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The Canine in Conversation
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a photograph of a robot dog, the Aibo
figure 1  

 

man's best friend. This is the most common phrase that fills the blank after, “A dog is...” It is used both sentimentally and satirically.

Whether the association between dogs and humans is best described as friendship is a matter of some dispute. The domestication of dogs is at least 10,000 years old and precedes that of all other species, animal or plant, by a substantial margin.reference 1 Recent historical analysis suggests that this was a matter of mutual benefit, not of humans imposing their will on canines as had been previously theorized. Indeed, some evolutionary biologists have gone so far as to say that the relationship has had far more benefit to dogs—as a species—than to humans. Stephan Budiansky, in his controversial exposé The Truth About Dogs, describes dogs as “con artists at the pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.” While much of his discourse is tongue-in-cheek, he makes the case that what humans perceive as friendship is actually a set of behaviors that conveniently trigger humans' sentimental responses, but are not actually grounded in the kind of mutual care that we imagine.reference 2 Regardless, humans' affection for dogs is almost as widespread as is the canine presence in the human community. Darwin described dogs as the most spiritually advanced of all non-human species.reference 3 And in the U.S., dog care is a multi-billion dollar factor in the economy. The 2007 National Pet Owners Survey reported that 44.8 million households had 74.8 million dogs, which totaled almost 40% of the pets owned in the U.S. The same report noted that $41.2 billion was spent on pet products including food and veterinary care.reference 4

1. Clutton-Brock, Juliet. 1994. The Unnatural World: Behavioural Aspects of Humans and Animals in the Process of Domestication. In Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives, edited by A. Manning and J. Serpell. London: Routledge.

2. Budiansky, Stephen. 2001. The Truth About Dogs. New York: Penguin Books.

3. Darwin, Charles. 1981. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press .

4. American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. 2008. Industry Statistics & Trends. Accessed Mar 25 2008 from http:// www.appma.org/ press_ industrytrends.asp.

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photography of a bronze statue of a dog, Old Drum spacer
figure 2
Humans' sentimental dedication to dogs is ancient, but this phrase is said to have relatively recent origins. It may not have been the first use of the phrase, but it appears the cliché was popularized by the dissemination of a courtroom speech by George Graham Vest, a U.S. Senator from Missouri. Vest, a noted orator of the time, spoke on behalf of Charles Burden, whose dog, Old Drum, had been shot by a neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby. Burden sued Hornsby and Vest won the case for him, largely as a result of his closing statement, now widely titled, “Eulogy to the Dog.reference 5
5. Greater Warrensburg Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center. 2005. A Man’s Best Friend -the Story of Old Drum. Warrensburg Chamber of Commerce. Accessed Mar 26 2005 from http:// www.warrensburg.org/ drum.htm.
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spacer photograph of the monument to Greyfriars Bobby
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The story of Old Drum pales in comparison to his counterpart across the Pond, Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was the pet of John Gray—either a farmer or a policeman—with whom the dog ate daily at Traill's dining rooms across the street from Greyfriars Church. After Gray died in 1858 Bobby continued to visit the dining rooms and took food to his companion's grave in Greyfriars churchyard where he made his home for the next 14 years until he died. Now that sounds like loyalty. A year after Bobby's death in 1872, a statue was erected just outside the churchyard.reference 6
6. Kean, Hilda. 2003. An Exploration of the Sculptures of Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Brown Dog, Battersea, South London, England. Animals & Society 11 (4):353-373.
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Drawing of Snoopy looking disgustedly at Charlie Brown spacer
figure 4
Of course there can be limits even to a dog's loyalty. Contributors to TV Tropes note that when a protagonist in a narrative has done something shameful, even her faithful dog displays disgust, possibly by lowering its head and leaving or, alternatively, putting a paw over its eyes and whining. They have named this trope: Even The Dog Is Ashamed.reference 7
7. TV Tropes contributors. 2009. Even the Dog Is Ashamed. tvtropes.org. Accessed Jun 23 2009 from http:// tvtropes.org/ pmwiki/ pmwiki.php/ Main/ EvenTheDogIsAshamed? action=diff.
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About the illustrations: Figure 1 is an Aibo, the robotic version of the canine, used without permission.

Figure 2 is Old Drum himself, the original best friend. From the Warrensburg Missouri Chamber of Commerce site.

Figure 3 is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. The photograph was taken by Michael Reeve, September 15 2003. It is used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Figure 4 shows Snoopy boiling with disgust at something Charlie Brown has done. Illustration taken from TV Trope where it was used without attribution.

see also: love me love my dog Last updated: June 28, 2009
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies