Various responses to canine companions | Daily News


The ways of dog to Mann

Various responses to canine companions

“Diogenes” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860; from Dogs in Art by Susie Green.
“Diogenes” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860; from Dogs in Art by Susie Green.

The joyousness of dogs, or at any rate their great affability, must have been a significant factor in their induction into human communities. The usual utilitarian view that dogs were first put to practical uses – hunting, guarding, pulling – and only later became inserted into family life as pets is implausible. In several modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes, whose form of life is thought to resemble that of our Palaeolithic ancestors, dogs are companions first and workers second. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Dogs could never have been properly trained in the intelligent skills required to, say, assist hunters except by people whose empathy with them was acquired through living with these animals. Konrad Lorenz was right to speculate that the appeal which playful puppies have for children, and indeed their parents, was crucial to their adoption into our ancestors’ communities. Nor should one ignore the emotional service that dogs – their geniality and affection increasingly selected for over the centuries – have rendered to humankind, in addition to their contributions as herders, hunters, guides and much else.

As John Bradshaw, a leading authority on the lives of dogs, remarks, companion animals “allow us to have experiences and express behaviours once crucial to our survival”, to obey “Pleistocene instincts embedded in our genes”.

Cashmere blankets

The infectious joy of dogs figures large in On Dogs: An anthology, introduced by the actor and comedian Tracey Ullman. Although she is a devoted dog-lover, who hopes to die “covered in cashmere blankets and lots and lots of dogs”, the selections in the anthology are not all feel-good.

Several are dark or poignant pieces on a dog’s death; others offer sour or sardonic comments on pet dogs. The collection is an eclectic mixture drawn from fiction, poems, anecdotes, and scientific or philosophical essays. There are some familiar canine faces: Buck, the heroic St Bernard cross from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild; Flush, from Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel; and Tulip, the German Shepherd memorably portrayed in J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip.

Other dogs are less familiar, as are several of the authors. The anthology does not have the direction and cohesion suggested by Ullman’s description of it as tracing the dog’s “extraordinary journey from working animal to pampered pet”. It is, though, an enjoyable collection in which many aspects of our complex relationship with dogs are touched on.

Animal welfare

For several of the contributors, the most prominent thread that runs through the book is love – both the love dogs have for people and the love that people return. Our love of dogs is in part a response to their happiness but also, as the legendary French actor and animal welfare activist Brigitte Bardot observes, to their wanting us to be happy. Our love, in effect, responds to their love. “Response”, perhaps, is not the ideal word. Certainly, love for a dog need not be an unconsidered, mechanical reaction to their affection. As Monty Don pointed out in his book on his golden retriever Nigel, a dog is an “opportunity” for a person to develop, shape and manifest love for a being that is not going to reject or betray this love.

In a fine essay in the anthology, the late Roger Scruton argues that while dogs may rightly invite love, it must be of the right kind. Although dogs have been “raised to the edge of personhood”, they are not persons, and to ignore this will damage dog and owner alike. The owner will have unreasonable expectations that the dog is bound to disappoint, or a dog may suffer longer than necessary when an owner, viewing the pet as a person, refuses to have it euthanized.

If our love is a response to the dog’s, so, in turn, is the dog’s love a response to ours. It is not true, as Ullman maintains, echoing the popular view, that dogs “offer unconditional love and loyalty, no matter how badly we behave”. It is possible, indeed horribly frequent, for people to forfeit a dog’s love.

Those dull-eyed, mangy and broken animals whose owners chain them up and ignore them no longer love these people. It is true that dogs do not impose conditions on us, but this, as Scruton explains, is because they cannot do so, not because they generously refrain from doing so. For a similar reason, it is questionable for Alice Walker to praise her labrador, Marley, for “how swiftly she forgives me”.

Philosophical egoism

Marley neither forgives nor blames, for these are actions that presuppose a range of concepts – responsibility, intention, negligence and so on – that are not in her or any other dog’s repertoire. A term better than “unconditional” for characterizing a dog’s love might be “uncomplicated” or “unreflecting”, neither of which is intended to detract from what Lorenz called the “immeasurability” of this love.

For some of the authors in On Dogs, it is idle to analyse the nature either of our love for dogs or theirs for us, the love in both cases being bogus. Dogs, according to the late critic A. A. Gill, are “nature’s yes-men”, whose devotion to us is “not for real”, but “sycophantic”. For pets, humans are “prey”. This jaundiced perception relies on a combination of hostility to “anthropomorphic” ascriptions of emotions to dogs and a philosophical egoism in which the only question for beast and man alike is “what’s in it for me?” The combination is unstable: to explain away the appearance of the dog’s devotion, Gill has to attribute to it a sophisticated capacity for Machiavellian strategies that sits badly with his rejection of anthropomorphism.

For the pioneering American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, meanwhile, our love is usually “of the basest” sort, a “low-grade residue of selfish expression” by people incapable of a “satisfactory relation” to a spouse, a child, or another human being. This self-serving “love”, she informs us, is an exercise of “ruthless power” over lesser creatures.

Gilman and Gill seem less convincing when read alongside other pieces in the anthology, especially those that honour dogs who have died, or that emphasize our obligations to our pets. It would be hard to read the moving inscription that Byron composed for a monument to Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog, as an expression of base or self-serving love. And equally difficult to imagine that the animal that inspired the poet’s love was a scheming sycophant. For Byron, it was a moral duty to erect a memorial to his dog, and other contributors to the anthology echo this sense of obligation. J. R. Ackerley, whose dog’s death was “the saddest day of [my] life”, recalls how “mean and contemptible” he had felt whenever he treated her badly. For Scruton, the recipient of a dog’s love is “under a duty to the creature”: to neglect or abandon the animal is to “betray a trust”. Expressed here are attitudes to creatures with whom we live in a moral relationship, not ones we compete with in a Hobbesian struggle for profit and power.

- Times Literary Supplement 

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