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The Canine in Conversation
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illustration of boy looking at dog in mirror Dog as Self and Other

Dogs as Non-Persons

There are a number of ways of considering personhood, depending upon context and social, ethical, religious, or scientific beliefs.  There is a commonly internalized belief that humans are distinct from and superior to non-humans.  The Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions—those that have driven the development of the dominant culture and the use of language in the contemporary U.S.—separate animals and humans and give the latter dominion over the former.  For the most part science confirms this absolute difference between canines and humans.  While biological distinctions are generally less sharp than their social interpretationsreference 15 this one lacks ambiguity.  In the society in question those interpretations can be quite broad.  References to dogs in the Bible (still the most quoted single source in the English language) make it clear that not only are dogs not persons, but also that humans who are likened to them are themselves of questionable personhood.reference 16

The advent of modernist thinking during the Enlightenment supplanted, to some extent, divine guidance, replacing it with “reason.”  As a criterion for personhood, descriptions of reason are often singularly and rather circularly human.  While this description of the person had the effect of granting agency to individual humans, it also appears to have increased the distance between humans and other species.  On this basis, dogs remain distinct from humans, unable, as they are, to use human language, engage in complex abstract thinking, and so on.  However, as a criterion for personhood, the capacity for reason, or intelligence, has its risks.  For every standard measure of intelligence there are substantive and compelling challenges, most frequently based on cultural bias.  The history of attempts to make use of standardized tests to describe differences among racial groups or between genders, for example, suggests that their utility in defining the difference between persons and non-persons is perilous, and likely based on a failure of reason.  Historically, descriptions of women and so-called savages (usually people of color) as “irrational” are so common as to be cliché and are deliberately used to justify placing those so described in the category of non-persons.  In the realm of references to dogs, this is most explicit in the description “mad dog” for someone who fights unpredictably, without regard for consequences, and, implicitly, to no useful ends.reference 17

15. For instance the biological categories of male and female are far more blurred than the social construction of gender would have you think.

16. Day, Alfred Ely. 1979. Dog. In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.





17. Ammer, Christine. 1999. Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Pub. Group.


Last updated: May 27, 2008
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