I don’t know if I believe what I’ve written here. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s more like a bunch of random thoughts I can’t get out of my head. I could be convinced they’re all wrong, or that I’m not going far enough. I don’t hate dogs and I don’t hate dog owners, but part of me hates everything about dog ownership.
I grew up with a cat, but no dog. I have always liked animals, and thought dogs were particularly adorable with their playfulness and enthusiasm. But I never really understood what it meant to own a dog until just recently when I dog-sat a cockapoo for a family member.
I had seen this cockapoo a few times before and it was always just as happy and bounding as you’d expect any well-kept dog to be. When I arrived at the family member’s apartment, the dog jumped all over me and eagerly accepted my pets, even rolling over on its back to get some belly rubs. My family member told me that I’d have to feed the dog this expensive dry food with tasty treats on top, and that I’d have to walk her four times per day (which seemed excessive, but whatever), but that was about it. She was a great dog and would be easy to deal with.
The family member left the next morning and the cockapoo immediately fell into a depression. I say this as someone who is usually baffled when I hear that a dog is “anxious” or “eager” or “scared,” because honestly dogs always just look happy or sad to me. But even I could tell the cockapoo was miserable. She wouldn’t eat, she didn’t want to walk more than a block, she cried sporadically, and she slept pretty much every minute of the day I wasn’t taking her for four walks.
After two days of this, I texted my relative to ask what to do. In a massive block paragraph, she basically told me to cheer the dog up.
To which I thought – how the fuck do I do that?
I was struck by the odd parameters of the dog depression problem. A dog is simultaneously emotionally sophisticated enough to get depressed, but not emotionally sophisticated enough to be easily “cheered up.” At least not by a stranger.
It’s a dog. It eats, sleeps, plays, and shits. I already gave her food and she wouldn’t eat, she sleeps more than she should, I tried playing catch with her and she wouldn’t. At least she was indeed shitting.
All I could really do was keep trying to get the cockapoo to do all those things, but harder. I gave her more treats, took her on longer walks, and tried throwing her ball more. She gulped down the extra treats, walked a bit farther, and at least chased the ball a little bit. Her shitting output remained constant.
Literally minutes after I got the long text from my relative, a different relative called me. This one had been the usual dog-sitter of the cockapoo but was too busy to do it this time. He told me to never tell the cockapoo’s owner that there were any problems because she was neurotic and overly-attached to the dog, and she had already gotten super worried and had called him up and asked him to check on the dog.
This other relative explained to me that the cockapoo got extremely depressed every time her owner left. She would go days without eating, wouldn’t want to go on walks, would sleep all day, etc. His solution was to ignore it and not tell the owner anything. The dog wouldn’t starve to death or kill itself, it would just go a few miserable days without food and then get hungry and go back to normal.
Intersped in his five-minute explanation was the repeated phrase, “it’s a dog.” The cockapoo’s owner apparently didn’t understand that it’s a dog. She treated the animal’s misery as a crisis which required intervention. If I, the new dog-sitter, couldn’t handle the job of cheering the cockapoo up, the owner demanded that my other relative leave his engagement and drive 50 minutes to give the dog food and throw its ball.
I took both of their advices. I kept giving the dog more treats, longer walks, and more ball throwing, but I tried not to worry about it too much. After a few days, the dog stopped crying and ate a bit more, but she still didn’t seem happy. I wasn’t sure if I had somehow somewhat succeeded in cheering the dog up, or if its depression had naturally run its course.
But then something else started to bother me.
After about three days, the dog started following me everywhere. If I sat on the couch to watch tv, the dog would curl-up under my outstretched legs resting on the coffee table. If I sat at the dinner table, it would sit beside me, and watch me throughout the entire meal. If I went to the bathroom, it would follow me to the door and wait outside. At night, the dog curled up in my bed and slept beside me. The dog started walking more, and she would almost always perfectly follow my lead; she walked at just the right pace so she stayed beside me, neither lagging behind my fast stride, nor pulling ahead. On the rare occasions she got distracted by a smell or other dog, I gently tugged on her leash and called her name, and she scurried over to me.
I found it kind of creepy.
Yes, I know, it’s a dog. But still… I felt like I had been granted a level of submissiveness from a sovereign being which I hadn’t earned. All I had done was feed and walk the dog – and I apparently did this so badly that the dog was massively depressed – and yet she worshipped me.
I don’t mean that lightly. I was suddenly the center of this dog’s universe. I gave her food and water, I brought her to a place where she could piss and shit, I was her sole source of stimulation. She followed me around, watched me everywhere with her big, baleful eyes, and even while depression-sleeping throughout most of every day, she would always stir and look to me hopefully if I made a little too much noise readjusting on the couch. I was this dog’s everything.
It reminded me of that scene from Meet the Parents:
Jack: Greg, how come you don’t like cats?
Greg: I don’t not like cats. I-I just– I just prefer dogs. I mean, I’m just more of a dog kind of, you know–Come home, wagging their little tails, happy to see you kind of–
Jack: You need that assurance? You prefer an emotionally shallow animal?
Jack: You see, Greg, when you yell at a dog, his tail will go between his legs and cover his genitals, his ears will go down. A dog is very easy to break, but cats make you work for their affection. They don’t sell out the way dogs do.
Before I get into a whole explanation of why I find dog ownership disturbing, I will note the giant caveat that I’m mostly referring to modern Western dog ownership. I am not referring to dogs living on farms or in the wilderness, especially dogs which “work” by herding or protecting animals. Likewise, I’m not referring to seeing eye dogs, bomb sniffing dogs, corpse sniffing dogs, or any other dogs which have explicitly established “jobs.” I am mostly criticizing dog owners who keep their pets purely for the pleasure of ownership.
A Dog’s Life
To summarize my gut reaction to the psychological state of the owned dog, I’m going to quote a Reddit comment from u/HavelsOnly which partially inspired this essay:
The most accurate thing I can say about dogs is I feel sorry for them. My immediate family didn’t own dogs growing up, but my extended family had farms or large acreage plots with 3-5 dogs running around all day. They eat, sleep, shit, and run around exploring with their pack hours a day whenever they want.
Compare to city dogs. Mostly live in matchbox apartments. A typical weekday is likely 9-12 hours home alone. You can’t run. You can’t shit. You are bored out of your fucking mind. Your human comes home and walks you for 15 minutes on a leash. It’s the highlight of your day. Human is tired and eats dinner in front of the TV while you get scratches. Maybe you sleep in the same bed as your human. You’re probably pretty tired after an entire day of mostly not moving.
Weekends if you’re lucky, you go to a dog-friendly park. Maybe you get off leash. Maybe you never get off leash because you’re too spazzy around other dogs/humans. It’s completely understandable to be spazzy. You are chronically understimulated. One of your only opportunities to get energy and action in life is by “misbehaving” or harassing strangers.
When I walk past someone with a dog and the dog is just pulling as hard as s/he can at the leash to pounce on me, you can’t think that’s instinct. No animal in the wild thinks it’s a good idea to go fuck with something 3-30x it’s bodyweight. It’s pure boredom. The dog is just trying to stimulate itself before it’s forced back in front of the TV to watch The Office again.
There’s a laundry list of other topics like neutering, diet, training, etc that I won’t elaborate on. There’s enough grey area for people to get away with justifying whatever happens to be easiest for them, obviously, but I hope it’s also obvious that there are many many ways in which the life of a dog is diminished compared to…. other normal living organisms…
Is this description fair? For some dogs, definitely. For others, probably not. But I want to attempt to explore what life is like for an owned dog and try to evaluate its happiness.
Needs, Pleasures, and Meaning
Let’s try to break down all the life-requirements of a conscious being into three categories – needs, pleasures, and meaning – and see how well they are provided to an owned dog.
First, needs are the basic requirements for existence, like food, water, shelter, and protection.
With the exceptions of abusive or negligent owners, owned dogs get their needs met. In fact, dogs get their needs met better than pretty much any non-pet animals in the world. Unlike wild animals, dogs aren’t faced with the daily life-and-death struggle for survival. They don’t need to hunt or scrounge for food, they don’t need to worry about a tainted water source, they don’t need to evade predators, etc. And unlike farm animals, their deaths almost certainly won’t come at the hands of their owners, especially not in the first 25% of their max lifespans.
Furthermore, with constant advancements in veterinary tech and modern people’s tremendous love of their pets, dogs are more likely than ever to be kept alive long past when they would have succumbed to a medical issue in the wild. Another instance that partially inspired this post was when I asked a dog-owning friend what he would do if his pit-bull mix got sick tomorrow and needed expensive surgery, and he responded without hesitation: “I’d empty my bank account.”
Aside from freak accidents, like getting hit by a car, a dog is pretty much guaranteed to get his needs met and survive into old age while owned by a human. This is an unambiguous benefit of being owned.
Second, pleasures are short term benefits in a being’s life which often serve as subjects of pursuit and rewards.
I’d say most dog owners have a mixed record of fulfilling their dog’s pleasure (ignore the innuendo). On the positive side, owned dogs will usually get lots of treats, toys, and petting. Especially if there are multiple owners in the house, a dog is likely to get a decent amount of moment-to-moment attention, even just in passing. More variable pleasures include walking, exercise, and active play. Diligent owners will devote significant time to taking their dog out of the house to run around, fetch, and hopefully interact with other dogs, but plenty of owners won’t and will leave their dogs perpetually under-stimulated at home.
Where dog owners fall the shortest in providing for their dog’s pleasure is in – again, ignore the innuendo – sex. By the 2010s, 83% of American dogs were neutered, and presumably most other owners do everything they can to discourage their non-neutered dogs from having sex (which is arguably a worse fate for the dog). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that depriving an animal of an act for which it is biologically programmed to derive the most extreme of pleasures is likely detrimental to the animal’s wellbeing. Ask yourself: for what other gains would you be willing to give up sex for the rest of your life?
Third, meaning is activity and goals which provide long-term value to the being. Admittedly, it’s hard enough to identify meaning in humans, so it’s even harder to do so in dogs, but I’m going to take a shot anyway. But first, a thought experiment:
Imagine that you, a human, were kidnapped by aliens at birth and given an approximation of a dog’s life, and a good dog’s life at that. Ignore the subservience, dependence on a superior life form, and all the other psychological aspects of being owned and just focus on how you would feel about your material conditions.
You live in a big building that wasn’t designed for your body type nor size, but is comfortable, warm, and decently spacious. You’re given ample healthy food which tastes good, but you eat the same thing almost every day for months straight. Fortunately, you’re occasionally given cookies or brownies or whatever treat you like. Your alien owners give you little massages and talk to you in a friendly way even though you can’t understand them. Most of your time is spent in the big building, but 3-4 times per day you get to walk around outside the big alien world where you see other humans walking around too. Once per day, you go to a nice, open human field where you can play sports with other humans and maybe even make some friends. However, your balls or ovaries were removed when you were a baby, so you will never have sex, nor the desire to do so.
That is basically your life. You’re never in danger, you’re treated well, you get attention and fun (though not that much), and you’ll probably live into your 90s. Would you want this life?
No, of course not. You will never have a romantic or sexual partner, you will never have children, you will never write a novel, you will never have a good job or start your own company, you will never restore a classic car in your driveway, you will never travel, you will never explore new lifestyles or ideas, you will never do much of anything beyond the extremely narrow confines of the life given to you by the aliens.
In other words, your life would have no meaning. No profundity. Nothing you’ve built. No pride. Nothing to look forward to. No long-term goals. You’d just have existence and temporary pleasures. The massages, toys, and occasional cookies would be nice, but they’d get boring super quickly. Even going to the field and playing football with other humans would soon feel repetitious and probably meaningless with nothing behind it. Days would blur together. The unconscious void of sleep would be most welcomed. The supposed value of a long, healthy, safe life would start to feel like a curse rather than a blessing. You might prefer to be let off the leash and take your chances alone in the alien world. You wouldn’t be sure if you could find food or avoid getting hit by alien cars, but at least you’d be striving for something.
Ok, that’s a lot of personification of a dog. Dogs obviously don’t have the mental capacity that humans do, and aren’t consciously concerned with the philosophy of what makes a good life. But still, I think it’s reasonable to say that dogs have some sort of conception of meaning that rises above moment-by-moment pleasures, and that the unfulfillment of this meaning has a negative effect on the happiness of dogs. And furthermore, I’d speculate that the vast majority of owned dogs have tragically meaningless lives.
To illustrate, let’s start with the dogs that I’m guessing have the most meaningful lives. Imagine a border collie growing up on a ranch. The dog wakes up in the morning with a purpose; he herds a flock of sheep. This is his job every day. He keeps the flock intact, rescues stragglers, protects them from predators, moves the sheep out to graze, and into shelter at the end of the day. This instinct to herd is so ingrained in border collies that they will literally herd human children if given the chance. When not herding, the border collie runs around the vast open acreage of the property, often playing with the other working dogs. At night, the dog’s owner greets him with pets and food, and maybe throws a stick around for some fetch.
I imagine this is as much of a fulfilling, meaningful life as a dog can have. The border collie lives with lots of space and an environment for which he is suited. The dog has a daily purpose which keeps him focused and entertained. The dog gains a sense of accomplishment for doing his job well and garners well-deserved praise from his owner. The dog’s food and water are earned through his work, rather than granted by fiat. The dog has other dogs with whom to play and form relationships. This is a good life.
(Likewise, I grew up with a cat who we let out every morning so he could roam through acres of woodland where he would hunt mice, climb trees, defend his territory from raccoons, and sometimes fight other cats. At night, Moo would be fed and pet, and would curl up next to my mom in bed. That is probably as fulfilling of a life that a cat can have.)
Border collies are often considered the most intelligent dog breed and are notoriously difficult to own. They’re bred to work and are too smart to settle for weekend trips to the park, so if they’re not given something to do, they become extremely neurotic and basically go insane from boredom:
“Border Collies are extremely creative in their obsessive behaviors. Some stare at balls or other toys, many herd other dogs, children or cars (those that do that don’t live too long). The more creative ones stare at shadows or try to herd the ceiling fan or even clouds. Some convert their caregivers into ball throwing machines. ”
My speculation is that what happens to border collies that don’t grow up on ranches with flocks of sheep to herd is basically what happens to all dogs, albeit to varying degrees. For border collies, it’s herding; for hounds, it’s hunting; for saint bernards, it’s carrying beer kegs; for pit bulls, it’s fighting bears. When a dog can’t fulfill its genetically crafted purpose, its inborn inclinations become maladaptive neuroses which torture their narrow lives. This is the dog equivalent of being cursed to lead a meaningless life. It’s like locking a human in an alien’s apartment and never letting him have a family, develop a passion, or have any life goals beyond pleasing his coercively established masters.
(And this isn’t even getting into the suitability of environments and climates for particular breeds. There is no way a husky is suited for living anywhere besides a big open, cold expanse. Likewise, a dog that can do this should not live in an apartment.)
If this is true, then most dogs in the Western world have miserable existences. Their subservience to their owners may very well be a product of meaninglessness and boredom rather than organic appreciation.
The big counter to all of this is: what if dogs are adapted to be companions to humans and therefore gain meaning from their subservient relationship to owners?
That’s probably true to some degree depending on the breed. The easy case is lapdogs like shih tzus, chihuahuas, and pugs which have been bred for centuries to serve as low-mobility companions. I can buy that such dogs have been genetically directed towards gaining fulfillment out of serving and “protecting” a loving human owner. A similar but slightly less plausible case could be made for famously family-oriented dogs like golden retrievers and labrador retrievers. The sheer size of these dogs would suggest a greater proclivity for physical activity than even an active family can permit, but their universal gentleness and playfulness with human children is a good indicator of finding meaning in such relationships.
But even with such breeds we should be careful about falling into wishful thinking. Again, the appearance of comfort and subservience may just be a product of boredom and meaninglessness rather than a true indicator of fulfillment. After all, adorable beagles are usually kept as small family pets, but they’re actually hunting dogs. Even wobbly little dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers.
This could hint at something much darker. What if a lot of these smaller dogs which are supposedly great for ordinary dog ownership are actually work dogs which have been physically bred to be conventionally owned at the expense of their ability to pursue what they find meaningful? Purebred dogs are notoriously prone to health problems, especially many of the show dogs and cute breeds people buy for their appearance. For instance:
“A bulldog’s cute flat face is an example of a genetic manipulation that can lead to a whole lot of problems for these little guys. Some hereditary and congenital diseases associated with bulldogs are an elongated soft palate, hip dysplasia, an internalized tail, irregular tear duct production, dislocated shoulder joints, collapsed nostrils, and Cherry Eye, an eyelid abnormality.”
Note that bull dogs used to literally fight bulls.
So maybe all these adorable beagles, dachshunds, bull dogs, etc. which seem content to sit in an owner’s lap and wheeze until they drop dead at eight-years-old are actually completely miserable because their genetically-determined instinct to hunt polar bears has been hindered by chronic health problems inculcated by aesthetic-oriented inbreeding. Or maybe not. I don’t know.
Or maybe all these dogs really are happy being lap dogs. In which case… that’s ok, I guess. It just means that humanity took the proud common ancestor of the mighty wolf and turned it into a deformed, disease-ridden, inbred pug.
So on the whole, I think most dogs probably have miserable lives. Despite having their daily needs met, many are under-stimulated, and most probably lack meaningful pursuits. But dogs are only one side of the dog ownership equation. What about the owners?
What is the Appeal of Owning a Dog?
This is going to sound weird, but I think of dog owners kind of the same way I think of people who have sex with furniture. Even if there isn’t something wrong with the act itself, being into the act indicates something very wrong with the actor.
Basically, dog owners seem to enjoy indulging in a feeling of unearned dominance over another being. They like the idea of having a fairly emotionally sophisticated animal being completely dependent upon them. And they especially enjoy the Stockholm Syndrome-esque sense of loyalty the animal develops to the entity upon which its continued survival entirely depends.
Dom vs. Sub
I have a friend who has always seen dog ownership as akin to slavery. It’s not that dogs are forced to work, or that they have sufficient cognitive capacity to necessarily suffer in captivity, rather, it’s the sheer patheticness of their existence. A standard household dog embodies groveling submissiveness in a way that no other animal does, to the point where dogs are the literal symbol of submission for humans.
Nearly all pets are kept in enclosures where they survive on the food and water granted by masters, but at least they mostly do what they want throughout their days. Hamsters run on wheels, gerbils chew cardboard, lizards bathe under heat lamps, etc. As mentioned, my childhood cat roamed the outdoors during the days and napped all over the house at night. Moo was owned but he also had about as much of his own life as a pet could possibly have.
But dogs don’t have lives beyond their owners. They don’t really play with toys on their own. All the things they enjoy (treats, fetch, walking, etc.) are done with or at the behest of their owners. As a result, dogs are utterly psychologically dependent upon their owners. Whether a dog has a fun during an afternoon depends on whether the owner takes him to the park, so the dog will naturally do everything it can to endear itself to the owner by jumping on his legs, rubbing up against him, licking his hand, whining, etc. The dog may not understand that it is trying to emotionally manipulate the owner via its cuteness and debasement, but it is, at least via instinct.
And again, for the owner this is a feature, not a bug. The dog’s desperate pandering to elicit sympathy so he might be let out of the apartment and go to the park for a game of catch is considered adorable and funny. The owner enjoys when the dog debases itself.
Even farm animals are not expected or encouraged to engage in this indignity. Cows and pigs don’t really do anything but eat, sleep, and wait to be slaughtered, but that’s all they do. They haven’t been bred to suck up to their masters and beg for attention or stimulation. Dogs are the only animals who have been genetically and behaviorally conditioned to maximize interpersonal submissiveness for our benefit.
What does it say about a human who enjoys this emotional transaction? It says that on some level they like the idea of having dominance over another being. And, they want that dominance to be a feature of their daily life.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying dominance, per se. Sexual dominance is clearly a popular tendency, and likewise, the desire to dominate others in competitions is a useful inborn characteristic which incentivizes ambitiousness and effort. I think identifying and pursuing both of those forms of dominance can bring pleasure and satisfaction in a healthy way.
But the dominance one gains over an owned dog is more akin to the dominance an abusive spouse has over a partner. It’s a perpetual dominance built on the recognition and furtherance of intrinsic strength differences. Sexual dominance is sort of a simulation of this arrangement meant for temporarily indulging in the thrill of power. Competitive domination is temporarily derived from an earned display of competence and victory. But dog owner dominance consists of constantly having and using power over a weaker, dumber, utterly dependent creature for your benefit. Teaching the dog “tricks” like sitting and rolling over are expressions of the dog’s submissiveness which garner a thrill for the owner. The dog’s whining as it sits by the dining room table and begs for food can be heartbreaking but is likewise a reinforcement of its permanent underclass status within the hierarchy of its life.
In this sense, I agree with my friend that dog ownership resembles slavery. Not the dispassionate slavery of sending workmen to die in the mines, but the personal slavery of having a being in one’s house who suffers moment-by-moment indignities for the sake of the master’s minor pleasures and long-term assurance of his vaunted status.
Earned vs. Unearned
The unearned nature of the owner-dog relationship is especially disturbing. I believe every rational relationship must be earned by mutual value production and the virtues which produce said value. You earn your friends by being funny, insightful, interesting, reliable, etc. You earn your romantic partner by being attractive, passionate, supportive, inspiring, etc. Every relationship should be earned. Relationships which aren’t earned feel hollow, one-sided, and potentially exploitative. Earning a relationship by one’s virtues grants a sense of accomplishment and general value which enriches the lives of all involved and serves as a valid pillar of self-esteem.
How do dog owners earn the loyalty of their dogs? They feed them, walk them, hopefully play with them, and don’t abuse them. Basically, they keep the dog alive. This is not difficult. People have been doing it for tens of thousands of years.
In return, dog owners receive a severity and depth of affection beyond any they could ever receive from another human being, unless they’re rock stars or something. Dog owners are granted an undying subservience and loyalty from a conscious being. They will be adored and basically worshiped by an adorable creature until the day it dies.
What’s most seductive about this exchange is the visceral nature of the dog’s affection. As far as I can tell, there is no animal which can come remotely close to the emotional expressiveness of dogs (besides humans). I’m terrible at understanding dog emotions, but even I can see the elated mania in the cockapoo’s eyes when she sees her owner. As Robert De Niro notes in Meet the Parents, some people must find that greeting to be a sort of “assurance” of their worth. They bask in the glow of a being which loves them unconditionally. But I found the devotion unnerving precisely because I didn’t feel it was earned by any recognizable moral calculus.
From the dog’s perspective, being kept alive may seem like a reasonable grant of value. But keep in mind that the dog has no choice in the matter. A dog can’t decide he doesn’t like his owner and switch to a new one, and assuming the owner isn’t incompetent, the dog can’t just run away. The dog is simply forced into a situation where his life is saved by the owner every day. Presumably by sheer evolutionary development, dogs have been bred to return insane loyalty and enthusiasm to their captors in exchange for living. It’s like a species has been completely conquered by Nietzsche’s slave morality.
Again, even if you put aside the happiness of the dog and the value it gets from being owned, I find the owner’s emotional inclination worrying. The owner wants to experience the visceral emotional sensation of being loved and needed, but doesn’t want to work hard for it like he would have to with humans. He’d prefer to take the short cut and get it from a dumb animal. I managed to get it from a depressed cockapoo after keeping her alive for three days.
Or another way to put it…
Porn is to Sex as Dogs Are to Babies
There is nothing wrong with wanting to nurture and protect something. We have a strong inborn instinct for these tendencies, as it primes us for the crucial duties of parenthood. Thus the mother-child bond is probably the single-deepest emotional connection that humans can form.
But just as porn is a cheap, easy, unfulfilling version of sex with another human being, dogs are a cheap, easy, unfulfilling version of raising a baby. I’m pretty sure that a significant number of dog owners choose to engage in the activity because they want to experience the nurturing process of child-raising and the reciprocated affection of the baby, but without having to go through the arduous process of actually making and raising a real human. There even seems to be a trend of millennials choosing to own dogs instead of having kids.
It wasn’t until I took the cockapoo to the park to meet up with my friend and his three-year-old son that it struck me just how baby-like dogs are. They are both largely helpless, dumb, moody creatures with an extremely limited range of potential activity which precludes them from self-sufficiency. Since, like babies, dogs are entirely dependent upon adult humans for survival, dogs have literally evolutionarily optimized to inspire affection and care from humans. Their facial muscles have actually morphed to retain puppy-like features to stay cute for humans. Through 40 generations of selective breeding, wild foxes were turned into subservient wimps who instinctively curried favor from humans for sustenance.
But why is raising a dog somehow worse than raising a baby?
In my view, the great moral foundation of parenting is that adults are working to raise a dependent, immature being into an independent, mature one. A mother’s instinct to feed and protect a child serves it well when it’s weak and helpless, but it’s all in the service of keeping the child alive until it has the strength and capability to defend and maintain itself.
Dog ownership carries over the protection and care of a weak, helpless being, but with no terminal goal. At least within a modern context, a puppy and then dog will never mature into a self-sufficient animal. Yet again, this is not a bug of dog ownership, but a feature. Owners want a being that never grows up, much like the evil Santa Claus in the criminally underrated tv show, Happy!
Thus, dog ownership is based on a perversion of parental instincts. The impetus to protect and maintain a helpless creature becomes the driving and terminal goal, rather than the transformation of the creature. The owner must enjoy the helplessness of its ward. The pet’s pathetic inability to get its own food and water is reframed as a virtue of the relationship, rather than a detractor. The same could be said of the dog’s omnipresent helplessness, from the boredom it feels when left alone, to its conditioned inability to shit unless taken outside.
Consider a mother who wished for her child to never grow up. She never wants to see the baby become a teenager, develop his own interests, find his skills, face failure, make friends, have sex, develop romantic relationships, etc. She just wants it to grow from an infant to a three-year-old and then stay stuck in that form for about seven more years until it dies. The child will always be by its mother’s side, never able to feed or protect itself, and by extension, be completely emotionally dependent upon her too. The child may occasionally see other children, but the center of his life will always be his mother’s embrace.
That’s basically what dog ownership is. The animal starts as an extremely helpless puppy, grows into a helpless dog, stays helpless as it ages, and then dies in a short-by-human-standards time frame.
Likewise, the animal’s supposed innocence seems to be a focal point for many dog owners. We see this with the “we don’t deserve dogs” meme. There’s this idea that dogs are good, pure, wonderful beings because they display mindless loyalty to their owners. Even dogs which do ostensibly bad things only do so out of malicious training on the part of their human owners, ie. fighting dogs.
Once again, I think this is a product of the dog’s unique combination of high emotional sophistication (for an animal) and low intelligence (for a human). A dog is emotionally sophisticated enough to do things that mimic moral decision making without actually doing moral decision making. Or more charitably, dogs can perform a very primitive form of moral decision-making that is mistaken for sophisticated decision-making.
Consider this: a dog goes outside and grabs random objects to present to his owner when she’s feeling sad. The owner feels gracious towards the dog for recognizing her sadness and attempting to console her even though the method by which the dog does so is meaningless.
I think what’s happening here is that the owner is implicitly personifying the dog and giving it the moral credit a human would receive in its position. Meaning, the woman would feel gracious toward a human friend who brought her unsolicited gifts when she was feeling sad.
However, the main reason we would give a human moral credit in that situation is because the human has the cognitive capacity to map an enormous range of potential actions and he chooses to pick this one. The human could have stayed home and played video games, or hung out with other friends, or did his taxes, etc., but instead he took time out of his day to make a friend feel better. In other words, the opportunity cost of the action undergirds its value.
But the opportunity cost consideration doesn’t (as far as I know) impact a dog. The dog did not have the cognitive capacity to wonder whether it should dig holes outside or console his owner, he just acted on instinct. And even if the dog somehow did have sufficient cognitive capacity to make such calculations, its status as an owned pet greatly restricts the potential alternative actions anyway, especially given the Stockholm Syndrome it is likely suffering.
I’m not saying that it’s not nice and fun for that cute dog to do what it did. I’m saying that we should be aware that the dog’s actions are a pale simulacrum of what human beings do.
This is why dogs are like porn. They approximate a deep, meaningful experience, but come up short on its essentials. They’re a cheap substitute for a real relationship which can be bought with treats and the bare minimum of responsibility.
I’m guessing many people’s response to all this is: “Of course dogs aren’t humans, I don’t think of them on those terms. I don’t get some sort of sick dominance thrill from owning a dog, nor do I use them as a weak substitute for human companionship. I just appreciate dogs for the cute, happy, excitable animals they are.”
Too which I respond… if you stare long enough into the abyss, it stares back at you.
I think few dog owners seek these sorts of emotional experiences, but they probably experience them anyway. I don’t see how they can’t while living with a dog. The dominance over a perpetually helpless being which returns worship for survival is integral to the dog owning process. Engaging in that behavior is bound to reveal psychological traits or even cause them inadvertently, in the same way that being in the military or working as a prison guard will undoubtedly change the way you see your fellow man in some sense.
If you were a sociopathic businessman trying to create an industry to exploit people’s emotions for money, you could not possibly design a more perfect racket than dog ownership.
Dogs are “man’s best friend.” They have an ancient history of bonding with humans. As stated, dogs are literally evolutionarily optimized to mimic children to induce maximum sympathy and moral concern from adult humans. For humans, there is nothing more worthy of love and affection than dogs, besides family members. More than 40% of women and 25% of men would let a stranger burn to death to save their own dog.
With “fur babies” becoming so much more beloved and pampered in the modern age, whole new industries have been popped up to let owners show how much they love their dogs, like dog clothes, dog cameras, dog strollers, dog spas, dog dentistry, dog treadmills, dog umbrellas, dog butt covers, dog purses, dog chairs, dog cologne, dog nail polish, and dog beer.
Yet dogs typically only live for about a decade. That’s more than enough time for a human to get attached to one, and then to feel a giant dog-shaped hole in his heart when the animal dies, thus ensuring more dog purchases in the future. It’s also a perfect amount of time for a dog to be a beloved companion for a child throughout his youth, thereby ensuring a life-long addiction to dogs.
Before the dog’s short life expires, it will inevitably fall victim to a massive array of health problems which require expensive medical examinations, drugs, or surgeries to treat. Just as with human healthcare, the marginal benefits of these treatments will decline over time, while their costs will increase. But don’t worry, you can buy $500-600 per year dog health insurance if you want. And you’d better, because an unwillingness to expend resources to keep the dog alive for as long as possible will be met by admonishment from other dog owners who believe there is no limit to what dogs deserve.
Also, if like many dog owners you’d want to get one of those adorable brand name dog breeds you’ve loved since childhood rather than a random mutt, your dog will be more expensive, less healthy, and rack up especially high medical bills as its inborn health problems mount with age. In other words, much like flashy sports cars, the most popular and expensive dog models have de facto planned obsolescence.
I’m not saying that the dog industry is some sort of evil cabal… but it has pretty much turned out like that anyway.
If All of the Above is True, does that Mean Dog Ownership is Wrong?
No, I don’t think it necessarily is. But I think we should be highly conscientious of what dog ownership indicates about the owner, and how ownership impacts both the owner and the dog.
As someone who has never owned a dog, I’ve come up with a few principles for guiding dog ownership:
- The goal of a dog owner should be to simulate the meaning inherent in purposeful dog life while protecting the dog from the downsides of wild living. This means giving the dog a job or some sort of purpose while protecting its health and physical safety.
- Dog owners should be highly conscientious of why they’re getting a dog. They should explicitly know what emotional and psychological benefits they are getting from ownership. They should ask themselves if such benefits are truly healthy for themselves and the dog.
- Giving a dog a purpose not only makes the dog happier, but makes its relationship with the owner more of an exchange rather than a dom-sub relationship. This is psychologically healthier for the owner and probably for the dog too.
- Somewhere between many and most dog breeds should only be owned in ideal settings – farms, ranches, wilderness, etc. Owning the dogs outside of these circumstances is likely cruel.
- Most dog owners should buy small-to-mid sized breeds with a long genetic history of high sociability and little-to-no history of work. Such dogs are the most well-suited to modern ownership. Cockapoos are actually a really good choice by these standards.
- Unless you have a really good reason to get a thoroughbred, you should probably rescue a mutt from a dog shelter instead. Mutts are healthier, don’t contribute to the continued genetic deformity of purebreds, and can be rescued from misery and/or death in shelters.
- Unless you have the resources to pay for a doggy-day-care where the dog spends all days with other dogs, you probably shouldn’t own a dog if you have a full time job.