Defending Dogs from Humans
[Dogs]… are the ultimate reminder that there is more to life than a smartphone
Gillian Tett, FT Weekend Magazine, April 13/14 2019
It being the opinion of some philosophers that the absence of an alternative has a great deal to do with the faithfulness of spaniels.
George Eliot, deleted sentence from Silas Marner.
In many - maybe most - countries, dogs are bred to satisfy the needs of humans. Some of those needs seem to me strong enough to justify the breeding; in this category I place sheep dogs, sniffer dogs, guide dogs. Those dogs are usually well-cared for. Other human needs I am doubtful about, including those identified by Gillian Tett in her “The Truth about Cat and Dog Owners”
At the top end, exotic dog brands are created to satisfy a demand for status symbols which fit into a designer handbag. Some of those exotic dogs suffer from chronic health problems which are reckoned a small price to pay for the exoticism. Far from providing a status symbol, ownership of such dogs ought to downgrade the owner’s status as it would if the symbol was a dwarf or a black slave. Likewise, some dog breeds are engineered to create attack animals, and that should also be cause for concern.
But the vast majority of dogs are bred to satisfy ordinary human needs for companionship or to compensate for chronic emotional problems. It’s not that easy to find a dog owner who does not have fairly obvious emotional needs or problems to assuage for which a dog has been selected as the drug of choice. Those problems are evident in the way dog owners address their dogs and talk about them to others. The stand-out literary representation of the situation is to be found in J R Ackerley's My Dog Tulip.
From the perspective of the owners, the wonderful thing about dogs is that they are liable to Stockholm Syndrome; they adopt the values of those who have taken them hostage. Occasionally, a dog will go on the attack, but not against its controller; the victim is either a complete stranger or else a child in the same house. But most of the time, dogs are compliant in a way that other human beings aren’t. Part of being mentally healthy is being able to accept that other people don’t always want to run fetch or sit up and beg. Some people can’t come to terms with that and that’s probably a mental health problem in itself, or a sign of one.
The dependence of owners on their dogs is not just a worrying psychological fact; it is also a significant social problem - and a growing one, since dog ownership is ever-increasing partly due to the advertising efforts of very large pet food corporations. They encourage the dependency in exactly the same way as the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Their advertising is long overdue for the same kind of regulation as applies to the promotion of other drugs, though I am not sure how you regulate sentimentality. You can’t just proscribe doe-eyed, floppy-eared doggies; maybe you just have to ban all pictures of dogs in dog food advertisements. They are exploitative of canines who have not signed consent forms and do not get paid. They feed the traffic in dogs.
The dependency would not matter so much were it not for the fact that it spills over into a variety of social nuisances. Rather like street drinkers who scatter cans and piss on the pavement, dog owners think that public space exists for the benefit of their pets, that the main function of public space is to provide convenient pit stops for dogs. If dogs did not shit and piss, you can be absolutely certain that very few of them would be taken for such regular walkies.
Though in my country (Great Britain) it has now become more common for dog owners to Pick Up - and what does that tell us about their state of mind, for goodness sake? - they have at the same time become more grandiose about their own entitlements. A few decades ago, it was unusual for dogs to be allowed into shops, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, trains, buses …. Now they are everywhere and there are moves afoot to get them into the last hold-out against their presence, rented homes. So if you live in a converted Victorian terrace house with no sound-proofing and grubby public areas, prepare for the next deterioration in your quality of life. The dogs are coming.
Ultimately, we should consider a ban on the breeding of dogs as pets. That would be in defence of the dogs against humans. Such a world is a long way off. Right now, one public policy aim should be to marginalise dog owners in the same way that smokers have been marginalised. Huddled in doorways for a fag break, there is now no disguising the fact that theirs is an addiction which other people, who were once forced into the role of passive smokers, now refuse to share. It took a long time to reverse the grip of Big Tobacco over our lives.
In relation to dogs, the place to begin is reversion to how things were before. Dog ownership should be taxed as it once was, very much for the same reason that alcohol and tobacco are taxed. The taxes discourage use but also pay for the clean-up costs of other people's addictions: the street mess, the hospital admissions. Second, we should re-introduce the old policy of Dogs not admitted. Hospitals, chemists’ shops, schools, anywhere that serves food and drink - these are obvious No Go areas. In relation to public recreational space, a good starting point would be to exclude dogs from half of them. Parents of young children, especially, would welcome this. Weekend football and cricket players would also welcome playing fields which do not do double duty as dog shitteries.
I like animals. I am uncomfortable with human dog-dependence, so obviously a symptom of emotional and psychological difficulty; but more to the point, I am tired of dog owners’ sense of entitlement, their sense of privilege in which their rights trump those of dog-free people. It should be possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant without someone else’s dog under your feet and go for a walk admiring the scene, rather than keeping your eyes down for the dog shit.
Written 2019 in response to Gillian Tett's article