Opinion - Dog "Owner" vs "Guardian" - Words Matter

By Gail T. Fisher

Published in The APDT Chronicle of the Dog - March/April 2009

Political correctness has run amok. Conversations have, by necessity, become so careful and bland as to often be virtually meaningless. Often without rhyme or reason, I find myself tiptoeing around verbal eggshells lest I risk someone taking offense where absolutely none is intended. The simplest, most innocent-seeming words no longer have simple, innocent meanings.
Political correctness started with human-based movements of the 60’s (most notably Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation). It has led to a radical change in our lexicon, changing or eliminating words that were once considered either gender neutral or meant no offense. But someone (the proverbial “they”) glommed onto them as referring to gender, so they had to be eradicated. Take, for instance, a word like “chairman.” It used to refer to a person who heads a board or committee, but because of the suffix “man,” the “movement” deemed it sexist. So it was replaced by “chairperson” or worse still, the gender neutral piece of furniture, “chair.” (I might understand if the pronunciation had emphasized the second syllable, but it’s pronounced chair-muhn. Most peoples’ spelling is so poor these days, would most even notice that it includes the word “man?”)
But I jest—and this is a serious topic. You are most likely wondering what, if anything, this has to do with dogs and dog training. My point is that the political correctness of the “rights” and “liberation” movements of the 60’s has morphed into and taken over animals. More importantly, if we dog lovers are not diligent, aware, and prepared to fight, we face serious dangers.
Words matter. It matters whether we call ourselves dog “owners” or “guardians” (or any other PC term such as “custodian,” “caretaker,” “steward” or “keeper”). I am a dog owner. I am not my dogs’ guardian. (On the contrary, my little 20 pound all-American would claim to be my guardian as he fended off the computer guy who just tried, uninvited, to come into my office.)
It may seem as if a word doesn’t make a big difference, but it does. This seemingly innocent and simple change in our language will have dire consequences with monumental implications that will change our lives and the lives of dogs. This simple 5-letter word is a nuclear bomb in the battle between three movements: animal “welfare,” animal “rights,” and animal “liberation.”
I once thought of the trend from owner to guardian as simply a genial attempt to use a warmer and fuzzier term. As a writer and lover of words, my initial objection was that it was an unnecessary capitulation to political correctness, and I resist PC for its own sake. A terrific article written by APDT Education Task Force “chair,” Maggie Blutreich, started me doing research into the movement behind this change. The more I learned, the more I realized that if we dog trainers and dog lovers are not diligent and responsive—to proudly and loudly maintain “ownership” of our pets—we face dire consequences.
The issue boils down to the differences between the two animal movements in this battle: animal “rights” versus animal “welfare.” Animal welfare is based on the belief that we humans have a moral obligation to treat animals humanely and responsibly. Animal welfare is about eliminating cruelty and avoiding unnecessary suffering. Animal rights organizations, on the other hand, see no difference between any live beings. Michael Fox—from whom I learned a lot when, as a fledgling dog trainer, I read some of his early books—is now a senior scholar at the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS, an animal rights organization). Dr. Fox clearly stated his position when he wrote, “The life of an ant and that of my child should be granted equal consideration.”[1] I have nothing against ants (unless they’re trying to destroy my house, in which case it’s war!), but I can’t help but feel sympathy for Dr. Fox’s child.
There are multiple quotes attributable to members of the “rights” and “liberation” movements that are equal to and even more incredible than this, as well as articles that outline the subtle and not-so-subtle movement toward achieving the Animal Rights/Liberation agenda—with the movement from “owner” to “guardian” taking center stage. The two major agendas both include this lexicon change. One agenda is achieving acceptance by dog owners of the word “guardian.” The second agenda is more dangerous—it uses the law.
The use of the word “guardian” started in the San Francisco Bay area with an organization called In Defense of Animals (IDA). The IDA was founded in 1999 by Dr. Elliot Katz, who equated animal ownership with human slavery, declaring that we don’t “own” our pets, we simply have “guardianship” of them.
Dr. Katz and his compatriots in the movement claim that the word “ownership” implies a slave/slave-master relationship. He opines that slave-masters were, by definition, cruel, so calling oneself an “owner” presumes cruelty. The converse would be that guardianship means better treatment—that a “guardian” is kinder, gentler, and more responsible than an “owner.” It defies logic to think that what one calls oneself affects overall behavior. If this were the case, no parent—or “guardian”—would ever abuse a child; no “loving spouse” would ever kill his wife and unborn child. Changing the word from “owner” to “guardian” simply means that abusive people abuse under a different title.
Logic aside, lots of intelligent, fair-minded people simply went along with Dr. Katz. After all, who can object to such a nice (and seemingly harmless), warm and fuzzy term like “guardian” over “owner?” So someone paying $1200 to a pure-bred dog breeder, $300 to a rescue organization for a stray of uncertain parentage, adopting a free puppy or kitten from a friend, or paying hundreds of thousands for a thoroughbred racehorse would not “own” that animal; they would merely have “guardianship.”
Some may think, “What difference does it make? Calling myself my dog’s guardian is fine with me.” But it makes a great deal of difference. Words matter. If we buy into “guardianship” because “what difference does it make,” we are supporting our own demise and are in danger of losing the very ability to have and keep pets. Which bring me to the second prong of the animal rights movement—the law. Changing the word from “owner” to “guardian,” “custodian,” “keeper” or any other term does not convey the constitutionally protected rights of “ownership.” Sitting still for such a change is short-sighted and dangerous.
It boils down to our founding document, the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution gives citizens the right to “own” property, and not be deprived of that property without Due Process of Law. “Guardians” have no such rights. If you think that no one cares enough to want to deprive you of your rights of “guardianship,” look no further than the Animal Rights organizations, with PETA at the helm.
Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and President of PETA wrote of her vision for the future of our pets. She sees a world in which: “[A]s the surplus of cats and dogs (artificially engineered by centuries of forced breeding) declined, eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship—enjoyment at ‘a distance.’” [2]
Newkirk envisions dogs and cats living feral existences much the way strays in 3rd world countries do, surviving by foraging at dumpsites and eating food scraps tossed at them much the way people toss bread at pigeons in a park. She said, “One day, we would like an end to pet shops and the breeding of animals. [Dogs] would pursue their natural lives in the wild ... they would have full lives, not wasting at home for someone to come home in the evening and pet them and then sit there and watch TV.”[3]
We recently adopted a stray dog rescued from Okinawa—heartworm positive, emaciated, with many physical scars from his battles for survival. He has assimilated beautifully into our home (where he curls up next to me on the couch as I “pet [him] … and watch TV”). He has fit perfectly into our lives and into our hearts, but when he dreams, I wonder if he’s reliving his struggle to survive in his “natural life in the wild.” Newkirk’s vision is not a world I want for him or any dog or cat—and I can’t believe he would prefer it, either!
The agenda of PETA et al to officially change the word “ownership” to “guardianship” would result in the loss of our constitutionally-protected rights. Owners have such rights; guardians do not. Guardians are appointed or removed by judges, often without a hearing or trial, simply relying on testimony from an “interested party.” Is any of us willing to turn over our rights of ownership to the courts—our basic, decision-making rights about what to feed, whether or not to spay, neuter or breed, what training equipment or method of training to use, and even whether or not we are able to keep a dog?
To quote from an article by Attorney Genny Wall[4] “If we are ‘Guardians’ rather than owners, then ultimately it will be the State, and not the individual, who has the power to say who will care for the animal, how it will be cared for, where it will reside, what medical treatments it will or will not undergo, and who will make all the other decisions regarding the health, welfare, life and death, or destruction, of that animal. … [H]istory has shown us that when a State is unprepared to carry out a role that has been imposed upon it, [it] delegates that function. So…who will the States delegate to? The former ‘Owners?’ The citizenry at large? Animal Control? USDA? Animal Rights organizations? Local or national rescue organizations? What is the point of making the State the owner of animals if the State is not prepared to perform this function and must delegate this right and duty? It seems pointless to engage in this kind of useless legislation if in fact the goal is to make things better for animals. But as I have said, that is not the real purpose behind the push for ‘Guardianship’ for animals.
“So, what is the true purpose behind this push for using the term ‘Guardian’? From my legal perspective I see that purpose to be to achieve public acceptance for the concept of animal ‘Guardians’ in a general sense, so that the door can be opened to animal rights activists who don't believe humans should have or keep animals and who seek the removal of animals from their owners on simple, perhaps unfounded, allegations of abuse or neglect.”
The goal of the animal rights movement is simple: no keeping of animals for any purpose whatsoever. “Guardianship” proponents would not only do away with pet dogs, they would do away with service dogs, assistance dogs, therapy dogs, guide dogs, S&R and bomb sniffing dogs. It goes without saying that dogs would not need training, and no one would need a dog trainer.
This movement is about much more than a word. The symbiotic relationship we share with our dogs is not selfishly for our well-being—it is for the welfare and well-being of our dogs, too. No one who loves dogs can deny the mutuality of our relationship. As pet owners and dog trainers whose mission is lifelong companionship “in a relationship based on mutual trust and respect”[5] we cannot sit still as animal rights organizations seek to take away our legal rights, advantages and choices as dog owners. The word matters!

[1] The Inhumane Society, St. Martin’s Press, 1990
[2]The Harper's Forum Book, Jack Hitt, ed., 1989, p.223
[3] The Chicago Daily Herald, 1990.
[4] Reprinted with permission of Genny Wall. http://www.nfss.org/Legis/AR-alerts/Companion/Comp-Wall-1.html (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Originally published in the Watchbird, The Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture (AFA) www.afabirds.com)

[5] From the APDT mission statement.
Portions of this article were previously published in “Dog Tracks,” Gail Fisher’s column in the New Hampshire Sunday News. www.unionleader.com and on her website www.alldogsgym.com

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2009. All rights reserved. http://www.alldogsgym.com For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.