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December 15, 2015
by Lorna Hecht, MFT

Pet Parents vs. People Parents

December 15, 2015 03:55 by Lorna Hecht, MFT

Pet owners take note! How you parent your pet may mirror how you parent your children. (Or how you were parented).
The obesity epidemic in pets has been addressed in an article recently posted in the Petco blog. In the article the author, Marge Chandler, hypothesizes about the role of food in the bond between owners and their pets. She makes the observation, “…people with obese dogs tend to interpret their pet’s every need as a request for food.”She says it’s the same for dogs and cats and that obese cats are more likely to have been “humanized” by their owners than are cats of a healthy weight. (Chandler, M. 2015)

Dogs were domesticated by humans (or humans were domesticated by dogs, depending on the viewpoint) possibly as long as 27,000-40,000 years ago. (Fessenden, M. 2015) In that time they have become so attuned to their human companions that they are thought to be able recognize human emotional states. (Viegas, J. 2015) This human/canine symbiosis leads to the possibility of interesting comparisons between human/pet relationships and the parent/child relationship. Projection and emotional fusion are two aspects of affectional bonds that may apply to both human/human and human/animal relationships.


Projection is a term coined by Sigmund Freud and still used to describe the tendency of some parents to misidentify an internal emotional state as belonging to their child. A common example is when mother is hungry and decides to feed her child. A parent may project any emotion like anger and sadness, or physical discomfort, onto the child. The child will then be “programmed” by the dynamic in the family to accept the projection; eating when mother offers food, or crying when the parent suggests she is sad. Some children will resist these projections. They made grow into family rebels or black sheep. It’s easy to see how projection works with family pets. Owners often assume their pet is hungry, especially after the animal has been reinforced for engaging in those ingratiating begging behaviors everyone is familiar with. Dogs in particular will rarely refuse food. Their evolutionary heritage has programmed them to indulge whenever the opportunity arises. This is not the same as saying that they eat because they are hungry. Pet owners can also project that their pet loves them more when they are given “treats;” people food in particular, much as parents fall into the trap of thinking they can buy their children’s love with presents.

Emotional Fusion

Emotional fusion describes the intense connections that arise between people when they spend a length of time together.The strongest fusions exist within one’s family of origin and marital family.The fusions that play out between people in other contexts-work, friendship, etc. tend to mirror the fusions that developed and maintained in the more intense family environment. Every fusion consists of the following four aspects (Kerr, M. Bowen, M. 1988):


1. Approval. Family members consciously or unconsciously worry about gaining the approval of one another. They also give or deny it to each other. Many people are aware of lifelong fears of losing the approval of important others. Too much investment in achieving approval can lead to difficulty in standing up for oneself and one’s own beliefs and values.


2. Attention. It may be said that people develop a set-point for attentional longings based on the intensity of their emotional connections with primary caregivers. Looked at from this perspective, more attention between parent and child may lead to an increased “need” or expectation for attention throughout life. A child who has been programmed to expect attention above and beyond what is typical for his peer group may resort to maladaptive attention-getting behaviors to ease the anxiety generated when expected attention is not forthcoming. Acting out in the classroom, negative attention seeking, and a seeming inability to complete basic tasks without parental supervision are examples of what can happen when programmed attentional longings are not met.


3. Expectations. Every family has its own menu of expectations, both spoken and unspoken.Family members generally respond to these expectations in a reflexive fashion by either complying with or rebelling against them.Sensitivity to the expectations of others and expectations imposed upon self and others are part of every relationship fusion.Vulnerable individuals can be emotionally inflated by met expectations, or hurt when they are not met. 
Julia* is hoping and waiting for a call from her oldest son, Felipe*. Knowing the call is expected and knowing his mother will ask him about his job search, which currently isn’t going well, Felipe tells himself he’s too busy to call today. That night, Felipe will have too much to drink.Tomorrow he’ll be hung-over, which will make it even more difficult to deal with mother’s disappointment.By the time the two finally talk on the phone days later, they will be tense and will argue. They’ll end their conversation upset, each convinced the other doesn’t care about what they are going through.It will be weeks before they talk again.


4. Distress. Mammals, including humans, evolved to sense the emotional states of one another. This ability leads to group cohesion, empathy, and an increased capacity to recognize and deal with external threats. However, many people have difficulty tolerating distress in themselves and their loved ones. In general, the more important the relationship, the greater the sensitivity to distress in the other.Some families and individuals are so sensitive to distress in self and others that they will go to great lengths to avoid causing or feeling the negative sensations associated with distress.
Family sensitivity to distress may be seen in the following examples:
A) Clyde* refuses to let his mother’s physician inform her of her terminal medical diagnosis because, “She can’t handle it.”
B) Instead of admitting they are planning to divorce, Alec* and Jade* tell their children that Alec has taken an apartment because of his work schedule.

Fusion Varies from Family to Family

The degree of fusion, or emotional intensity, varies from family to family. Families with higher levels of emotional fusion tend to be characterized by more automatic, stereotyped behavior:
Edith* is excited that her children will be coming to her house for the holidays. She’s nervous that everything will be “just right” for them and has already called her daughter, Allison*, four times today to remind her about their plans. Edith is aware that she’s driving Allison crazy, but she can’t seem to help herself. 
Allison sees Edith’s caller id on her phone and thinks, “Ugh, not again!” She knows her mother is excited and nervous, but she’s irritated anyway, and lets her sarcastic tone come through when she answers.After they hang up, Allison feels guilty and vows to be more patient next time, but knows she won’t. 
Two days into the holiday visit, Edith and Allison will barely be on speaking terms.Each of them will be thinking how much they don’t like the situation, but neither will know how to get out of it.
Like those between people, pet owners and their pets seem to develop reciprocal fusions consisting of sensitivity to attention, approval, expectations and distress.
Blanche* adores her beloved yorkie, Adele*. Adele is six years old and considerably overweight.The vet has chastised Blanche for feeding Adele too many treats and table scraps and Blanche knows she shouldn’t do it.“I just can’t stand it when she looks at me like that, wagging her tail and jumping up and down. She won't stop until I give her a little nibble off my plate.  If I didn't give in I know she'd be so sad!” she tells her aggravated vet. When she complains to her grown son, Sid, about the “heartless vet,” he sighs, “Yeah mom, you were a sucker for a sad face.That’s how I always got you to give me an extra dessert.Now I have my own weight problem to deal with!” 

Pet Owners: One of the Pack

Domesticated pets, especially dogs, evolved to meld into the human world. And they share the same mammalian evolutionary heritage as their human companions. Due to relationship mechanisms like emotional fusion and projection, humans often treat their pets like children who don’t grow up, and pets treat their humans as “one of the pack”. Comparing the relationships between owners and their pets and parents and children may offer a wealth of insight about both.

*Names have been made up and are not meant to describe real individuals


Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: J. Aronson, 1978. Print.

Chandler, Marge, “People Food and Weight Gain: See How Each Little Treat Adds Up." Petco Animal Supplies, Inc., 13 Nov. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Fessenden, Marissa. “Humans May Have Domesticated Dogs Tens of Thousands of Years Earlier Than Thought” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. 22 May 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Kerr, Michael E., and Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.

Viegas, Jennifer. "Dogs Understand Human Smiles, Scowls : DNews." DNews. Discovery Communications, LLC., 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

About the Author

Lorna Hecht Lorna Hecht, MFT

In therapy, you set your goals for treatment. I will offer ideas based on my understanding of what is effective and helpful and coach you on ways to move forward. Whatever your personal situation, it's to be expected that at some point in life you might need help movi

Lorna Hecht can be found at
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