What is the nature of our relationship with our dogs? In first world countries such as ours, we like to think that we have dogs because it’s beneficial for them and for us – a relationship of mutual worth. We breed them and rescue them from “substandard” conditions for this reason.
We keep our dogs in food and in turn they keep us company. They listen to us, put up with our drama, show us eternal patience and perform when we ask them to. We hunt and gather for them, give them fresh water and a roof over their heads. We lock them in crates, yards and restrain them on leashes. They in turn are forever grateful for the obvious fact that we keep them safe. We play with them, train them, pet them, care for their health needs, dress them up and put them above our human relationships. Surely this is something they need; after all, we insist they get along well with their peers, even the pushy and obnoxious ones. We post pictures of them all over social media and tell them all the time how amazing they are (some of us even have ribbons to prove it)…. in return, they lick our chins and allow us to hug them over and over. Surely this is the epitomy of a mutual relationship, isn’t it?
We have long agreed that dogs are domesticated animals and as such cannot care for themselves. Some people have taken that to mean that a dog is much like a small child who cannot make the simplest of decisions or care for themselves in the slightest. Considering that there are 800,000,000+ canis familiaris in the world today and that of that number only approximately 15% are under human breeding control (Coppinger, SPARCS 2013)…. how can that assumption be true? We are certain that only a very small portion of dogs are kept in a way that the majority of animal rights advocates would find acceptable, so how can they be thriving?
In the book DOGS by Ray and Lorna Coppinger, 4 types of relationship dynamics are outlined, of which one is mutualism. Mutualism, by definition, means that both parties benefit equally in a relationship. Commensalism is “a symbiotic relationship that is good for one species but does nothing for the other.”. Interestingly, contrary to our assumption about animal life around the world, the Coppingers use as an example of commensalism the multitude of dogs who live by scavenging in village dumps. They go on to say “They [Dogs] get a food benefit from living close to people, while the people get little or no benefit from the dogs. Some people would contend that they scavenger benefits the village by cleaning up the refuse. In that case, rats and raccoons should be given similar credit.” The third type of relationship identified is parasitism: a relationship of benefit only to one party and at the expense of the other. Lastly, amensalism – “a living together in which one species hurts another, often unknowingly and without benefit to itself.” While it is beyond the scope of this post to go in to detail about all of these symbiotic relationship types, I would strongly encourage getting the book and giving it a thorough read with an open mind in regards to this topic.
(all images shared as is, no ownership implied)
Micheal W. Fox, in his book Dog Body, Dog Mind , credits village dogs with being more of a benefit to their human counterparts than Coppinger does. He notes how the dogs provide a “diaper service” for the community, provide help with hunting and guarding duties and are playmates for young children. He doesn’t seem to share my view that these dogs are better off than we give them credit for, saying “While people in the West will befriend these dogs and even take them into their homes, these dogs the world over have a hard life and a difficult time surviving under the best of circumstances; all too often they become the victims of human prejudice and fear.” While I would agree with the sentiment of his statement, the thriving numbers of dog populations seem to belie his concerns. Does confinement and subsequent survival truly trump freedom of expression and risk of harm and death?
Here in North America, we are conditioned to believe that we provide the best standard of care for dogs, which I believe to be quite far from the truth. I also believe that it is much harder here in a first world country to provide what a dog truly needs. How can I be sure? Dogs across the world who live in the orbit of human civilization but not under direct control (meaning that the dogs are not “trained” and their reproduction is not controlled by humans) are thriving. Contrary to the oft referred to pictures of starving dogs, many village and dump dogs are in good body condition and have great conformation (Coppinger, SPARCS 2013) and, by virtue of their circumstances, are fulfilled both in terms of their social and exercise needs. Contrast that with dogs typically kept in more modern societies: often confined in small spaces or on lead for most, if not all of their daily lives.
Certainly all pivots strongly on the humans involved. True mutual relationships can be and are achieved “in captivity” and roaming dogs in certain areas are uncared for and not shown even a modicum of kindness. All life on our fair planet depends greatly on the ethics and morality of humans, and even more so when the animals involved are of the domestic variety. Dogs depend on humans for food and protection – but do they need the strict confinement we offer them in the western world? Could it be that the way we keep our pets may allow for longevity but does it cause more harm than not? Conversely, are we perhaps, as Coppinger argues, the unwitting hosts of a parasitic species who have found the ultimate way to survive?
Any which way you look at it, there are a lot of homeless dogs, both here in North America and across the world. We often refer to the ones we are aware of as “in need of a home” as if our first world idea of giving a dog a home should be applied everywhere. We have dogs in shelters, dogs on classified ads, dogs in foster based rescues, dogs down the street…. all in need of homes. We like to think that all of the dogs need a lifetime home where they will be cared for – which generally means they will live in our houses, fed food and water, walked and have their energy requirements satisfied. We hold this up as the utopia for every dog. Are we doing right by them? Are we being conditioned to worship a very adaptable and resilient species…. the modern dog?
I’ll leave you with a thought from DOGS: “Only a very few of the six billion people in the world depend on the dog for anything. If dogs disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, humans would survive the tragedy without much stress. But if humans disappeared tomorrow, dogs would likely become extinct shortly thereafter.”