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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

Dog as the Self who can be Othered

These behavioral characteristics make dogs the perfect canvas for projection, the most anthropomorphizable creatures around.  Humans can easily imagine that canine behavior shares human motivation.  We can see ourselves in their actions; we can see dog-like behavior in humans, as when someone is described as “chasing his tail” or “at the end of his tether.” The significance of this apparent empathy may not go far beyond appearances, however.  Dogs will continue to ingratiate themselves with their humans, even if they are abused physically or verbally.  While some humans will do this, such behavior is typically and reasonably viewed as pathological and a symptom of the extremity of the abuse rather than as typical.  So when someone is described as being kept “on a very short leash,” as former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was by veteran news correspondent Helen Thomas,reference 33 you tend to wonder how long he will accept those circumstances. While the empathy factor may argue for their status as persons, it is not clear whether dogs are actually exercising empathy, or simply engaging in behavior that emulates it.

32. Stanley, Alessandra. 2001. These Days, Press Secretary Toes a Narrower Line. New York Times, Oct 30, B6.
In general, any behavior by dogs that can be interpreted as human-like—whether it is in their acquiescence to status or their expressions of pain and submission—reinforces the notion that dogs are persons.  While none of the predominant ways of thinking about personhood grant unequivocal status to dogs, the ambiguity of their place is evident in many of them.  Dogs may not be persons, but they sure do have a lot of the characteristics of persons.  

This ambiguity is the very heart of the description of the Other.  Others are those who look a lot like persons, but are excluded from that category.  Historically, the Other includes humans whose religion, place of origin, skin color, language, gender, and age are different from that of the dominant social group.  Like dogs, people of color were deemed to be biologically not persons.  Women, people of color, and those of a different religion, have been described by white Christian men as lacking or having limited capacity for moral agency, though perhaps, like dogs, having an excess of capacity for empathy. Women, people of color, children and those who cannot speak the dominant language have been characterized as lacking the capacity for rational thought.  When it comes to personhood, the Dog and the Other have a lot in common. 

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