I am about to make very bold claim.
But the more I see of dog people– in all sorts of permutations– the more I know that we are experiencing this animal through a distinctly cultural lens.
Dogs exist as the biological entity Canis lupus familiaris, but they also exist as artifacts.
In the West, they are mostly objects of conspicuous consumption, as Thorstein Veblen clearly understood in his Theory of the Leisure Class. They do not have that much economic utility in themselves. Their value is mostly what they say about their owners.
And because dogs have this utility in our society, what we do with dogs says a lot about us.
Even apparently banal things like what we feed them results in severe disagreements. Long, excruciating disagreements. Prey model raw fed versus BARF versus Purina One versus Alpo. Everyone has a theory about what dogs should be eating– and everyone claims to have a monopoly on truth.
But those arguments are tame compared to the real areas of culture war in the dog world.
I would contend that the two biggest areas for conflict in the dog world are in breeding and registry systems and in training methods.
If I want to get a ton of hits on a blog post, I just have to post something that enters into one of those categories.
I could do it right now, but I’m not.
Those two areas are major, major issues within dog culture, because both tell us major things about how people view dogs as well as how they view the dog-human dynamic.
These categories speak to Weltanschauung.
When we start talking about those things, we are actually debating the nature of existence between Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris.
And when we talk about that existence, we are fundamentally talking about our own.
Which is why debates over these two issues can often deteriorate into nasty affairs.
When we talk about breeding and registry issues, we are talking about how we view the future of the dog. We are talking about how we think we can best use the genetic base that was passed down to us from the millennia to make things better for dogs. We are discussing what we think is best for the dogs, both in the present and in the future.
When we are in this category, we are also making very strong value judgments. How do we know that an animal is good enough to be bred? How do we know that the registry system we have chosen is a good one?
Those are weighty questions. Fundamental questions.
And different cultures and different people have fundamentally different values systems in this category.
But the differences are so fundamental that there cannot be anything but conflict.
Even debates in that contentious category are tame compared to the dog training method wars.
Not that many people breed dogs, but everyone who has ever owned a dog must train it.
And what method we use to train our dogs is really nothing more than a reflection on two aspects: what is a dog? and what is my relationship to that animal?
These are reflections of the ego.
The ego can see itself reflected the benevolent person who wants to use methods that nurture the dog as it exist. These are your positive reinforcement types. Behavior problems are the result of misunderstanding the dog as an organism.
Or the ego can see itself as the hard ass, believing the whole world is the result of civilization going too soft. The dog as organism craves to be controlled. When it’s not controlled, it tries to control. That’s where behavior problems come from.
And of course, there are those who call themselves “balanced,” whose egos tell them that it’s better to be unique and independent.
So they borrow from both– and tick off both.
Dogs themselves adjust to whatever people use. They are adaptable enough to put up with our insanity. They’ve been doing so for tens of thousands of years.
Because we use dogs as reflections of ourselves, it is very hard to get any objective science about them.
I know now why so many behavioral scientists would rather study rats or primates. We can have emotional and intellectual distance from those animals that we can never have with dogs.
The dog is an organism, but it is so much a reflection of our own views that we cannot really consider them objectively.
I know I can’t.
And you can’t either.
Last summer, I watched a video of David Mech telling people to think about wolves as if they were any other animal in the ecosystem. I understood and believed him in my rational sense.
But in the real emotional sense, I cannot.
I can easily advocate for predator control for things like hawks and mink, but when it comes to wolves, I just start stammering around.
This visceral reaction first popped up many years ago, when one of my classmates bragged about killing a coyote that he’d caught in one of his fox traps. It was like someone had gone out and shot a dog. It was that upsetting.
But I didn’t care at all about the red and gray foxes he was trapping. He’d killed many of those animals, but they didn’t elicit such an emotional response from me.
I am sure that a lot of my reaction comes from my own really deep appreciation for the dog. Dogs were my best friends as a very young child, and because I lived out in the country some distance from other children my own age, they were my closest playmates.
That early socialization has had a profound impact on how I experience dogs. I see them as partners and companions. I do not see them as babies. I do not see them as underlings.
Of course, there are also evolutionary reasons why we feel so strongly about dogs. Man and dog co-evolved, and how that has affected our perceptions of them must be fully considered before we start trying to come up with all of these grand theories on which we organize our various warring camps and fiefdoms.
But it all really comes down this:
With dogs, it is impossible to be anything but subjective.
And that’s okay with me.
But I think we should all be honest with ourselves and admit it.
Admission might help us look for the truth.
And maybe ease these intense dog culture wars that are raging all around.
I don’t think for a second that these will stop, but I think on the dog training and registry front, we are about to experience something like a Kuhnian scientific revolution. The old institutions that once made up the registry system and the “fancy” are quite moribund. The real debate now is about what will replace them. Similarly, the dog training methodologies of the past are going to become less and less palatable to new generations of dog owners.
That’s reality. The reason why the Dog Whisperer is so popular is that he’s expressing one last final push of the old ways. The fact that his show is so popular means that the old ways will last maybe a decade longer, for his mantras have become popular memes that I hear repeated over and over.
When I was getting into dogs, Patricia McConnell was the gold standard for dog behavior. Now , we’re all hailing Cesar.
As the Millenials move into full adulthood, however, it is very unlikely that those methods will be socially acceptable with the broad base of American society.
This will be the paradigm shift that will fundamentally change dog culture.
Those who are fighting on the hard-line of dog training might as well pay attention to this coming revolution.
It’s not far off– maybe 20 or 25 years.
But by then some other crazy dog culture war will erupt and it will be as existential as dog training method and registry and breeding issues are today.
People cannot exist without conflict somewhere.
I know dog people can’t.
I should finally note that within the various fiefdoms, cultures, and cliques within the dog world being an asshole is viewed as a virtue.
Especially toward those who have very real questions and then come up with hard data to refute various long-held myths.
That’s where you can sound virtuous by being so happy that a new disease has popped up in a show strain of your breed and just giddily laugh about it how “It kills show dogs!”
The absolute worst thing you can do in the dog world is be independent and objective about these cultures, cliques, and fiefdoms.
But it’s probably the best way to figure out what the heck is going on.
Because if you buy into the mythology and dogma too much, the scales grow on your eyes.
And you start making morbid jokes about diseases killing dogs.
And you laugh.
You’ve become the virtuous asshole.
My advice: question every single thing a dog person tells you.
Ask for the numbers.
Ask that they show you the money.
If something seems stupid and magical in its logic, ask for an explanation.
Do not believe.
Even if everyone goes nuts on you, you should never give up questioning things.
That’s how free societies should exist.
Dog cultures are not free societies.
But they will become freer if you learn to ask the questions.