Dogs are strange beasts; they are the wolves which lay down with lambs, the predators which do not bite. And our relationship to dogs has been one that has taken us from prey to predator to care taker.
But dogs are very important to a lot of people, both in terms of companionship and in terms of what they can do for us. Here I’m going to look a little bit at how we got to where we are today, at puppy farming, at dogs which are labelled dangerous and at how we speak for our dogs.
A bit of background
Dogs have been with us for thousands of years and may well have contributed to our success as a species, allowing us to venture into parts of the world where we would have struggled to survive without “man’s best friend”. Undisputed evidence shows our relationship started at least 15,000 years ago, with disputed evidence more than doubling this.
But dogs are not a fixed concept. Since the early days of domestication, we have bred and manipulated the species to meet our needs. Some we have bred to be cute and friendly, others to be tough and fierce and some we’ve bred to excel at very specific roles. Today we have over 300 breeds of dog (some people argue it’s less, it seems to be a controversial area…). And as with most other things in our human world, there are fashions and trends in dog breed popularity. Right now, pugs and miniature dogs are in vogue but who knows what the next fashionable dog will be?!
Sometimes the choice of dog is down to personal preference or trends, but sometimes prospective owners are looking for particular characteristics as they have a particular job in mind for the dog. Examples of these jobs include:
- Helper dogs
- Police dogs
- Dogs in the military
- Hunting dogs
- Rescue dogs
- Sheep dogs
- Guard dogs
- We even sent a dog into space…
But where do these dogs come from? Well, a certain number of them are unlucky enough to start life in a puppy farm…
In the UK, we spend £10.6 billion pounds a year on our dogs. A lot of which goes towards buying puppies. But despite this vast amount of money changing hands, we don’t necessarily know where are beloved pets are coming from.
You might think it’s easy enough to go online, search for a puppy, see a picture and buy it from a stranger, meeting to exchange money and puppy. Easy. But there is a huge puppy farming industry and they know how to make sales. Adverts are put online as if they are different individuals selling dogs from good homes, photos are included which give the illusion of a household environment and the dealer may even make your life a little easier by offering to drop round with the puppy or meet you somewhere. The phone numbers for these adverts will be different as will the names of the sellers. And if you are buying a purebred, you will be given fake paperwork as well.
According to the Kennel Club, in 2014, 41% of people who bought a puppy did not see the puppy with its mother and 53% did not see its breeding environment, meaning those puppies are highly likely to have been bred by puppy farmers and sold by third parties.
These puppies may be born on farms in the UK or abroad, indeed it is estimated that 50,000 puppies come over from Ireland each year and almost that many from Europe. The puppies imported tend to arrive starved, dehydrated, with a low immune system, ill and without the appropriate injections. They are likely to have been taken away from their mum too early and about 10% of them die despite getting vet care. Of those dogs which aren’t found by customs and which get sold, about 20% die within the first six months.
The mother gets impregnated, gives birth and very shortly after her babies are taken away and she gets hormones and impregnated again. It’s a vicious cycle which ends with the mum dying after about 3 or 4 years because of exhaustion. In this time, she is kept in a tiny cage, fed mechanically and doesn’t get the level of care that we require of our food animals.
If someone is found guilty of puppy farming, they receive 6 months in prison, in a cage which doesn’t even compare to the cage that the dogs are kept in.
Dangerous dogs: an unfair sentence?
The cycle of abuse can understandably lead some dogs to behave badly and illegal breeding of illegal breeds can mean that some animals are considered dangerous from birth. These dogs don’t stand a chance and should never have been bred as the law requires them to be put down because of their breed. No humane person would breed these.
For those dogs which are not illegal breeds and which are labelled as dangerous, their status may be temporary, but can come with a life sentence. For example, in one programme I watched, there was an extremely aggressive dog which strongly resisted being taken by the dog warden but within a week, having been cared for and fed, it was ready to be rehomed and showed virtually no aggression. It had acted as it had because it was scared, hungry, abused and had been trained to defend the house it was it. It was not a malicious creature, it just found itself in a bad situation.
Because illegal breeders don’t care about where the dog ends up, they can find themselves with bad owners who may abuse or neglect them. Then when the dogs behave inappropriately, they are labelled dangerous dogs and suffer the consequences whilst the human gets off fairly lightly. And unlike the animals we saw in the past, these dogs rarely get the respect of a trial. If they do, it’s likely to be trial by media and in some rare circumstances, public outcry and pressure has meant that a fair hearing has been given. But this is far from the norm and in most cases there is no one to speak for these dogs, unlike for their more loved and cared for canine siblings.
Speaking for Fido
We do not know what are dogs are really thinking or experiencing but that doesn’t stop us from projecting. How often have you heard someone refer to a dog feeling guilty because they ate the cake from the worktop or destroyed your favourite shoes? Research shows that dogs do not experience guilt, it is far more likely that they have picked up on your mood and are afraid. The “guilty look” may be something they’ve developed because it means they are less likely to feel the wrath of your temper.
Alexandra Horowitz delivers an excellent talk about how we anthropomorphise dogs behaviour and has done research which tries to test out these assumptions. I’m not going to repeat it all, you should watch the talk, but she debunks the idea that dogs feel jealousy as well as guilt and thus challenges our assumptions that we can speak for our dogs and understand what they mean.
She also discusses the very different perspective of the world that dogs have to us. They live in a scent-centric world instead of our vision-centric one. They see from a different height and have different priorities and this informs how they perceive the world. If you go into a room, you might be more attuned to finding a chair, whereas a dog might be more attuned to the crumbs of food under the table. We have different lives and different things are important to us and this shapes our experiences of being in the world. And this is often neglected when we take on the task of speaking for our dogs.
In The Divinity of Dog Writing, Nathan Goldman asks:
Can we encounter dogs in their otherness? Or are we doomed to see them as, at best, versions of ourselves?
The article poses humans as interpreters, as flawed interpreters, of our dogs and how our human-centric existence essentially means we are speaking for them through human-tinted glasses. How often do we misunderstand our beloved pets? And what are the consequences of this?
For [Donna] Haraway, to truly love dogs is not to treat them like furry children. Dogs “are not a projection,” she writes, “nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything. They are dogs”.
After writing this post I got an email directing me to Are dogs trying to tell us something with their expressions? which may be of interest.