‘Can my dog meet your horse?’ asked the woman, as her German shepherd lunged at me, making my thoroughbred jump up and down in panic.
We had been riding through the woods, a friend and I, when we came across one of those dog-walking clubs. Up to a dozen of what looked like former guard dogs and their owners came round a bend on the track towards us.
‘He just wants to say hello!’ the woman persisted. How many times have we all heard that from a dog-owner in the park before said beast pounces and humps us half to death? So I told her very firmly: ‘Absolutely not. Do not come any closer.’
‘Oh, but I’m getting him used to things.’ I’ve had this before. ‘Listen here. My horse is not a practice prop for your dog. And I’m not going to be thrown off and have my neck broken in the name of socialisation.’
I am afraid these well-meaning dog clubs are the tip of the iceberg. An increasing number of pet-owners do not seem to understand that their animals are, er, animals. A new generation believes its pets are human and should be treated as such. Egged on by charities that fuel anthropomorphism in order to extract ever higher donations and by a pet industry that is doing very well indeed out of the notion that ‘pets are us’, people do not want their animals to be treated as though they were in any way inferior beings.
Apparently we should not even be calling them pets. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of Peta, that most cutting edge of animal charities, has called for people to stop calling their animals pets because it ‘reduces them to a commodity’. To which I want to say: ‘Calm down pet, it’s only a term of endearment!’
The promotion of animals to the level of thinking, discerning human beings has boosted the value of the pet industry to an estimated £7 billion a year. The humanisation of pets is fuelling ever more elaborate treats and pampering, as if dogs enjoy going to the poodle parlour to have their nails cut, which of course they don’t. They would much prefer to be walked more so their claws wore down naturally.
But never mind. Because we now have animal social media influencers. ‘Doug the Pug’, for example, has 3.9 million Instagram followers. Owners call their pets ‘furbabies’. The term is meant to be sweet but becomes more creepy the more you think about it. Some women have taken to calling themselves ‘fur mummies’, which is downright disturbing. One dog-care business, fur-mummy.com, promises that: ‘At Furmummy, we treat every dog like a baby because we know that is how much they mean to you.’
Pets have replaced people in their own pecking order. A Mintel investigation discovered that 51 per cent of buyers would rather cut back spending money on themselves than their pets, with 54 per cent of millennials saying they’d put their pets’ needs before their own. Is this part of some virtue-signalling guilt complex, whereby we sacrifice ourselves for our pets? In the event of a horrible national emergency would we now kill ourselves so our dogs could eat us rather than the other way around?
Perhaps it is the propaganda from the animal charities. After a while, those relentlessly heartbreaking adverts telling us about the suffering of so many poor creatures makes us feel a collective sense of guilt. Consequently, are animals, like teenage tearaways, becoming a social problem because of a lack of firm parenting? Is all this pampering and worrying about their feelings doing to pets what we did to kids with PC education, making them utterly spoilt and badly behaved?
I recently witnessed a grown man — a great butch-looking chap — dissolve into tears when my cocker spaniel growled at his tiny white poodle because it wouldn’t leave her alone. ‘Oh no! Are you all right?’ he fretted, scooping the pesky pooch into his arms, when what it needed was a good telling off.
‘Positive reinforcement’, which is filling the void where conventional training used to be, does not necessarily do animals any good. Look at those owners trailing lines of treats which their fat pooches hoover up as they follow, putting on more weight than the walk should be taking off.
Even in the horse world, there is a dangerous trend for soft parenting, in the form of riding without saddle or even bridle, no bit in the horse’s mouth, just a loose rope around its nose, allowing the horse to choose which way it wants to go down the road.
I once witnessed a woman attempting to load a horse on to a horsebox at a showground by standing him at the end of the ramp and waiting until he chose to get on. He didn’t choose to get on, by the way. After we loaded up conventionally, by leading our horses up the ramp, she sat down at a picnic table to sip coffee and read a newspaper, while her horse stood staring into space.
The question I ask myself is: if this horse was equal to humans in forward-thinking capabilities, why didn’t he seize the opportunity to walk off and leave his stupid owner?
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