[Editor’s note: This article was the basis of a discussion on the KB-L Newslist.
The posts won the “Best of KB-L” for August 2003.]
HUMANS HAVE BEEN LIVING together with dogs for thousands of years, but we still don’t seem to understand them. Those who think long and hard about the
nature of the species have come to radically different conclusions. At one extreme you have the late Vicki Hearne, a trainer and prolific writer who saw
dogs as highly intelligent and noble creatures with some grasp of moral philosophy and even metaphysics. At the other there is the science writer Stephen
Budiansky, who likes to call dogs “con artists” evolutionary parasites whose limited intellect is mostly focused on playing us for saps.
So what makes dogs happy? Is it getting to live as the spoiled and idle surrogate child of emotionally needy humans? Does a rigorous regime of training
and work lead to true canine flourishing? Or are dogs best off when they are allowed to withdraw from human society and revert to something like their
original lupine nature?
These questions may be of special concern to you if your household (like mine) includes a dog. The likelihood of this, by the way, increases with income.
Among American households with annual incomes over $60,000, around 40 percent have a dog, compared with fewer than a quarter of households with incomes
of less than $25,000. Dog owners also tend to be more highly educated than the population as a whole.
And what do they receive in exchange for the $5 billion they spend on dog food and the $7 billion they spend on vet visits every year? Well, in addition
to all the “unconditional love” they think their dogs give them, there are plenty of objective benefits. Dog owners live longer than the dogless,
by an average of one year; they heal faster and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol; they have a better chance of surviving a heart attack. Children
who grow up with dogs show greater self-esteem and empathy. A study a few years ago showed that nursing homes that kept dogs around had lower mortality
The creatures that do all this for us are mysterious because they have not one nature but three. Dogs, of course, originally came from wolves. The split
occurred around 15,000 years ago, according to genetic evidence and the fossil record. Back then, some of the more submissive and docile wolves in
the pack probably began to hang around early human campsites, hoping for a scrap of food. From a Darwinian point of view, this was a smart move. The
descendants of these proto-dogs are now everywhere. How many wolves are there in your neighborhood?
Once dogs domesticated themselves, humans began to impose a second nature on them. Evolution gave way to deliberate manipulation, as dogs were bred for
special purposes like hunting and herding. The idea was to take the predatory instinct of the wolf and filter out the “kill” part of it so that it
would serve man’s ends. Centuries of such selective mating resulted in dogs that wanted to work retrievers and draft animals, search-and-rescuers,
guides and protectors, bomb- and drug-sniffers.
All the while, the foundation of a third canine nature was being laid down. From the beginning, dogs had a childlike aspect: Their characteristic behaviors
of barking and tail-wagging are found only in juvenile wolves, not adults. In medieval times, monks bred dogs to embody Christian virtues like kindness
and loyalty. Today, the celebrated dog-training monks of New Skete, N.Y., sell ample copies of videos and manuals advocating what they call “inseeing,”
or “learning to read” your dog by understanding the type of creature it is.” Increasingly, dogs are also supposed to see into us to resonate with
our emotions, to act as our significant others, to be quasi-humans.
The increasing humanization of dogs is taken up by Jon Katz’s recent book “The New Work of Dogs” (Villard). All dogs are working dogs, Katz reminds us,
but these days their main job is “attending to the emotional lives of Americans, many of whom feel increasingly disconnected from one another” as
a result of TV and computers.
Consider how the canine experience in this country has changed in the last few decades. Dogs used to be allowed to wander the neighborhood and were seldom
walked on leashes. Beyond the initial puppy shots, little was invested in veterinary care. They slept in the basement or outside in a doghouse. “The
notion that they were a part of one’s deepest emotional experiences would have been a joke,” Katz writes, perhaps a little too sweepingly.
Now, he observes, half of all dogs sleep in their owner’s bedroom, and half of those in the bed itself. Visiting a dog club for divorced women, he is told
of the many advantages of dogs over men: “They see you at your worst and love you just the same”; “They’re not insecure about their masculinity”;
“They don’t want to with you at strange times.” He also talks to couples who say their marriages were saved by their dogs.
Katz worries that regarding dogs as therapists with fur might not be good for them. These descendants of wolves were bred to hunt and work. Now they are
being dumbed down and infantilized, turned into obese neurotics like their masters. Yet according to one scientific study he cites, pampering dogs
does not necessarily lead to behavior problems. Dogs fed from the dinner table, in fact, proved less likely to misbehave.
This finding is certainly consistent with Stephen Budiansky’s view of dogs as expert wheedlers. In “The Truth about Dogs” (2000), Budiansky attributed
the evolutionary success of dogs to their knack for faking love and loyalty, and our own compulsive anthropomorphizing. “If biologists weren’t victim
to the same blindness that afflicts us all, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to classify dogs as social parasites,” he wrote.
Understandably, this has enraged a lot of dog-lovers, who might with some justice point out that genuinely felt emotions can be more effective and hence
more likely to evolve than faked ones. And what about that legendary Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby, who kept a 14-year vigil at his master’s grave
until his own death in 1872? That is a touching anecdote, to be sure, yet perhaps it should be taken with a pinch of salt. “I once told a dog trainer
that my dog loved me “The trainer laughed and said that given two pounds of beef liver and a couple of days, my dog would forget that I ever walked
Canine-deflators point to a study published last year by Dr. Brian Hare of Harvard and colleagues which suggested dogs are exquisitely attuned to us, just
not in the way we’d like to think. Rather than looking deep into our souls, dogs have evolved a special talent for picking up on basic human cues.
They watch our hands and eyes to get hints on where food is hidden, for example, whereas chimpanzees, though smarter than dogs in general, show no
such talent. Nor, for that matter, do wolves. This suggests that much of what we think of as canine intelligence is just an understanding of our body
language. Or, as Budiansky would put it, we are the ecological niche that dogs have evolved to exploit.
But what do dogs do when they are left to their own devices? Do they remain slavishly attached to humans?
Ten years ago, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas published a remarkable account titled “The Hidden Life of Dogs.” Her method was simply to let her own dogs a
total of 10 over time, plus a dingo roam around the Cambridge, Mass., area ad libitum, in defiance of leash laws. She followed them as they crossed
busy highways and did other terrifying things. Were they looking for food? For sex? Surprisingly, she found, the dogs spent most of their time and
energy establishing and adjusting their social status vis-a-vis other dogs in the area investigating urine traces, marking over them, and so forth.
This attention to hierarchy makes a great deal of Darwinian sense when you think about it. “Who gets to reproduce in a group of wild canids?” asks Thomas.
“Only the dominant pair, of course, since to raise just one litter takes the strenuous effort of everyone in the pack.” Thomas’s dogs engage in a
full spectrum of humanoid behaviors: they dream of their infancy, they mourn death, they get “married.” When she relocates to a farm in Virginia,
her dogs secretly excavate an enormous den in a hill. They create an autonomous world, ultimately losing interest in humans. In response to the quasi-Freudian
question What do dogs want? Thomas concludes that they want each other, not us. “Human beings are merely a cynomorphic substitute,” she tells us.
This vision of canine flourishing could not be more different from that of Vicki Hearne, who died in 2001. Whereas Thomas disdains human training of dogs,
letting her own dogs teach one another how to behave, Hearne passionately believed that the deep partnership between handler and animal ennobles the
character of both.
In addition to working as a dog trainer, Hearne was a poet and sometime philosopher. In books like “Adam’s Task” (1982) and “Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous
Dog” (1991), she described how an experienced trainer whether circus, equestrian, or dog senses what an animal is about to do: namely, by ascribing
quite complex beliefs and intentions to it. In what sense, then, are these animal beliefs and intentions not “real”? Hearne took a similarly anthropomorphizing
view of canine happiness, arguing (like Aristotle did for humans) that it consists in the satisfaction arising from excellent activity, from “getting
Freud thought the mainstays of human happiness were work and love. If dog-writers like Hearne and Katz are correct, work is a big part of canine well-being
too. But what about love sexual love?
“[F]or the urban dog … expectation of sex is slender in the extreme. He is equipped for it, but the equipment is not used. There is a human conspiracy
again him a conspiracy I could hardly fail to notice since I was taking part in it myself.” So wrote the great English literary editor J.R. Ackerley
(1896-1967) in his classic memoir “My Dog Tulip,” which has been reissued by New York Review Books with a new introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Tulip was Ackerley’s beloved (and, as far as his friends were concerned, exceedingly ill-behaved) Alsatian bitch, and the book is, as he puts it, “the
story of Tulip’s love life.”
Ackerley was determined that Tulip should enjoy the deep satisfactions of and maternity, but much of the memoir is a rich comedy of failed consummations.
“Who would have supposed that mating a bitch could be so baffling a problem?” the author despairingly asks. Whether Tulip’s ultimate success makes
her a happier dog is not entirely clear, but Ackerley at least demonstrates that it is easier to create good literature of canine sex than of the human
After surveying these accounts of what a dog really wants, I cannot help wondering about my own little dachshund as he snoozes on the couch across the
room from me. Clearly he has had all the wolf bred out of him, so there is no hope of him flourishing as an alpha male in an autonomous dog community.
His working career consists of having once posed as a model in Martha Stewart’s magazine, for which he received a fee of 50 dollars. His opportunities
for congress would be severely curtailed by his diminutiveness and odd shape, even if he had not been “fixed.” But his mock-dolorous eyes and his
jaunty little way of walking cause all who pass us on the sidewalk to smile, which means he probably makes a bigger contribution to the sum of human
happiness than his kind master.
Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Wall Street Journal.