly their prior treatment of an animal as surrogate child made less sense, Blouin explains.
Protectionists were less likely than humanists to express less attachment to their animal companions after a child entered the picture. “This changed did not happen as clearly with protectionists, especially with their strong universal attachment to animals,” he says. “There was not as much conflict because they respect the animal as an animal, and a human child wouldn’t change how they thought of the animal, as it does for people who treat animals like humans before they have kids.”
Social attitudes towards animals have changed over time, Blouin notes. “The dominionist view is the oldest of the three; it is the traditional, Western view towards animals that they are here for us to use,” he explains. “The humanist view is a newer view that has developed as people become closer and spend more time with animals, as they treat them as companions and as children, and as they enjoy being with them, but it doesn’t extend to other animals.”
The protectionist view, Blouin explains, is rooted in 1800s England. “It was part of the human rights movement and it was extended to animals, and is the basis for the more recent origins of animal rights.”
The movement in the 1800s included the rise of anti-vivisection activism and the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals , formed in London in 1824, and became so respected that in 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the organization to rename itself the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as it is known today.
Editor’s note: If you would like a furry family member, please go to www.petfinder.com to find animals in your area. Millions of healthy cats and dogs are gassed to death and lethally injected every year due to shelter overcrowding. Economic woes have also made increasing numbers of purebred animals homeless as well, and please keep in mind that adult animals need love too. Please spay and neuter your pet companions and don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Make adoption your option. You—and your animal companion—will be glad you did!
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