Good-by Leadership, Hello...IPIM?
It's been obvious to me for years that using the term "leadership" to describe the ideal relationship between humans and companion animals was problematic. In my experience, people who lacked knowledge of animal behavior automatically would define the term as used in sports, politics, and corporate structure, i.e., the leader was the winner of the fight, leadership = domination. I got around this by explaining the difference to my clients and students, but using the same word to describe two almost opposite concepts was messy and confusing and I knew it.
Still, I was loathe to coin a new term because the companion animal behavior field already is knee-deep in obscure, often conflicting terminology that undermines rather than enhances quality communication. Adding another seemed like adding another load of manure to a field already so covered that it was stifling any new growth. But then a popular television show sounded the death knell for the term once and for all...
And, no, I'm not going to name names or rant about said show. In fact, I am somewhat grateful to it because it so clearly pointed out just how far off the mark the popular usage of the term leadership has strayed. One of my personal laws of companion animal behavior maintains that most people won't expend the energy necessary to resolve a problem until it takes more energy to deal with the consequences of the problem than to treat it. Now that I have to counter a weekly dose of televised pseudo-companion animal leadership in addition to all those pseudo-leaders in sports, politics, and corporate culture, it seems like less effort to come up with a new name.
But what? I honestly don't know. When I use the word "leadership," I define it as the intraspecific parental ideal model, or IPIM for short:
Intraspecific refers to what's going between and among members of the same species. Thus, any model for an ideal relationship should arise from awareness of how a specific animal relates to others of his or her own kind. Behaviors that are the norm for more social dogs or horses may not necessarily be the same for those of more solitary species, such as cats.
Parental refers to the most notable intraspecific relationship relative to the human-companion animal bond: that between mature adult animals and their young. This occurs because domestication is an on-going process that results in individuals who are physiologically and behaviorally more immature than their predecessors. And because many of the stresses that trigger behavioral and medical problems in our pets arise from the most primitive brain centers, that means being aware of these relationships in the wild ancestors of domestic animals as well as in those domestic animals themselves.
Unfortunately, for some the word "parental" generates its own emotion-laden set of definitions equal to or greater than those generated by the word "leader." Those who lack knowledge of animal parental behavior and haven't had much interaction with human children (and particularly toddlers) may maintain an unrealistic view of human parenthood that they then impose on their animals. That is, they may treat their pets the way they believe they should have been treated as kids. Some of these parental relationships remind me of those I fantasized about as an adolescent and teenager chafing against parental limits. In those dreams, the sun rose and set on my little head and there was no strife because my parents so lavishly rewarded me for doing even the most simple little task. All was sweetness and light in that world. That it depended on my imaginary parents never asking me to do anything I really didn't want to do never crossed my mind.
Other people further muddy the parental waters because they opt to relate to their animals as best friends. Although they may use the words "parental" or "leader" to define their relationship, comparing their relationships to those that naturally occur within their pets' species makes it clear these folks relate to their pets as peers and even competitors rather than parents.
The Ideal in IPIM takes into account that, just as being a human parent doesn't automatically guarantee you'll be a good one, animal parents span the whole spectrum, too. On the other hand and as in parenting members of our own species, we should at least aspire to fulfill our companion animal parenting skills to the best of our abilities. When we relate to our pets, we shouldn't relate to them like those unskilled animal parents who allow themselves to be constantly manipulated by their off-spring, or like those who engage in power struggles with them. Within the animal kingdom, the reason for this is obvious. Although such parental approaches may work in stress-free environments, relationships based on them tend to collapse and young so reared eliminated from the gene pool when the going gets rough. In the companion animal realm, when this occurs, behavioral and/or medical problems may eliminate animals who experience similar relationships with the humans in their lives.
It goes without saying, that any attempt to mimic an intraspecific relationship can be no more than a Model for two primary reasons. The first is that we can never know how our animal companions perceive their realties because their sensory perception is so different from ours. The second is that the interaction of any one human's and animal's physiology, behavior, and relationship creates its own unique set of variables.
Granted IPIM isn't perfect and it's certainly not the kind of elegant terminology that appeals to me. Nonetheless, given the choice between using it and either ignoring the role the bond plays or imposing an emotion-based definition that fails to take into account the role of species-specific behaviors and domestication, it seems far superior. And it also seems far superior to the way the term "leadership" is being (mis)used by so many lately.
Now if only I could come up with a single word that communicated all that...
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