Our Dogs, Our Selves

Once upon a time, the United States was not tyrannized by its dogs. The American dog, like the American child, held little interest for human adults. The dog had practical utility. It could herd, guard, fetch the duck you shot. And it had emotional utility: It was a boon companion, loyal as the day is long. It mattered insofar as it was affectionate, loyal, good-tempered, companionable (in other words, insofar as it was human). But no one cared about its needs, its dogginess.

Just as America’s kid-mania now makes us exquisitely sensitive to “the children” and their supposedly fragile psyches, so we have become attuned to canine psychology. Behavior has become the hottest vet specialty, and you can’t turn on the local news without seeing some pet shrink telling you about what your dog is feeling. It used to be the dog’s job to fit into our world. Now it is our job to fit into the dog’s world. We used to expect our dogs to understand us. Now we are supposed to understand them. The dog is no longer man’s best friend. We are the dog’s best friend.

What explains the rise of dog-centrism? I can think of several reasons. It may be that (childless) dog owners are simply aping the maniacal behavior of parents. It may be that dog owners–like parents–have more money than ever to splurge on their darlings. Or it may be that the same psychological culture that tells us to prod and examine and be sensitive to our kids has trickled down to the next layer of loved ones.

Whatever the cause, pet writers have invented a wildly popular new genre: the dog-on-the-couch book. The trend began with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Hidden Life of Dogs several years ago but has now become a full-fledged industry. There is a bumper crop of new dog psychology books. Thomas just wrote The Social Lives of Dogs, a more-or-less sequel to Hidden Life. Nicholas Dodman recently published Dogs Behaving Badly, a guide to canine mental illness and a follow-up to his popular The Dog Who Loved Too Much. Stanley Coren’s How to Speak Dog attempts to explain canine communication. Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs, which has been pilloried for its supposed anti-doggism, is an evolutionary argument about why dogs are the way they are.

The books offer two basic approaches to the dog mind, one that is unsurprising and depressing, the other that is surprising and quite wonderful. Dodman represents the unsurprising form. Dodman is a kind of Doctor Feelgood for the pet set–a pill dispenser to misbehaving hounds. His Dogs Behaving Badly is an encyclopedia of dog misbehavior and the drugs and behavior therapies he uses to treat it. It’s very comprehensive but not nearly as entertaining as The Dog Who Loved Too Much, a collection of Oliver Sacks-style medical mysteries–why is that dog mauling one of its owners? And why is that one freaking out during thunderstorms?–solved by Detective Dodman and his magic pharmacy. Dodman seems to have a pill for every pooch: Prozac for aggression, Phenobarbital for “Springer rage,” tranquilizers for “separation anxiety,” Naltrexone and melatonin for obsessive licking, Buspirone for thunderstorm phobia, etc., etc., and I do mean, etc. When I interviewed Dodman earlier this year, he said that vets are trying every kind of drug used for human mental illness on pets.

Dodman, besides being a graceful writer, is a sensitive vet, and he’s adamant that medication is no good without behavioral therapy. In Dogs Behaving Badly, pills are a last resort after other therapy. Still, there’s something painfully familiar about the dog-drugging industry. It is rooted in the same bleak forces that have made us a Prozac nation: the quick-fix belief that pills cure mental problems and the lure of profit, in this case cash for drug companies that repurpose antidepressants and tranquilizers for vets.

The real insights in the dog books don’t concern drugging dogs like humans. They concern studying dogs like dogs. The books by Coren, Thomas, and Budiansky wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Coren is a dog fanatic who is searching for a distinct language in every canine twitch and growl. Thomas’ lovely book is a memoir of how her dogs organize their lives and her home. And Budiansky, a dog skeptic, argues that dogs are parasites who feign loyalty and affection in order to bilk us out of food and shelter.

But at bottom, these writers–as well as Dodman when he is not writing prescriptions–celebrate a very similar conception of doggishness, and one that is very different from the Lassie-land ideal. The new dog books insist on understanding dogs without anthropomorphizing them. Popular literature about dogs has always assigned them the human virtues of loyalty, bravery, love. The dog psych writers are less interested in dogs’ humanity than their lupinity.

They view dogs not as adjunct humans but as second-rate wolves. Dogs, they tell us again and again, behave like juvenile wolves. Dogs prize social status and the stability of the pack, and their behavior must be interpreted with that in mind. We must stop seeing our dogs as friends and start seeing them as pack mates. That’s how they see us, after all. When a dog brings you a stick and insists that you throw it, the dog is not necessarily playing; it is asserting dominance over you by forcing you to do what it wants. When a dog yawns, it’s not bored; it is trying to pacify an aggressive dog or human nearby. When a dog licks your face, it is not showing affection: It is begging for food or submitting. When your dog stands by you and barks at an intruder, it is not proving its bravery and loyalty. It is being a coward: It is relying on the top dog in the pack–you–to protect it.

The dog shrinks have mostly jettisoned silly anthropomorphism and offer us a grittier and more satisfying portrait of dogs. In these books, dogs are social integrators. Because they want a stable and pleasant pack life, they submit to their owners, play with their pack mates (us), accept their place in the pack hierarchy (below us, above cats), resist outside disruptions to the pack, and do everything they can to ensure social stability. The dog they have given us is a very modern hero, a champion of family values–but for his own doggy reasons, not ours.

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Illustration by Nina Frenkel.