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Tail of the Dog

Rare is the dog owner I meet who does not have a fond place in their heart for their dog. Whether a source of income, a hunting companion, or, most often, a familial companion and friend, we love our dogs. This is fantastic news not just for dogs, but for our own species. Every time we adopt a new dog, we show our willingness to extend our circle to include them. Every day with that dog, we aim to treat them well: a seventy-billion-dollar pet industry business attests to our aim to get “only the best” for our dogs. We scour pet stores for the best dog food; we provide them with treats and toys; we arrange our lives to allow them to be walked throughout the day. We save a bit of dinner for them. We are at our best when we loop them into the circle of Special Animals we’ve drawn around ourselves. Our naming of dogs, talking to dogs, and willingness to get on the floor and play with dogs are the happiest results of our granting them personhood, in the broadest sense. On our worst days, we turn to a dog to receive a scratch of the scruff or allow them to lick us with affection.
At the same time, we are inconstant with dogs. Our language reveals our changeable attitude: outside of a literal description of a female dog, the bitch is decidedly negative. Doggerel is childish, unskilled—the clumsy puppy of poetry; the doghouse is the place you get sent when you’ve been wrong; dog-tired and sick as a dog aren’t states to be desired; to hound someone is harassment (and harass, too, comes from the call of “hare” used to egg a hunting dog on the game). Dog days and a dog’s life are joyless. Hangdog alludes to the medieval practice of publicly hanging dogs accused of committing crimes. Even the dog is not usually a compliment when tossed at another person. I Hidden inside adulation is the Latin adulari, “to fawn over someone like a dog wagging its tail.”
As we’ve seen, when we examine them, many of our entirely normalized behaviors toward dogs turn out to be surprising. We breed dogs into illness; scorn—and attempt to expunge—dogs’ reproductive urges; punish dogs; mutilate dogs; abandon dogs. We seem to want them to be human, but then in many ways, we treat dogs as though they are definitely not.
What they are is ours. Dogs are ours. They are also fast becoming captive to being ours. The dog’s tale is that they are appended to us: our own tail, following us, inextricably tied to us. What are our responsibilities to this faithful companion? There is ample good intention and enthusiasm for dogs today, which I take as auspicious: our hearts are already with the dogs. Take a hard look at the ways we live with dogs now, and where our ideas for living with dogs come from, though, and we see that we’ve become societally complacent that because dogs are “indulged,” the spoiled child of domestic animals, they must have terrific lives.
I suggest we not let our agenda for dogs beset by the accidents of history. In many ways, how we see dogs has been dictated by industries based on profit or questionable motives. It’s high time we ask anew how we should live with this species that we have appended to ourselves. There may not be a natural state apart from us for dogs.II Set one “free”—open your door and release the hounds—and they will look for a way to attach themselves to humans, intimately or at a safe distance. They do not, Jack London’s imagination notwithstanding, return to being wolves. So the question is, instead, given the dog’s current conscription to humans, can we do it better for them?
We can. We can take another look at the state we’ve wound up in with dogs. For the nonce, we still own dogs; we are owners; they are owned. Moreover, given the species’ dependence on humans, one could argue that they need to be maintained as owned property, insofar as we need to continue to have responsibility for their care. But property that acknowledges that they are living right under our noses. We have helped make dogs who they are; we can neither exempt ourselves nor ignore their animalness.
The animalness of dogs is what got us interested in them in the first place: how fabulous to have an animal in the house, with their mysterious thoughts, adventures, and perception—who also gazes your way, smiles at you and listens to your recap of your day unwaveringly. And yet it is the animalness that, today, we seem to want most to get out of them. To get rid of their sex, their smell—their very biology. Tension arises when we realize we don’t know everything about dogs, that we cannot predict or control all of their behavior. That they have motivations, we don’t like, experiences we don’t oversee needs we can’t imagine.
What if, instead, we took their contribution to our family—made up of often radically different members—seriously? If we embraced rather than resisted our differences? That we even enlarge our family to include another species is a textbook example of our capacity for empathy. There are thousands of shelter workers who rise each day tasked with rescuing dogs from the street and abuse, with placing them into good homes. How they maintain their sanity and good-spiritedness is beyond me: they are buoyed, no doubt, by the pure love from the dogs, but they also demonstrate with each dog how much we will endure helping others.
I think this is the way forward for dogs. One of our species’ strengths is our simple willingness to help others. So let’s help dogs be dogs—try to see them for who they are, so we can help them do what they are trying to do. Allow a dog to sniff that thing, roll in that other thing, have your company, be engaged and social, and occupied. How we—we individually and we societally—treat dogs matters. Considering that which is ideal and happiest for them acknowledges the marvel of that hyphen connecting them to us.
Our mutual gaze—the hyphen in the dog-human bond—has changed us as a species, and changes us as individuals. Indeed, looking at dogs has changed the very way I see the world. Even after Pumpernickel’s death, I found myself angling toward certain broad-trunked trees, walking along hedgerows or finding pleasure at signposts or building corners—because these were her interests. Finnegan has given me eyes for giant rain-swollen puddles in the park; I am no longer inured to the crashes of garage doors or sudden backfiring cars in the city because Upton startles at each one. My time with dogs has permanently changed my perception, my habits, the way I move through space.
Who we are with dogs is who we are as people. Every cruelty, embrace, neglect, indulgence, shows us the measure of ourselves when no one is watching. Who would we become as a species if we try to see them anew, for their sake? We’d be an animal I would be glad to know.

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