Prosperity-based organizations like PETA and HSUS exploit the emotions of our relationships with pets, especially dogs, and probably wonder what they are going to do in the coming period of frugality and resetting of priorities. Many people are releasing pets rather than pampering them. There has been a quiet behind-the-scenes but quickly growing and deepening body of research into just what our relationship to animals really is.
Let’s look at dogs. Terrierman and his widening circle of co-thinkers have always based their relationship to their animals on work. In this case the “work” wasn’t anything that would support a family, but rather a sport he calls “digging on the dogs.” The idea is to take terriers to the field (REAL fields where crops are grown), encourage them to find “varmints” (groundhogs, foxes), chase them down their burrows and keep them pinned in there while the Terrierman digs them up. What happens then is situational: some varmints are released and others are killed, depending on the wishes of the farmer, the season, the population density, and so on.
The point I’m after is that terriers developed from dogs who did this with relish and were preserved as breeds by keeping pups who were good at it while eliminating pups who weren’t. In Victorian times dog breeds became the objects of the constant struggle for class, prestige and status among middle class people and the AKC formed. This organization “certified” provenance, meaning parenthood, rather than performance. To an amateur it was appearance that counted, rather than performance.
As early as the Seventies, when I was an animal control officer, a Portland dog show judge complained that the “standard” for Staffordshire terriers was being changed by the increased breeding of “pit bulls.” This is the opposite of what was supposed to happen, which was inbreeding to keep color, coat-type, size, and so on, like the royalty of Europe. Pit bulls, regardless of whether they had papers or provenance, were bred for performance in the most grisly way: winning dog fights. They have ended up being vital, potent, strong dogs: dominant.
Dog breeds who compete on the basis of appearance have degenerated to the point of there being a huge scandal over their many basic structural and metabolic defects. Their lifespans are shortened, their maintenance is expensive, and many of them have more or less lost their minds. Seriously. One of the most dangerous dogs we ever impounded -- actually a deputy sheriff shot it in the field so we simply removed the body -- was a golden retriever with “spaniel fever,” which is a kind of rage that spaniel breeds can slip into. Very little is known about it.
Research into the dog genome is moving quickly, esp. the search for genes that code for behavior. Dog shows based on appearance are losing their sponsors, while dog shows based on performance -- even invented obedience courses in which the dog hustles up an inclined plane or squiggles through a culvert -- are expanding. Since the owner runs the course alongside, this is good exercise as well as a good hobby. (Not quite as arduous as “digging on the dogs.”) Scientists are interested by how pliable dog genes are: large or small, rough-coated or hairless, born-to-run or purse-pooch -- they can all interbreed.
The origin of dogs is also a busy sector of paleolithic research. Some think dogs evolved from wolves -- others think not. A good deal of energy has to go to figuring out HOW to figure out the answer. But there is general agreement that dogs voluntarily joined people at some point in history, probably because they were after scraps and carrion (just as humans were in very early times), and were tolerated because they were useful until they became enmeshed. This is in contrast to cats whose mutual usefulness is always guarded. One writer points out that horses must be “tamed” one by one and if they are left to run without human contact, even over a winter, a reconciliation will have to be negotiated. And cows or pigs are always dangerous unless they were hand-raised.
These distinctions are pretty much unknown to our urban populations and humane societies pay little attention to these animals, except maybe horses, which were the original motivation for the American Humane Association in the days when horsepower meant an animal with four legs. (The Humane Society of the United States tries to give people the idea they are the ONLY humane society.)
Temple Grandin, who has released a new book, pays a great deal of attention to food animals. She doesn’t deplore the eating of meat, but she does feel food animals should be treated humanely, with as little fear, pain and confinement as possible. What’s more, since her brain is uniquely wired (labeled “autism”) she uses that advantage to help redesign the handling of animals when they are killed and butchered. Because she has a lively awareness that humans are also confined and killed (though not usually eaten), she also puts energy into thinking about prisoners or medical patients or even shoppers or travelers in confusing spaces. This willingness to see humans as also animals, rather than an obsession with animals being like humans, is probably what separates the two major divisions of thought about pets.
In the last decades we -- in particular the younger ones among us -- have chanted the mantra that “you can do anything, have anything, if you really, really want it.” The plain fact that some things are mutually exclusive has been rejected outright. Want a high status dog even though it will cost you a lot of money and will suffer because of genetic deformities (pushed-in noses, eye problems, skeletal mis-development) and will have to live all alone in your house or apartment except at night when you’re asleep? Well, if you reeeeaaaaaaly want it. . . And if it gets to be a problem, well, you can just take it to a shelter or turn it loose. (Oh, here’s a plot for a movie! What if that dog were a boy? Well, you know, not a REAL boy.)
One of the most interesting books just released is called “Milk Teeth: A Memoir of a Woman and her Dog,” by Robbie Pfeufer Kahn from Rutgers University Press, December, 2008. According to the review (I haven’t read the book), this is about a high-spirited black lab puppy, evidently bred to have the characteristics useful for a hunting dog, traits that must be shaped by training, bought by a young woman who had a problematic childhood. The relationship between them became family therapy as she acted out behavior she didn’t know she had learned and struggled to change the dog’s rough behavior. The good news is that with a little help they both succeeded. The reviewer says the story is "poignant, raw and at times humorous." Sounds authentic to me.