Rescue dog: Is a dog owner by any other name still a mom or dad?

Albie the rescue dog knows exactly who his owners are ... by any name. Whether they're called "Mommy and Daddy"  or "Judy and Peter," the kibble tastes as sweet.

Courtesy of the Zheutlin family
Rescue dog Albie catches a little shut-eye while his owners slip deeper into the "parenting" role, calling themselves "Mommy" and "Daddy" despite their vows not to.

As a child in the late 1950s and 1960s, my brother and I always addressed our parent’s friends as “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” and our friends always referred to my parents as “Dr.” and “Mrs.,” though it was generally abbreviated to “Dr. Z” and “Mrs. Z.” A few especially close family friends we called “Aunt” and “Uncle,” but first names alone were never used. And so it was with all the adults in our lives: teachers, doctors, and acquaintances. It was one way of showing respect for our elders.

Sometime  in social upheaval of the late '60s, a few adults, even some teachers (or college professors) – the “cool” ones – said, “call me John,” or “Mary.” It was a bit unsettling and felt unnatural if you’d grown up addressing people older than yourself with more formality. As I became an adult, and my parent’s friends aged, it became easier and soon very natural to use first names. After all, we were all grown-ups now.

Almost all of our sons’ friends address us formally, though a handful use our first names, and oddly both seem natural for the individuals involved. I’m not sure how the different usages evolved and there’s no apparent pattern to it, but it would still sound odd to hear myself addressed by my first name by those who have been more formal, and vice versa. You just get used to the way things are.

When we brought Albie, our half golden retriever, half yellow Lab, into our home I didn’t think this would be an issue because, after all, he can’t talk. He’s smart, but he’s not that smart. But the issue wasn’t what he would call us, but how we would describe ourselves in reference to him. I always found it peculiar, even off-putting, to hear dog owners (if “owner” is really the right term) refer to themselves as “Mommy” and “Daddy” or variations thereof when talking to their dogs, as in “Daddy is going to take you for a walk now,” or “Mommy loves you, yes she does!” Good grief, people, these are dogs not children!

But I soon realized that I needed a comfortable way to refer to myself when talking to him and even more to the point, a natural way to refer to my wife Judy. I swore we’d never be Mommy and Daddy to Albie, and so, when Albie first came home I was referring to Judy as, well, Judy because that’s her name.

“Judy’s going to take you for a walk, Albie!” I’d say. But it didn’t sound quite right. Judy would be right if Albie were a friend, the kind you meet for lunch or a movie, but he’s something else. Then our dog-owner friends would arrive and refer to us as “Mommy” and “Daddy” when talking to Albie. It seemed inevitable.

The fact is, having a dog is, in certain respects, like being the mother or father to a young child: The creature is totally dependent on you for food, water, affection and a proper place to execute vital bodily functions, and leaving them home when you go out invites the same guilt pangs you got when the kids stared out the window, babysitter behind them, looking doleful as you got in the car and drove away. That’s why “Judy” and “Peter” didn’t sound right. It seemed too much like the groovy English professor from 1970 who insisted students call him by his first name, the one who might show up at your dorm party with a joint or a beer which seemed kind of cool then but seems creepy in retrospect. Still, I’m not sold on “Mommy” and “Daddy.”

So, for now, the question remains unsettled as I continue to weigh the options. Maybe we should just go with Captain and Tennille.

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