Sunday, January 31, 2010

Anthropomorphizing Canines

The February 1st issue of New York magazine (out since last week) has an interesting cover story by Jon Homans called "The Rise of Dog Identity Politics." The idea of a dog-themed storyline on the cover of this magazine may seem incongruous, until you realize that his take is largely about dog ownership in urban centers like NYC. In places where everyone lives in apartments, Homans queries whether urban dogs are losing their sense of identity as dogs unto themselves. Dogs historically existed in rural areas to perform specific tasks, from hunting to herding. As our society becomes less country-based, dogs may be losing those innate traits with each passing generation, and dog owners may be to blame because they want or expect their dogs to be just like us, i.e. eating vegan and getting pampered at doggie day care centers. It's an interesting article because Homans talks about many issues associated with dogs and pet ownership. He discusses, for instance, the drastic decrease in the number of euthanized strays over the past 40 years, thanks to organizations that have fought for better protection over animals. But he also notes the antagonism between groups like animal shelters and PETA because of their different philosophies on pet ownership.

The human-canine connection is very real, as any dog lover will attest. Unlike cats, which are known for their indifference (I'm generalizing here), dogs bond with humans. There is something to the adage of a dog being man's best friend. The general belief is that dogs are pack animals and if the owner takes on the role of alpha dog, his pet will follow his/her lead. Others claim though that there is more to it than that, citing examples of how dogs can learn behaviors, instructions, and practices, sometimes on their own accord, all because they empathize with the needs of their human. Homans discusses in the article new research on the hormone oxytocin, which is credited with increasing bonds between mothers and newborns, as well as couples. Studies show that when dogs gaze at their owners, human oxytocin levels increase, suggesting a bond between the two that is comparable to that of having children or friends. But of course this is the human reaction to the dog staring at the owner, not the other way around. Who knows what the dog is actually thinking or feeling. He's probably only interested in trying to tell you he has to go crap outside. Hence author Homans's issue: are we treating dogs like humans to the point that we may be hurting them in their natural development as dogs?

Having a dog in a NYC apartment is extremely difficult, I believe, but plenty of people do it. I'm not so much troubled when it's small dogs, but the thought that some people keep golden retrievers and other large breeds in one-bedroom apartments upsets me. Dogs of that size need space to move around, and although there is an increase in dog parks in the City, it's not the same. When I lived in Florida, I had two dogs (Duchess, a Westie, and Pepper, a Yorkie), and those who knew them can attest to how much I loved those dogs. (Duchess died at age 14 from kidney disease and Pepper died of old age, living to be 18 years old! I must acknowledge my friend AK and her mother GS, as well as my Uncle, for their neverending devotion to my dogs as well.) I don't have a dog right now, and I so miss that kind of companionship it devastates me sometimes. My choice not to have a dog right now isn't based on apartment size, but that my life is so chaotic right now it wouldn't be fair to keep a dog in my apartment when I'm not on a regular schedule to take care of him. Homans's article is making me wonder though, am I making too much of that concern? Would a dog really know that I'm gone for 14 hours? Other than needing to crap and having food/water, does a dog actually need anything else? Am I anthropomorphizing a dog because I think he would be devastated waiting for me all day with nothing to do, that I might even be tempted (as Homans did) to bring another pet in the house to keep the dog company?

These are tough questions and worth thinking about. Contrary to what some scientists may think, I do believe dogs (and animals in general) can feel, but they cannot express their feelings in the same way we do because their capacities for intelligence and communication are so different from ours. But just because dogs are not humans doesn't make them lower on some hierarchical scale. It just means we need to respect them for their own unique design and needs. Getting a dog as a pet is a lot of responsibility, and it's not uncommon for people to get rid of the dog because the dog didn't behave the way they expected. That's silly. You cannot put human expectations on a dog and then be disappointed for his inability to meet that expectation. Instead, recognize that you are training a dog and that you are rewarding him for his good behavior. And when he gives you that look (and dog lovers everywhere know exactly what I'm talking about!), go ahead and spoil him. Who cares if it only means that your oxytocin levels have increased. It was the dog who made it happen.

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