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

The Dog as the “Model” Other

To this point the discussion has emphasized the ways in which the ambiguous nature of the dog’s personhood allows dog references to be used to define appropriate behavior for participation in the definition of Self.  More disturbing are the ways in which dogs provide a reference for the ideal of what the dominant culture would (implicitly) like the Other to be.  The combination of dogs’ undeniable Otherness as members of another species and their apparent comfort in their role as subordinate to the dominant species also makes them a model that the dominant culture uses to describe appropriate behavior on the part the human Other.  The dog with a cocked ear, used as the corporate logo for several recording companies over the years, seems to catch the role perfectly as he listens to “his master’s voice.





First, the dogs’ most desirable feature as the Other is that the biological differences prevent dogs from ever contending for full status as members of the dominant group.reference 38 They will always stay in their place.  Of greater significance, however, is the dog’s apparent pleasure in assuming the subordinate position.  A dog is grateful when you “throw him a bone” even though the implication when applied to humans is that the recipient of the bone usually gets little real meat, that is to say, he or she gets little substantive attention or opportunity. 38. This could change as genetic manipulation blurs species boundaries. Indeed the threat that the animal Other may contend for status as Self may be part of what contemporary society fears about these scientific endeavors.

Dogs are the slaves who desire no emancipation; they are the children who never grow up to displace the parents.  Consistent with the mythologies of equality, meritocracy, and social mobility, the dominant segments of American society tend to seek to have their dominance affirmed as “natural” and not the product of systematic and institutional oppression.  They might go further yet, even suggesting that those oppressive processes, such as marginalization, cultural imperialism, and inequitable distribution of power and wealth, are actually good and appropriate things.  For the dominant culture, the implicit narrative goes something like this: Look at dogs, they’re not only happy in their subordinate roles, they are appropriately grateful to have them.  If only other Others understood their place as well as dogs do, they would see that the status quo is really best for all.  Dog metaphors are often evoked to promulgate this narrative.  It is implied when the word “fetch” is used, calling to mind the image of a dog docilely procuring the master’s pipe and slippers.  It is visible in the inverse as well, as when Prime Minister Tony Blair is derided as George Bush’s “poodle” or “lap dog” by the British press for not being sufficiently assertive.reference 39

The implications of this are multiple, but the key one is that to cast a person as a dog is to place her or him in a subservient or inferior status.  This may be less apparent—and even more important—when the connotation is affirmative. When a dog is lauded as loyal, as “man’s best friend,” this does not imply a friendship of equals even when the relationship is reciprocal and voluntary.  When a person’s affection is likened to that of a dog, the implication is that it manifests in unquestioning (perhaps even unreasonable) deference and obedience.

39. Assinder, Nick. 2003. Blair Battles “Poodle” Jibes. BBC News Online. Accessed Jul 8 2003 from http:// 1/ hi/ uk_politics/2721513.stm.


Among the most telling elements of this subservient dynamic is the mutual nature of the association.  Despite the enduring presence of a counter-narrative—that the process of domestication was one in which humans imposed themselves on dogs—best evidence suggests mutual adaptation rather than coercion.reference 40 Evolutionary zoologists are even leaning towards theories that it was dogs who adopted humans, rather than the other way around, dogs having adaptively incorporated the capacity to appeal to humans’ egos and vanities.  Some scientists have gone so far as to contend that from an evolutionary point of view the association has been far more beneficial to dogs as a species than to humans.reference 41 Generally accepted theory at this time describes a process of mutual adoption.  The most widely held views are that canine scavengers initially trailed human communities as a source of food.  The tamest of these wolves and jackals were the most tolerated and in this way a kind of natural selection led to the emergence of the species of canis domesticus.reference 42

40. Clutton-Brock, Juliet. 1994. 26.

41. Rindos, David. 1984. The Origins of Agriculture: An Evolutionary Perspective. Orlando: Academic Press and Budiansky, 2002.

42. Vilà, Carles, Jesús E. Maldanado Savolainen, Isabel R. Amorim, John E. Rice, Rodney L. Honeycutt, Keith A Crandall, Joakim Lundeberg, and Robert K. Wayne. 1997. Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog. Science 276:1687-1689.

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