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The Dog Delusion

Why must everyone love dogs, exactly?
Art for The Dog Delusion.


Few omens of perennial bachelorhood strike fear in my heart like a dog in an online-dating profile. It’s not the popularity of dogs that worries me, but that so many eligible partners allege some connection between a potential mate’s desirability and his or her affinity for dogs. Even on Tinder, which emphasizes photographs of the user and allows only limited space for text, single people consistently blight their bios with phrases like “must love dogs,” “I probably swiped right for your dog,” or “extra points if you have a dog.”

My parents didn’t allow my siblings and me to own pets of any kind, and I happen to be dreadfully allergic to cats and dogs. I am solidly nondogmatic about canines, I’m neither a fan nor a detractor, and women’s pet preferences tend not to factor into my evaluations of their suitability. What’s most troubling about pro-dog rhetoric is the underlying presumption that soft-hearted, caring people love dogs and only hardened curmudgeons don’t. I’m willing to incur a few dating demerits for my unfamiliarity and consequent indifference, but I question the reasoning behind the use of dog fandom as a barometer for decency or compassion.

It’s only a virtue to be man’s best friend if the given man is a morally upstanding one worth befriending.

My own associations with dogs are not uniformly heartwarming and innocuous. After all, it’s only a virtue to be man’s best friend if the given man is a morally upstanding one worth befriending. This means I can’t so readily dismiss the fact that dogs have served as white supremacy’s trusty accomplices. For every daring Lassie rescue or tear-jerking reunion in Because of Winn-Dixie, there is a harrowing literary passage in which bloodthirsty hounds race after escaped slaves in the antebellum South. (Then again, if your allegiance is with the quadrupeds in the latter scenario, I suppose foregoing dinner and a movie will save us both precious time.) Dogs aid Harriet Jacobs’ maniacal owner in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl when she seeks shelter with waiting abolitionists in the north. In William Styron’s fictional The Confessions of Nat Turner, a dog sniffs out the titular hero as he hides from slavecatchers in a hole under a pile of fence rails, a discovery that leads to Turner’s execution.

It’s likely not coincidence that dogs are also tools of the modern carceral state. In the second verse of Jay-Z’s iconic “99 Problems,” the threat of approaching police dogs is the trump card in Hova’s argument with a shady cop who’s hip to the contraband in the rapper’s car. Despite Jay’s regrettable use of a term meaning female dog to boast of his facility with the ladies, K-9s are decidedly among Mr. Knowles’ ninety-nine problems.

I understand that sniffer dogs, like the dogs of slaveowners, are instruments and not agents of oppression, but the most fervent dog admirers anthropomorphize their pets to the point of framing them as moral actors. There are people who credit dogs for being more reliable evaluators of character than humans. A popular, insufferable meme bearing the superior mantra, “I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person” superimposed, apocryphally, over Bill Murray’s face is a case in point. The notion that a being that licks its own genitals for fun is a trustworthy arbiter of human worth is not merely dubious, but pernicious.

I do not mean that loving a dog makes you deficient, or that human-dog connections are without beauty, substance, or gravity. I just wonder if there’s something dangerous about championing a dependent, hierarchical relationship as an ideal realization of love or friendship. It seems to me that what is both most challenging and most appealing about love is the willful surrender to the thrall of a fallible, mutable being who is one’s equal and not one’s subordinate. Owning a dog is an inadequate dress rehearsal for playing the stalwart of a person who has bad days and bad breath, divergent taste in movies and restaurants, who suffers career setbacks and loses loved ones. Taking care of Fido shouldn’t be equated with devotion to someone who is not so easily cornered into contrition, schooled into obedience, or bribed into silence. I’m sure dogs can make their owners feel needed, hurt, and rejected in formative ways, but if I’m searching for a benchmark of a given person’s capacity for understanding and kindness, I’m much more interested in how they treat their siblings, or their mother, or food service workers. Showing patience and grace with a downy companion that relies on you for food and shelter just doesn’t seem like all that high a bar.

I just wonder if there’s something dangerous about championing a dependent, hierarchical relationship as an ideal realization of love or friendship.

Frenzied dog worship can hover dangerously close to being anti-humanist, or a sanitized version of misanthropy dressed up as a saccharine weakness for fur and four legs. It’s not uncommon for a Tinder user to smugly profess a preference for animals over people, a sentiment that seems anodyne at first, but has some pretty dark implications when I catch myself playing a game of “Who do you think America reviles more?” Try choosing between A) disgraced NFL quarterback Michael Vick for doing odious things to dogs (a crime for which he was arrested, convicted and did hard time), or B) Bill Cosby for an extensive record of accusations of doing heinous things to women (a series of crimes for which, until rather recently, he appeared very likely to escape legal culpability entirely). I would have to go with Vick, and perhaps it’s not even that close. When Vick sought a reserve role with the Pittsburgh Steelers two summers ago, over 34,000 fans signed a petition in favor of denying the former no. 1 overall pick a contract with the team. By contrast, a petition demanding that Temple University—Cosby’s alma mater—sever ties with the comedian topped out at just under 1,600 signatures. One could make the case that a few Pro Bowl appearances and owning the all-time record for yards rushed by a quarterback don’t generate the same level of public goodwill as The Cosby Show and a slew of mediocre Jell-O commercials, but I think there’s a simpler explanation, namely that as a culture, we can more readily empathize with the suffering of our favorite domesticated animals than human victims of sexual assault. For starters, dogs are much less susceptible to victim blaming. Innocent, thoughtless creatures seemingly driven only by instinct and reflex are immune to suggestions that they somehow invited their own fate. Women, in the eyes of many, are done in by their complicated sexual history or consumption of alcohol or choice of revealing clothes.

In a season six episode of Game of Thrones, unrepentant sadist Ramsay Bolton suffers his long overdue comeuppance when Sansa Stark feeds him to his own dogs. It’s a scene that undermines the romance that dogs epitomize loyalty, and is all the more illuminating alongside comedian Bill Burr’s observation that dogs mimic the temperaments and behaviors of their owners. As Burr learned from taking his own pugnacious pup to a dog whisperer, your dog’s disposition is probably an indication of your own habits. Whether or not a potential mate owns or admires dogs is not a credible index of their virtue, but if the new boo does own a dog, your impressions of their pet might be more of a tell. If your date’s dog meets you with incessant barking, growling mistrust, and a reckless disregard for personal space,that could be the shape of things to come from the dog’s master.

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