What's a Dog For?

What's a Dog For?
July 21, 2011 by Steve Duno

I just finished work on a new co-authored book project, dealing with the dog rescue efforts of a man who's been fighting for the rights of dogs abroad, in "developing" nations.  In the trenches for years, he's done his best to rescue, relocate, feed, heal and protect abused dogs, in places where the animal rights traditions we take for granted still struggle to be born.  On many occasions, he has had his life threatened, by unsavory locals hell bent on keeping the same dysfunctional status quo.  This guy is like the James Bond of dog rescuers, and it's been my pleasure to help him get a book together.  The book took six months to write, and honestly, I think it nearly killed me emotionally.

Without delving into the actual content of the book (I'll want you to buy it for that), it explores the relationships people in other countries have with dogs, and how these relationships differ from our own.  And, let me tell you; never believe for a moment that love for dogs is a universal, because it is not, not at all.  If anything, what we feel in our hearts for canines is not the worldwide standard, but rather a subjective exception.  What I want to talk about here is why that is, and what if anything we might do about it.

What is a pet, really?  For us, perhaps, a pet is a companion animal, there to accept and reflect love and camaraderie, and to provide us with an boundless supply of devotion and joy.  Maybe that's it, but, honestly, I'm not sure anymore just who dogs are to us.  I still like to think of dogs not as just buddies or petting posts, but as partners, serving some useful purpose, as did the dogs of old.  I still feel that they need jobs to feel right about themselves, and to win the respect of the world.  Even tiny toy poodles named Sylvie or Buttercup, perched proudly atop their owner's laps, or ancient cattle dogs named Rex or Mike, asleep on sofas, want to earn their keep, I think.  But that's just me, and I digress.

How ever we choose to define "pet," I have come to believe that the term owes its existence, at least in part to the ongoing socio-economic conditions of a society, and to the resulting cultural adaptations adopted over time.  In other words, pet ownership is a luxury- a phenomenon of surplus.  Wherever good economic times produce extra money and spare time, the "extravagance" of pet ownership can take place.  But when times are tough for a very long time, the last thing people struggling to feed their kids are thinking of is what breed of dog to get.  The line between pet and nuisance, or even pet and food- blurs.

I have seen it myself in impoverished areas; invariably, the dogs there still might serve some basic utilitarian purpose, such as guarding, herding, or ratting.  But in some places, even that ceases to be useful; a dog becomes akin to vermin, or, in certain places, lunch.  Unneutered strays wander about, perpetually cautious, always hungry, never trusting. 

In Southern Italy I was once stalked by a glassy-eyed, ribby shepherd/Samoyed mix, half-crazed with hunger, convinced I was either lunch, or his assassin.  In Tijuana, I watched kids with sticks bat mangy, terrified Chihuahua mixes down alleyways, as if playing street hockey.  In parts of Asia, Saint Bernards are raised for food.  In Puerto Rico, hotel owners hire men to poison beach dogs with bowls of anti-freeze, to clear the strays out and make it cleaner for the tourists.  Barbaric to us, routine in much of the world.

Perhaps other cultures simply do not need pets the way we do, and therefore have no engrained love for them.   This begs the question: why do we crave a dog's attentions?  Are we by nature a lonely people?  Do we not get the attentions we crave from our own species?  Are these other, less dog-friendly cultures simply better socialized and family-oriented, and therefore less likely to need a separate, simpler-minded species to be there for us at our beck and call, as some sort of affection surrogate? 

I don't think that's it.  But, as you can see, pondering an answer to this query, in my opinion, cannot avoid delving into questions of a cultural nature.  For whatever reasons, some societies simply do not see dogs the way we do.  But even if this is the case, must it then follow that dogs in less friendly environs must suffer abuse, torture, starvation, and ignominious death?  Why the added sadism?

Our culture tends to despise rats, not only for their historic role in spreading the bubonic plague, but in the way their infestations often herald human disease, poverty, famine, corruption and ill health.  Where rats go, so goes the neighborhood, I guess.  But even the lowly rat seems to get more respect from us that do dogs in certain parts of the world.  When we kill them, we usually try to do it in as methodical and humane a manner possible.  Many of us even keep them as pets.  But the dog- oh, could I tell you stories from the new book- the dog gets treated so very badly in some places, and it just confounds me.  Is there more to it that I'm just not getting?

I know; even in this country, dogs get treated badly.  Dog fighting still goes on.  But do you personally know anyone who fights dogs?  Which elements in our society participate in dog fighting?  Usually the lowest of the low (with the possible exception of certain millionaire sports figures we all know).  Usually it's ex-convicts, gang bangers, drug dealers, or other misanthropes, and not the mainstream culture.  But in other countries, I am sorry to say, dog abuse is mainstream.  Like roaches, they get hacked, poisoned, burned, run over, hung.  And then their executioners go home and kiss their kids goodnight.

How the dog, humanity's faithful working partner for tens of thousands of years, could become so unimportant to so many billions of people in the world, I just cannot fathom.  I know it is true with our friend the cat, too, and was even more so back in the Middle Ages, when they, thought to be associated with the devil and witchcraft, were slaughtered by the millions (ironically contributing to the rise in the rat population, the vector for the plague-carrying flea). 

But religion or superstition seems to play no role in the sad lot of dogs overseas.  Perhaps it is a simple desensitization of entire cultures to the character and legacy of the canine, who, once vital to our survival, now serves little everyday purpose worldwide, save as companions.  Perhaps much of the world, seeing little need for them as workers, have lost that bond humans once took for granted.  When dogs ceased to be vital to our own safety and economy, we adapted them to our need for simple companionship.  This adaptation, perhaps, is slow to happen abroad.  Maybe that's it?

Even after co-authoring the aforementioned book, I can't tell you what the answer is.  I just know that, if you are a dog in Asia or the Caribbean or Africa or Mexico or South America, or a hundred other places, then the odds of you living the good life, of finding a loving family and making it to a ripe old age, of getting your photo in Modern Dog Magazine- well, those odds are pretty damn thin.  And I'd like to know why.

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