Our species’ relationship with dogs is something I think about a lot. Canis lupus familiaris was the world’s first domesticate and, arguably, unique in the fullness of its partnership with the human race. Dogs have lived with us, hunted with us, worked with us, eaten with us, and slept with us for ten thousand years. What are the parameters of this union? What are our responsibilities to our furry friends?
There are so many decisions to consider and justify. Spaying and neutering, kennel training, whether to allow them up on the furniture. Each of these seems to reveal a deep ethical conundrum. Even the inappropriate description of ourselves as “owners” of these animals is problematic, though we’ve yet to come up with a widely-accepted replacement term. Perhaps because we’ve never been able to fully articulate their relationship to us. Friends, pets, children, slaves?
The last five months in Central America have given me a window into a different way for dogs to co-exist with humans. In each country I’ve been to in this region, the attitude toward dogs has been very different than what I am used to back in the English-speaking world. Leashes are a rare sight. Dogs wander the streets in great numbers, living and loving freely, taking food where they can find it, and, incredibly, checking both ways before they cross the street. They aren’t all strays. Many have homes they return to for meals or rest.
I’m reminded of the old Disney movie — our Canadian dogs, who we flew down with us, have more in common with “Lady,” while the local canines live the life of “the Tramp.” Both lifestyles would seem to have their up- and down-sides, but in the final calculation, who is happier? How were dogs “meant” to live?
Jack London wrote of “The Call of the Wild,” implying a dual personality in our canine companions. They may respect and love their masters, he wrote, but they are also wolves, and there’s a part of them, a type of genetic memory, that remembers and yearns for their wilder heritage. Cesar Milan makes some complementary arguments, suggesting that when dogs live with humans, they are essentially just imprinting on us as the leaders of their pack, using essentially the same social machinery in a new context. PETA also takes a stance against companion animals, seeing it as, perhaps, indulgent or a violation of their freedom.
There may be something to these arguments, but it’s also true that dogs have become something different from wolves. They’ve developed behaviors, instincts and desires that don’t exist in their wild cousins. An incredible ability to understand human tone, facial expressions and body language, beyond even chimpanzees, our closest relatives, is the exclusive province of dogs. There’s an eagerness to make us happy, a need to stay close to us, a sense of abandonment if we leave them alone.
I don’t want to make the fallacy of equivocating an entire animal species with its individuals. But Aboriginal legends about ancient pacts of friendship between man and dog have a certain psychological power, perhaps because, from an evolutionary standpoint, the decisions of these proto-dogs really are written into the DNA of their descendants.
It was the wolves who were the most curious, the most brave, the least fearful of those strange bipeds, who would eventully spawn today’s mastiffs, beagles and collies. We say dogs were the first animal our species domesticated, but before we began breeding in earnest, there was a period of self-selection, where hesitant wolves came ever closer, feeding on the leftovers from our hunt, sleeping on the periphery of our camps and alerting us to danger.
It’s not inaccurate to say they chose us before we chose them. And when they began perhaps sleeping next to us rather than simply near us, birthing among us, growing up with us, sharing our warmth in the chill nights, our species became truly intertwined. They were bred to love us, but this most significant quality of our proverbial best friends may well have been self-bred.
Or so I like to tell myself. In Latin America, dogs are almost never treated as members of the family. There is a separation. Dogs live outside, wander through the streets freely, are rarely fixed. They have complete freedom, but there are things they don’t have. Our neighbor and landlord had a dog he called Osa (the feminine form of “bear” in Spanish, this despite him being an unfixed male). Osa was a former street dog that snuck into the gate a few times and was finally allowed to stay.
Each night he would find a way out of the enclosed property and each morning he would make his way back. It would seem he had the best of both worlds, plenty of food, complete freedom, shelter (of a kind) when he needed it. Somehow, though, it wasn’t enough. We would let our dogs into our house and he would (unusually for a street dog) try to follow. He would follow me around and nose me aggressively, seeking the physical affection his reluctant owner rarely gave.
In North America, the freedom Osa has is largely limited to felines. In the U.S. or Canada, dogs simply don’t have the option to wander loose outside of an off-leash park or their own backyards. But even if our laws allowed for this kind of freedom, would any dog choose it over a loving family? The dejected figure of Osa sleeping outside our front door day after day suggests an answer, if not a definitive one.
It’s our charge as their caregivers to make the decisions that shape our animals’ lives. It’s our hope that we manage to choose the life that’s best for them, both physically and emotionally. I’d love to be able to provide my dogs everything: a warm hearth, a doggie door, and acres of forest outside it (with no vehicle traffic to worry about for miles around). What I can actually offer them is a much smaller fenced-in yard and trips to the off-leash dog park a few times a week. I’d rather not restrict their movements, but because they are members of my family, I would no more risk them wandering the city streets than I would a five-year-old child.
So, if it has to be one or the other: live free or live with us? It’s still not an easy question and I won’t claim my personal decision has to be everyone’s, but I’ve decided I don’t really believe in “outdoor” dogs, essentially due to the isolation it entails. Could I be wrong? Maybe. But, as I write this, our rescue beagle is snuggling a little closer to me even as he dreams, and that allows me to hope that the life we offer our dogs really is what they might have chosen for themselves.
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