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

Working Like a Dog, Lazy as a Dog

Finally, the affection of dogs towards their masters is slavish in a way that no human slave’s feelings towards her or his master could ever be.  At the end of the Civil War, there were plantation owners who were surprised that “their” slaves didn’t want to remain with them.  The owners had convinced themselves that those in bondage really were happy in their subservient roles and better off for it.  They had blinded themselves to the fact that it was oppression (particularly in the form of threatened violence) that had coerced an appearance of affection.  For those who seek and are comforted by such a sense of beneficent domination, dogs must be very satisfying companions.  The dog has the demeanor and relationship to its master of the perfect slave, perfect, that is, from the slavemaster’s point of view.  The significance lies not so much in the actual roles of dogs in human households (for it is unlikely that more than a few people even unconsciously see themselves as the slavemasters of their dogs) but in the linguistic opportunity that this possibility affords.  Thus, “working like a dog” can be seen to have more complex connotations than working hard. 

Dogs, while requiring material sustenance, are motivated not by greater material reward or opportunities for greater autonomy or power, but by greater social and emotional rewards.  They demand their payment in attention and affection as well as in social security and acceptance.  If slaves and wage laborers actually did work like dogs, slavery might well have continued.  At the very least the wheels of capitalism would be untroubled by organized labor.  To work like a dog is to participate in a narrative that says that the model worker is happy to know his or her place and be treated with kindness; he or she really has no desire to supplant the owners and the managers, or to incur their onerous responsibilities.  
The complexity with which the simile, working like a dog, reveals the narrative of the slave becomes more apparent when you remember that dogs are not notoriously hard workers.  “Lazy as a dog” is implicitly evoked at the same time.  Laziness is often attributed to the subjugated Other, most especially slaves of the antebellum South.  While it might seem that this quality would in some way undermine the notion of the “perfect slave” enunciated earlier, it is in fact a desirable one for the master because it reinforces her or his sense of superiority.  

The dog’s presence in the U.S. household involves domination, but relies on what can only be described as mutually agreed upon terms rather than an imposed subjugation or confinement.  And those terms are constantly being negotiated as any dog owner is likely to attest.  As with most hierarchical social dynamics, it is not simply a matter of the dominant species or the alpha imposing his or her will upon those of lower status.  With rank comes obligation and responsibility.  Dogs are without shame in demanding that the humans with whom they live demonstrate noblesse oblige.  The humans are responsible for structure and security.  If they can wheedle them into it, dogs have no difficulty in letting the humans do everything regarding basic material and emotional comfort.  And, if the humans have rules, say about where you have to defecate, it is up to the humans to provide the opportunity to follow these rules.  Dogs certainly are willing to get away with whatever they can.  So, like children who require a firm hand, dogs (as model others) need the guidance of their beneficent masters to assist them in satisfactorily completing their duties.  Understanding that the dog is not equal to the Self, the master readily accedes, affirming his or her superiority.  To work like a dog is to work in order to achieve the attention and approval of the master under his or her guidance and direction, that is to be the model Other.

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