Is it okay to be critical of a dog's appearance in front of its owner?
I had to think about this today while taking my morning constitutional around the soccer field. There was this chocolate brown lab, delicious and pudgy, prancing around the field, playing fetch with its owner. When I passed close by, he trotted over, tail wagging furiously. I had to stop, put out my fist and give it some loving. "Aren't you gorgeous?" I crooned. "Thank you," his owner said graciously, as if she had been in any way responsible for the dog's beauty.
Then I continued talking to that lovely furry face. "You are so beautiful! You need the exercise, don't you?" Catching a glance at the owner's face, I saw she was no longer looking pleased. In fact, her gracious smile was gone. She whistled, and the dog obediently followed her out of the park.
As I continued walking, I was conscious of committing a social solecism. In all fairness, I hadn't meant to be critical of the dog's pudginess. I was, in some oblique way, saying that it was okay for the dog to be running around the field, that I wasn't going to cite Section 3.2a of the city code about unleashed dogs. Okay, I was also saying that the dog, although cute, definitely needed the run, and what was an owner to do? The neighborhood dog park was often populated with unfriendly, aggressive dogs, and if your dog was naturally a mellow, comfortably plump fellow, the soccer field in the wee morning hours was the only way to go. So I was being sympathetic to the owner's plight.
I thought some more.
It wasn't like the dog was a baby, right? I don't think anyone can get away with calling out a baby in front of a parent as being too plump. "You need to get out of the stroller more often, little guy," I wasn't going to say. Even if I were alone with a baby, I wouldn't think of being anything but complimentary. "Who's a cutie?" I would exclaim. Anything else, and the baby might absorb your words like osmosis and have self-esteem issues later in life. And who would be to blame for that but some random stranger at the park?
Do dogs feel the same? What about cats? Or are we reaching some new extreme of anthropomorphizing pets?
There are folks who take the dog-owning thing as equivalent to parenting. "My kids have four paws!" exclaim decals on many a vehicle. "We don't have kids, but we have 2 dogs and a cat," they say at parties. As if that's plenty, thank you very much, we can't possibly have human kids when we have animal kids, and what's the difference any way.
Thinking this through, I concluded that I could have been more tactful this morning. I phrased it badly. I should have something innocuous to Yummy Lab like, "It's a good day for a run, isn't it?" Something I would say to a human, in passing. Only the human would be running too fast to hear me. But that's another story.