Dogmatic Logo
The Canine in Conversation
contents page back to last page visited reload this page prior page in site next page in site
CONTENTS BACK RELOAD PRIOR NEXT
illustration of boy looking at dog in mirror Dog as Self and Other

Why Dogs?

There are dogs everywhere.  Any place that humans inhabit, dogs abide with them, almost always as integrated members of the community.  This integration is made possible because humans perceive canine behavior and motivation in the social and emotional realms as corresponding closely to those of human beings.  The depth of this dynamic is testified to in many ways, ranging from Charles Darwin’s relentless use of canines to support his theories of psychological and moral evolutionreference 2 to the well documented contemporary roles of dogs as surrogate children and spouses and as caregivers.reference 3 This unique relationship aside, it is self-evident that dogs are not human.  They are members of a category that is often constructed as the binary opposite of human: animal.  The dog’s simultaneous qualities of likeness and Otherness coupled with its persistent presence in human communities make the dog a ready reference for comparison.  This comparison can result in definitions of boundaries between humans and animals and in challenges to—as well as deliberate transgressions of—the nature and existence of these boundaries.

Apparent similarities between dogs and humans are both affirming and threatening.  These commonalities can call into question the unique status of the latter, especially when the dog is used as a reference to explain or describe human behavior, as is the case when a man who is considered to engage in indiscriminate sexual relationships is described as “a dog.”  When human actions are justified by their comparison to dogs, risks in such comparisons abound as when Presidential candidate Al Gore’s highly paid consultant Naomi Wolf advised him on ways to be perceived as more of an “alpha male”.reference 4 When the incident became public it only served to diminish Mr. Gore’s stature.reference 5 The obvious Otherness of dogs provides a rationale for the categorization of behaviors—even those “normally” practiced by both species—as animal in nature.  These comparisons between the species, whether for affirmation or derogation, are vividly apparent in linguistic metaphors, idiom, cliché, homily and name calling.  Such phrases as “dog-eat-dog world” affirm the similarities while the description of a woman who is deemed unattractive by a man as a “dog” is an example in which the reference defines the differences.

 

 

 

 

2. Knoll, Elizabeth. 1997. Dogs, Darwinism, and English Sensibilities. In Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, edited by R. W. Mitchell, N. S. Thompson and H. L. Miles. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

3. Katz, Jon. 2003. The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love, and Family. 1st ed. New York: Villard.

 

 

 

4. An alpha male is one who provides virile, authoritative and unquestioned leadership.

5. Seelye, Kathrine Q. 1999. Adviser Pushes Gore to Be Leader of the Pack. New York Times, Nov 1, A8.

It is not by chance that dogs are used as such a rich source of metaphors for human behavior and attitudes.  Humans and dogs have a shared social history dating well over 10,000 years.  Dogs are, by far, the earliest domesticated species, plant or animal.reference 6 Dogs are so integrated into the fabric of human life that they are virtually taken for granted.  For well over a century zoologists and anthropologists have been plumbing the depths of the behavior of exotic animals and their relationships with humans world-wide, yet it has only been in the last fifteen or twenty years that serious attention has been given to the empirical study of dogs.reference 7 Previous discussions of dogs, dog behavior, and dog-human relationships were often conjectural and theoretical, built on cultural narratives rather than observation.

Dogs and humans associate with relative ease, largely because their behaviors and their assumptions about those behaviors intersect almost seamlessly.  As with humans, the most important thing in a dog’s life is its social status.  This is not simply a matter of rank and relationship; it also involves knowing who provides fundamental needs: food, safety, and affection and knowing ones own obligations.reference 8 These shared values—along with mutually comprehensible gestures and tones for communicating about social status—make the dog the perfect canvas for projection, the most anthropomorphizable creature around.  While it may be an occasion for humor, it comes as no surprise when our politicians seek the qualities of an alpha male, a term derived from observations of canine pack behavior.  The role of top dog is sensible to humans because the implicit social order is analogous to, though not identical with, that of humans.  Similarly we are not likely to misunderstand the social meaning of the gesture of a dog putting its tail between its legs.  Since human gestures of submission share distinct qualities with canine actions, this particular image becomes a ready metaphor in describing a human’s sense of humiliation.

6. 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.

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

 

8. MacDonald, D.W., and G.M. Carr. 1995. Variation in Dog Society: Between Resource Dispersion and Social Flux. In The Domestic Dog, edited by J. Serpell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mutual though the relationship may be, when dogs and humans form packs together, only the humans can effectively attain alpha status.reference 9 As a result, it is no coincidence that when dog metaphors are invoked, the implication almost always situates the human who is so described as less than human, even when apparently admirable traits of dogs are evoked.  For example, when dogs are used as symbols for loyalty (“puppy love” for shallow affection, or “dogsbody” for a personal servant), subordination to superior status is implicit.  When we say we don’t wish to “rub someone’s nose in” a mistake, it is not so much that we do not intend to call attention to an error as that we will refrain from the kind of humiliation that is taken as a given when disciplining a puppy.  Even when the dog is invoked to affirm the self, there is a process of Othering taking place.

9. Veterinarians, animal psychologists and some dog owners will reasonably argue with this generalization. As Robin Kovary of the American Dog Trainers Network notes however, “Hopefully, your dog sees you as his or her pack leader ('Alpha')”.reference 10 In instances where a human will not assert him or herself, a dog will challenge for the role. While the human may accede—at least in part—to the dog’s demands, neither party will be comfortable with the situation, as if the children had been put in charge of their parents.

10. Kovary, Robin. 1999. Taming the Dominant Dog. American Dog Trainers Network. Accessed Sept 7 2001 from http:// www.inch.com/ ~dogs/ taming.html.

| LAST | NEXT | Last updated: May 27, 2008
Dogmatic Logo
The Canine in Conversation
contents page back to last page visited reload this page prior page in site next page in site
CONTENTS BACK RELOAD PRIOR NEXT
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