As humans, we have visited the most horrible cruelty on dogs. Although some recent self-serving studies (commissioned and conducted by humans) indicated that it may originally have been a mutually beneficial arrangement, there is no doubt that we have selectively-bred a perfectly reasonable wolfish animal into a myriad of ratters, hunters, retrievers, killers, sled-haulers, badger-baiters and whatever the hell a chihuahua is supposed to be for.

Apart from long-term genetic modification projects for the purposes of cheap labour, we lock these animals, who have been selected on the basis of their compliance with our unilateral terms, in the stone boxes we regard as our abodes. We control their food supply, enforce arbitrary rules about soft furnishings, strictly regulate their bathroom activities (often using acts of violence, screaming, and nose-shoving), and we perversely call this “love.”

There is a chasm, therefore, between our ideology of love and its practical function. We “love” our dogs. But if a sufficiently-advanced alien asked us what it might look like if we hated dogs so much that we were willing to engage in a ten-thousand-year campaign of mockery and debasement that has resulted in the Bichon Frise, how would we explain? The ignominy we have visited on dogs is a workable example of how we can not just miss the target, but travel at full speed in the opposite direction of “love” while assuming that we live there.

A Bichon Frise

When I say I love my dog, what does that mean? It’s certainly not a description of a reciprocal arrangement. Despite the counter-claims of millions of emotionally-vulnerable middle-aged men and women and even some scientists who should know better, dogs have no meaningful understanding of emotions. In fact, no animal has ever demonstrated any consciousness (please note: as humans understand it) whatsoever.

Why should they? It’s a waste of a sparrow’s tiny bird-brain to devote any mental energy at all to why he gets up so early, or what the experience of his morning meal might be like from the perspective of the worm he is industriously tugging from the wet field. A badger who can do calculus is a broken badger.

Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of an elephant in a remote part of a third-world country who paints pictures of elephants, only to later discover that he had been violently coerced, perhaps with electro-shocks, to demand of him the precise series of trunk movements necessary to produce an image of an elephant convincing enough for a gang of culturally-illiterate wildlife-loving tourists who enthusiastically applaud the torture of animals before scurrying back to the safety of their minibars and ceiling fans and CNN.

Those of us who believe that animals should not be treated as merely sub-optimal humans construe the love owners feel for their pets as a form of projection. An owner will project his own hopes and expectations onto an animal and pretend (or in the sadder cases, genuinely believe) that they are experiencing a relationship.

A dog bares his teeth as a stress warning to get out of his personal space: “He smiles when I hug him!” Your dog is not smiling at you.

A dog acknowledges the lower, louder vocal tones by avoiding eye contact to indicate submission: “He knows exactly what he did  thats his guilty face!

He does not feel guilty, and probably has no idea what you’re annoyed about.

Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of a chimpanzee who uses a twig to get termites from a mound, or a crow who drops stones into a narrow jar to raise the liquid to an achievable level. This is interpreted as intelligence, and characterized as “tool use,” with the implication that it’s an analogue of human tool use.

There are three arrogant assumptions here. The first is that all animals can be placed on a track of progress from zero to human. The second is that animals can be placed discretely on that track by doing anything at all which looks like something humans do. The third is that the closer they are to “human,” the more intelligent they are.

I have a watch that tells me the time in Alaska, not because I need to know, but because some Japanese watch designers thought it might be fun. And they were right. This is not remotely in the same category as a crow dropping stones in a jar. To confuse them is a category error.

Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of the relocation of a family across a continent, only to be joined by the erstwhile family pet some weeks later, apparently having trekked the distance alone. If a human did something like that, we’d have no hesitation in calling it Stockholm Syndrome and sending in a team of psychotherapists to unravel the messy ball of counter-productive coping mechanisms. But a dog following his pathetic, conditioned responses is regarded as semper fi and the story as a whole is charming: a paragon of Man’s Best Friend. A man’s best friend, then, is a projected construct to account for his emotional failings which, in most men, are legion.

Occasionally we will hear stories of people in the Philippines or Korea who eat dogs and we instinctively balk. There is no sensible reason to prefer cow meat over dog meat; we just feel closer to dogs. We imagine that dogs have (perhaps marginally) more intimate relations with us than cows do. But why should the cattle of the world be slaughtered en masse due to our lack of imagination? Besides, if there is a proportional inverse relationship between how much I like an animal and how acceptable it is to use it for meat, I should find it perfectly acceptable to fry up bits of my worst enemy and have him with noodles.

Let’s say the aliens mentioned in the third paragraph above come to our planet, and that they are as advanced beyond us as we are beyond cows. The word “advanced” here can mean whatever you need to make this happen. What could we say to these aliens to convince them they shouldn’t farm us for food?

We need a radical overhaul of our relationship with animals.

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  1. Although I’ve never hurt an animal and have no plans to do so, the fact that people like them has never ceased to amaze me. I find dogs and cats especially vile and vile-smelling.

  2. Your opinion that dogs have no meaningful understanding of emotions and that they don’t have human-like consciousness are both safely qualified assertions. Isn’t it in fact important to your while reason for writing this piece to note the other side of these coins: dogs do have some understanding of our emotions (as well as having an emotional life of their own), and, they do have consciousness… the consciousness of dogs, of course. Who cares that their consciousness is different than ours? I don’t claim any expertise on these topics, but I believe that the majority of (non-theologically based) philosophers agree that we have every reason to believe that dogs are conscious because they are highly evolved mammals that they have very similar body structures to our own, and we are conscious.

    1. There’s no reason to think that everything we ascribe to dogs as “consciousness” (at least in the human sense of that term) cannot be adequately explained as conditioned behaviour or instinct. I gave two examples in the article of this very common mistake. If you like, you can regard whatever they do as a different kind of consciousness. I would counter that a word used in the same sense to describe such radically different things has lost meaning and we should probably be using a different word.

      You don’t have to accept the arguments, of course, but to say that I haven’t made them is simply incorrect. As for philosophy, having studied it to some degree in a variety of ways, I’d be very surprised if “the majority” of philosophers agreed on anything (and I have never heard anyone – philosopher or otherwise- claim that dogs must have human-style consciousness because we are both mammals). However, at least you have expressed it as a belief rather than a fact.

  3. You don’t seem to have ever lived with a pet dog, Though I concede you make some good points on how we treat our fellow animals, to argue a dog couldn’t be honestly and consciously happy or sad just shows your ignorance – but then it might just me being an emotional middle aged man. So much for the mockery

  4. This is a thought proving piece. It makes you think about our relationships with animals and I didn’t think in any way it was written to offend dog owners or meat eaters. Like you point out, most dog owners think they love their dogs and I’m sure most dog owners aren’t purposely cruel to their pets, but it is a selfish kind of love in some ways. We want our dogs clean and groomed, they’d much prefer to be smelly. We want them to perform tricks for biscuits, they much prefer to just have the biscuit & not do the trick. We even remove their ‘bits’ so that we change their natural behaviour. We convince ourselves we know what’s best for our dogs without ever really knowing what they want. Like you point out in your piece, we place animals on a human scale & the greater up the human scale they are the more appalled we are when people eat them which is glaringly hypocritical.

  5. “a ten-thousand-year campaign of mockery and debasement that has resulted in the Bichon Frise”

    This is a beautiful utterance.

  6. I have no idea which part of my reply you felt was making fun of you, but I promise it was designed to be as neutral in tone as possible. I was not making fun of you. I was directly responding to the points you made.

    As for the tone, I intentionally peppered the piece with signalling phrases such as: “whatever the hell a chihuahua is supposed to be for”; “ten-thousand year campaign of mockery”; “a broken badger”; “Japanese watch designers thought it might be fun”; “fry up bits of my worst enemy”; etc. I think any reasonable observer would concede that none of these phrases would be found in an academic, serious article.

    Quamquam ridentem dicere verum quid vetat?

    Maybe this piece just didn’t land with you, for whatever reason. And that’s OK. I don’t think every piece I write is going to land with everyone. Anyway, thanks for your comments and I hope you have a better response to my next article!

  7. Why do you make fun of me? None of your piece is “light-hearted”… It is supposed to make ME think of how I conceptualize animals, is it?. I have lived long enough on this Earth to form my own opinions and none of your “arguments” work in my view. As retired University Lecturer I object to your arrogance.

  8. None of this is an “argument”. It’s a light-hearted opinion piece designed to make you think about how we conceptualise animals, in particular our pets.

    However, at the risk of stating the obvious, “normal dog behaviour” is different depending on various factors such as where in the pack hierarchy it is, how recently it has eaten, and how well trained it is.

    In Nancy’s case, it could be argued that a dog which has been so vitiated that even sticking a fork in it doesn’t produce any sort of aggressive response is more of a tragedy of nature than a heartwarming anecdote. I’m not claiming that this argument is necessarily correct; but it’s something to think about.

  9. Bit strong Barry…not sure if you are writing satirically or not. I’m in agreement that eating a dog is no different from eating a cow as in some societies….and that a Martian would find our attitude strange but then there are many other habits that he would also find odd…ie wearing clothes when we don’t need to for warmth. I am, therefore, setting that argument aside.

    As you say it has been 3,000 years since mankind and dog have formed a bond….and a bond it is. Two stories….Binky, a mongrel dog who died a day or two after his owner, my aunt who died of TB and Nancy, a Labrador bought when the oldest of four children were born. She became a kind of Nanny to all four over the years … lying in front of the fire while babies crawled and when a child accidentally stabbed her with a fork in a leg muscle….merely limped into the kitchen to the children’s mother to remove it….did not bare her teeth or growl…which would be normal dog behaviour.

    Okay these stories are anecdotal, although within my own personal experience but there must be many similar tales. Not my dogs …I have a cat who would certainly put herself first every time.

    I also agree that breeding deformities is not acceptable but to say that an everyday caring dog owner hates his dog is just silly; twisting the facts to suit your argument.

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