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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

The Dog as the Other

We may anthropomorphize dogs.  Dogs may be seen as canipomorphizing humans.  Humans can incorporate a dog into a family unit because the behaviors mesh, because the assumptions are not in conflict.  In the home, the humans may treat the dog as a quasi-child; the dog acts toward the family as if it were its pack.  For the most part this works.  So deeply ingrained is this notion that iconic depictions of the classic American family almost always include a dog.reference 33It is understandable then that the cliché excuse for the failure of a child to turn in a school assignment is that “the dog ate it.

33. Haraway, Donna, et al. 2003.

However, dogs are not humans.  Like the Other, dogs alienate themselves from the category of the Self when they engage in behaviors that are imagined to be unacceptable for the Self.  In many cases this is purely a species difference.  The mating habits and family structures of dogs, while bearing similarities, are undeniably distinct from those of humans.  There are humans who engage in sex indiscriminately (the way humans describe dogs as doing) but for the most part, such behavior is not only socially unacceptable but also counter-instinctive.  Dogs are scavengers: they eat things which revolt humans.  Even the slavish loyalty that dogs exhibit towards their humans can be disturbing.  Unless they are coerced, conditioned, or systematically terrorized, what person has so little self-respect that she or he will take extensive abuse and continue to lick the hand of the abuser? 

The child-like role to which dogs are often committed in human society goes beyond social construction and pack mentality; it is an inherent characteristic of domestication.  Dogs, as is the case with all domesticated animals, are “neotenous.”reference 34 That is to say that even as full adults they retain the characteristics of the young of the “wild” species from which they derive, in this case, wolves.  In comparison with mature wolves, full grown dogs have shorter snouts and larger eyes, looking much like wolf pups.  Behavior is also more like that of wolf pups: dogs remain playful throughout their lives.  As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks.  While the habits of many species tend to ossify in adulthood, dogs remain relatively flexible and open to new experience.  Dogs’ development, especially predatory behavior, is arrested in various ways in relation to wolves.reference 35 This quality is captured in a Washington political simile: “like the dog that caught the bus.reference 36 It means to be in unexpected possession of something that one never expected to catch and that one has no sense of any purpose to which it could be put.  Dogs’ life-long propensity to chase that which moves without regard to the purpose of such a chase is an example of stunted predatory development characteristic of neoteny.  The otherness of childhood is a lifelong characteristic of dogs, another ready reference point.

34. Dogs are “cute.” They do things to endear themselves to us. The docility and voluntary submission to human authority is likely what won dogs their place in the lives of humans. A Russian scientist conducted an interesting experiment in which he bred several generations of foxes selecting for only one trait: tameness. Within a short period of time—20 years—the offspring chosen in this way not only developed many of the behavior characteristics of dogs, they also manifested neoteny and some of the varied appearance of dogs, such as mixed coats and colors.

35. Serpell, James. 1995. From Paragon to Pariah: Some Reflections on Human Attitudes to Dogs. In The Domestic Dog, edited by J. Serpell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

36. Dowd, Maureen. 2002. Attack of the Calico Clones. New York Times, Feb 17, 11.

  37. Budiansky, 2001. 46
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