The canine ascendancy: Have we gone too far with man’s best friend? – WAtoday
“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
To the humans who lived with him, Carlo was an adorable, handsome fellow, a prince among dogs, and possibly a genius. He was, Jane Rogers says, “so important to us”, her voice catching as she recalls what he meant to her and her late husband, and her adult children. “At times he was like our child,” she says, “sometimes he was like our brother.”
To the casual observer, however, Carlo was simply an oddly proportioned little dog, trotting about importantly on short, bandy legs that supported a rotund black-and-white body, a pointy head and a long tail. He looked like the misbegotten love child of a wild night between a corgi and a fox terrier, or maybe a three-way. Love is blind.
He would waddle to the door and bark furiously when you arrived at Rogers’ house, no matter how many times he’d met you. Once you got in, it was a matter of beating Carlo to the sofa. Thwarted, he would spend much of his time violently thrashing his squeaky toy from side to side, as if trying to kill an uncooperative rat. In that narrow house, he was a presence that could not be ignored.
If you weren’t fond of dogs, Carlo might strike you as a bit of a pest. If you were, he was amusing company. Rogers took him to work with her every day – she was the boss – and swears he was a calming presence and a hit with everyone, except one woman who was afraid of dogs.
So when Carlo, at 13, was diagnosed with a tumour in his throat obstructing his windpipe, his owners didn’t hesitate to choose the option of $10,000 worth of chemotherapy, and possibly up to $25,000 worth, in order to buy him another year or so. He lived for another 18 months before developing a second tumour in his lung. At that point, they agreed to have him euthanised.
“The vet said, ‘Carlo will give you his very last breath,’ ” Rogers recalls. ” ‘He will try and stay alive for you, be there for you, whatever it takes and that’s what companion animals are like, but you have to be the good human and you have to look after your dog now and let me put him to sleep.’ So we came to the decision very quickly, but it was still hard, of course.”
Carlo’s ashes, which arrived from the pet crematorium in a tasteful cardboard box with pressed flowers and his name inscribed on top, now sit on the mantelpiece in the house they all once shared.
Carlo was special to the family, but in terms of dogs and dedication and the lengths to which people are willing to go to save a companion, it’s not an unusual story. Dogs have evolved with us. We share a special bond with them. We only have to stroke their fur or meet their eyes to release in us a burst of oxytocin, the pleasure hormone, and science suggests they get a burst, too.
One of Rogers’ daughters remembers her mother saying, only half in jest: “If I’d known how wonderful dogs are, I’d never have had you two girls.”
People love them with an uncomplicated intensity. Dogs don’t judge. Dogs don’t hold a grudge. Dogs listen. Dogs comfort. A few years into Carlo’s reign, one of Rogers’ daughters remembers her mother saying, only half in jest: “If I’d known how wonderful dogs are, I’d never have had you two girls.”
Forty per cent of Australian households now have a dog, and, arguably, never have so many canines commanded such a depth of devotion. If the dog of old was the trusty family pet, fondly left to its own devices and blithely wolfing down Pal in the backyard, the 21st-century dog is more likely to be a pampered “fur baby” who sleeps under the doona, dines on organic pasture-raised lamb with ancient grains, enjoys, or endures, spa baths, and is possibly on Prozac. Even “sensible” owners admit to buying doggy Christmas presents.
It’s hard to pinpoint when The Canine Ascendancy began. My own theory is that the relationship changed and went public when humans agreed to pick up their dog’s poo. It’s now turbo-charged, running a fine line between love, worship and fetishising. It’s a brave person these days who will admit they don’t particularly like dogs. It’s more acceptable to confess to not liking small children.
One of Anthony Albanese’s first acts as Prime Minister was to set up a Twitter account for his dog Toto (“Morning walkies with Dad!” ). In May, Roger Federer posted a smiling picture of himself with his new dog: “We gave in … But we couldn’t be happier. Welcome to the family, Willow.” Donald Trump distinguished himself by being the US first president in 100 years not to own a dog during his time in the White House. Former PM Scott Morrison had a schnoodle (its barking upset the neighbours at Kirribilli House).
At Marley and Friends, an upmarket dog grooming salon in Sydney’s Double Bay, owners can add a mud bath or “crystal balancing treatment” to their dog’s Japanese-style wash and trim. Popular trim styles, says owner Dianah Todaro, are the teddy-bear face and the lion tail. She’s putting in a doggy cam so anxious owners can watch their “pupper’s” salon sessions on an app.
“Boutique pet bakeries” have sprung up offering personalised birthday cakes. Insta accounts show dogs dressed up in party hats, Halloween costumes or matching bridal outfits.
Grief counsellors are running sideline businesses in pet grief counselling. In the classifieds recently, a man’s death notice went on to devote a paragraph to the passing of his dog. Pet cremation services are offering the option of urns with paw prints, brass-plated timber boxes, tumbled river rock markers, and locks of fur set in resin to wear on a chain.
In 2018, Barbra Streisand famously went a step further and had her favourite Coton de Tuléar cloned so that after it died she could manufacture one, or in this case, two dogs, just the “same”. It cost her more than $US50,000 to discover you can’t clone personality.
Meanwhile, dog advocates are lobbying for their dogs to be allowed in aircraft cabins, inside pubs, luxury hotels, restaurants, offices. Jewellery company Tiffany & Co. is selling a bone-china treat jar for $430. Neutered male dogs can get “neuticles” – silicone testicle implants – to restore their sense of maleness, or at least, their owner’s sense of the dog’s maleness.
The pet market is cashing in on what’s known in the trade as “premiumisation and humanisation trends”. Even pre-pandemic, a national study by Animal Medicines Australia found that households spent about $12.2 billion on their pets in 2019, up 42 per cent from 2013. The market for pet grooming products alone is expected to reach $276 million by 2025, up from $141 million in 2020.
Millennials are embracing the canine trend. As one 25-year-old explains, “People my age can’t afford a house and don’t have children, so we’re living in apartments and getting dogs instead.” Even the Pope recently implored Catholics not to get a dog or a cat instead of having a child.
COVID lockdowns also made getting a dog seem like a good idea. Pet ownership rose from 61 per cent two years ago to 69 per cent, according to an Animal Medicines Australia survey on pets and the pandemic. More than a million additional dogs have joined Australian households since 2019. At the peak of the lockdown, shelters like the RSPCA were rushed with requests. Vickie Davy, a founder director of PetRescue, a national umbrella body for rescue and shelter organisations, recalls “the great adoption surge”. Daily visits to their site shot from 25,000 to 40,000.
So-called “purebreds” were also in high demand. Some people even sold their own pets, says Davy. “We saw things like a seven-year-old poodle listed for $8000. It would normally be $100 or free to a good home.”
The good news is that so far, say rescue organisations, there hasn’t been the anticipated surge in the number of animals being surrendered or abandoned, once the reality of owning a dog set in or people went back to the office.
Still, as some people found, it can be hard to admit you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or that the dog is causing you more anxiety, not less. One man Good Weekend spoke to, who didn’t wish to be named, admitted that wanting a puppy was largely a “COVID-isolation impulse”, reinforced by seeing so many other people with cute little puppies. He spent $7500 on a six-week-old cavoodle. The plan was to share the care with a daughter who lived nearby.
“Suddenly she’s awake in the middle of the night or barking all the time, or you’ve given her the wrong thing to eat and she gets diarrhoea.”
“I didn’t think it through properly,” he says now. “I didn’t think about the fact that I’m a poor sleeper, that I live in an apartment with no exit or entrance to a garden or a courtyard. I didn’t think enough about the training or the time involved. Suddenly she’s awake in the middle of the night or barking all the time, or you’ve given her the wrong thing to eat and she gets diarrhoea, and it’s over the entire living room and you’re bleaching at three in the morning. I was anxious. I wasn’t sleeping.”
His daughter, however, was devastated when he suggested finding a more suitable family to care for it. “I felt like a failure and deeply guilty,” he remembers. “Some people said, ‘Oh, it’s just an animal,’ but I felt like this was one of the worst ethical dilemmas I’d ever faced.” In the end, and unrelated to the puppy, he became ill and his daughter and his ex-wife took over the care.
Trainers and vets are now seeing the fallout from a generation of “COVID puppies”, often suffering from an early lack of socialisation because of lockdowns, or inexperienced owners. “We haven’t seen a rise in surrenders,” says Gabrielle Carter, a veterinary specialist in animal behaviour with RSPCA Victoria, “but what we have seen is a significant jump in the number of surrenders with behaviour problems, including aggression, separation anxiety and destructive behaviours. Pre-COVID we were getting about 25 per cent of our surrenders with behaviour problems. Now it’s about 45 per cent.”
There was a time when people were embarrassed to admit their dogs were child substitutes. Now many are happy to declare it, even if they have actual children. “They are like your children in some ways,” one mother tells me. “Then again, if my son and my dog were both drowning, I know which one I’d save.”
There has been a real and positive shift in the way we regard animals, agrees Gabrielle Carter. “Even at the vet [clinic] when I first graduated 40 years ago, they would spay a dog and not give it any pain relief. Now we go, ‘Oh yes, they do feel pain!’ I still have people saying in surprise, ‘Did you know dogs have emotions?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ We didn’t always recognise that before.”
In our wish to honour them, however, we seem to have changed their status from mere dog to furry human, as if that represents an elevation, and not a devaluing of dog-ness. They give us so much: company, fun, loyalty, labour, a sympathetic ear, solace in our darkest moments. But are we giving them what they, as dogs, really want or need? Or to put it another way, does a cavoodle really care if its coat looks too fluffy?
You could call it the love paradox. We’re more focused on our dogs than ever and, according to many behavioural experts, it’s sending many of them neurotic. “We are trying to humanise them,” agrees PetRescue’s Vickie Davy, “and it’s not fair. Dressing them up and breeding them to look like little babies and projecting these attitudes onto them … it’s not letting them be themselves.”
Laws and our urban lifestyles mean most dogs now live behind fences and on leashes for most of their lives, or with limited play in dog parks. And they spend most of their time with humans. “We’re breaking them away from their own kind,” says Davy, “and they’re losing that ability to communicate with each other. That’s why we’re seeing a lot more aggression issues.”
We may also be unwittingly loading them up with our emotional baggage. “Some dogs do take on the emotional strain of their guardians,” says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist attached to the University of Colorado and the author of a number of books about the ethics of keeping pets.
“There’s a lot of research on emotional synchronicity, and it goes both ways, with dogs tapping into how we’re feeling. That’s why we love them so much – because they’re so attuned to us. One of the under-recognised welfare challenges is that if you come home, and you’re in a bad mood, even if you don’t take it out on the dog directly, it can have an impact. [Given COVID], it might be another explanation for the high levels of neuroticism in dogs now.”
Pierce says it’s hard to put a number on it, but her educated guess is that the level of stress in homed dogs is “off the chart”. COVID has made it worse but, echoing many Australian behaviourists, she says that a larger proportion of dogs have been showing worrying behaviours for a while now.
“These dogs aren’t going to a trainer to learn how to walk on a leash,” she says. “They’re going because they’re self-harming or standing in a corner staring at the wall, air-snapping, all sorts of odd behaviours. The statistics suggest 50-60 per cent of owners say their dog has separation anxiety. That’s not normal behaviour. It’s a pathology. And that’s a crazy number. Veterinary surveys suggest 80 per cent of people think their dogs have problem behaviours.”
(Is it the dogs or the people with the problem? One veteran trainer had this to say about managing separation anxiety: “Dogs have been living with us for thousands of years. Just go out, do what you need to do, come home.” )
“One of the under-recognised welfare challenges is that if you come home, and you’re in a bad mood, even if you don’t take it out on the dog directly, it can have an impact.”
Pierce has thought long and hard about the whole business of pet ownership, including her own. She’s the author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets and co-author of a recent book called A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs without Humans, written with biologist and behavioural ecologist Marc Bekoff. It projects a hypothetical, human-free future to explore how dogs would live if they weren’t subject to our desires.
Among other things, the authors looked at dogs that aren’t homed, and most aren’t. Out of an estimated one billion dogs on the planet, about three-quarters are free-roaming; that is, not living as our dogs do. Some are doing it tough, of course, but many have regular contact with humans or are cared for by them, while remaining free to range and make choices.
Pierce says there are also many natural behaviours we never see because of the way we breed dogs – for example, the nurturing role male dogs play in raising litters. All in all, it brought home to her just how circumscribed our dogs’ lives have become, and how little we understand the canine mind.
“People love their dogs, but may not have a lot of ethology [animal behaviour] knowledge. Take feeding behaviour. One way to look at it is, we’re doing them a huge favour because we’re giving them a bowl of nutritious kibble at a predictable time every day. Who could ask for more? But what we aren’t giving them is the chance to do meaningful work and forage for their own food, which is a huge part of the natural repertoire of all animals.”
Sydney animal behaviourist and researcher Melissa Starling recalls seeing how differently dogs behaved in an Aboriginal community she visited. Free to roam, they led independent doggy lives, socialising with other dogs and trotting off together on forays. She understands why people tend to view dogs through a human lens but fears it undersells dogs.
“Dogs are an amazing species in their own right,” Starling says. “We project our own way of seeing the world onto a dog, so it’s natural we’re going to misinterpret what’s going on, or think they like certain things because we like them, or that what they’re displaying is an emotion that makes sense to us.”
Without meaning to do wrong, we’ve become both their protectors and their kindly jailers. “Dogs don’t have any other life outside what they’re given,” says Pierce. “It’s a sort of ‘intensive captivity’ where often their only friend is their human. We’ve got a whole social network. We go out of the house when we want. Dogs are often denied that.”
Pierce would like to see people trying to think more about life from the dog’s perspective. It might be something as simple as letting the dog choose the walking route or how long it sniffs at a scent, or putting some of its food in a puzzle toy so it gets to use its foraging mind.
I tell Pierce of the social-media post from an owner who said they had used cologne on their dog and was thrilled to have got rid of its doggy smell. “Cologne is a good example of trying to de-dog a dog,” Pierce says. “If you don’t like the smell of dogs, don’t get a dog. Seriously, why would you do that? Dogs have such profoundly sensitive noses that putting cologne on them, or even perfumed shampoo, is really quite mean. It’s so overpowering, and they can’t use their nose to do what they need to do, like go out and sniff things when they go on a walk.”
There is, of course, a very obvious way in which we manipulate dogs to suit human ends, and that is with breeding. These days, it’s mostly for looks. Dogs that remind us of babies – big eyes, snub noses – trigger our protective urges. Yet if we really love dogs as much as we claim to, we’d have to wonder why we’re still breeding, and buying, dogs with, say, flattened, or brachycephalic faces – breeds like bulldogs, boxers, mastiffs, shih tzus and Pekingese – that cause them respiratory problems.
“The normalisation of pain is one of the things that disturbs me most. That we would even consider breeding a French bulldog is obscene, really.”
Some breeds now have heads so large their mothers are forced to give birth by caesarean. Alsatians, with their sloping backs, can be left unable to stand. Dachshunds can suffer disc problems because of their elongated bodies on short legs. The list of cultivated deformities in “purebreds” goes on.
“The normalisation of pain is one of the things that disturbs me most about current practices,” says Pierce. “That we would even consider breeding a French bulldog is obscene, really. They live their entire life with a disability we have imposed on them – they can’t breathe well and that impacts their quality of life in so many ways. On Instagram, you’ll see people post pictures of their French bulldog in what’s called a ‘lazy sit’, where the bum is to the side. That’s not a lazy sit. That’s a sit that is a pain behaviour. There’s something wrong with their hips.”
Sentient, a vet organisation specialising in animal ethics, has called for a ban on the breeding of flat-faced dogs and cats. The RSPCA has put out warnings to would-be buyers about the suffering of certain breeds. The Australian Veterinary Association has called for a partial ban on the breeding of dogs with very short muzzles. Yet flat-faced or overbred dogs still seem to be everywhere, which suggests we’re either still ignorant, or willing to trade animal welfare for cuteness.
Gillian Leahy’s big dog, Bear, barrels past as I make my way through to her kitchen. He has stopped barking, but he wants it known there’s a stranger in the house. Leahy is a retired academic and a filmmaker – one of her films was the award-winning dog memoir Baxter and Me – who has lived with 11 different dogs over her 71 years. Bear, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, is her latest, and probably last. She has also been a volunteer dog trainer for some 30 years, running classes with Leichhardt Dog Training, in Sydney’s inner west, and is currently writing a PhD thesis about dogs and human intimacy.
Among other things, such as the deep delight of living with dogs, she’s wrestling with this question of freedom and ownership, of our needs versus the dog’s. “Do we love dogs, do dogs love us, what’s going on there?” says Leahy. “I’m trying to come to an answer about how we should treat dogs, I suppose, and how we should regard them.”
She’s been reading some of the deep thinkers on the subject, such as feminist professor Donna Haraway, who believes human and dog evolution are linked: dogs “become with us”. Or American author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who has devoted decades to observing the hidden lives of dogs, hoping to get a window into the canine mind. She moved to the country, so her dogs could roam the woods and live doggier lives.
“After watching them and following them,” says Leahy, “Marshall Thomas’s theory was that what they wanted most was other dogs. I’m not entirely convinced of that, but there’s something to it.” But Marshall Thomas also concluded that after 30,000 years of living with humans, “dogs need us more than we need them, and they know it.” Love or dependence?
Leahy has had dogs as companions from childhood, and while men have come and gone in her life, dogs have been steadfast. She acknowledges it’s an unequal relationship. “It’s true that they are, in some senses, slaves,” Leahy says. “We control their sex lives, their reproduction, their ability to move around.” On the other hand, she can’t imagine living without a dog. “So we need to ask ourselves, ‘What does the dog want? What is the dog saying to us?’ ”
Bear chooses that moment to lay his enormous head on the kitchen table and look longingly at the cakes I’ve brought. Leahy hesitates and then relents, holding out a small chunk. It seems even the dog trainer can’t resist those winning amber eyes. “I’m doing what I never do,” she says by way of guilty explanation, “and wish I never had done. I do it because I live alone and it’s only in situations like this that it becomes embarrassing.”
It reminds me of another friend’s confession that her small dog sleeps on the pillow with her every night, wedged between her and her husband. Leahy also sleeps with Bear, although he’s on the outside of the blankets.
As we talk, Leahy keeps an eye on him, possibly worried he’s going to reveal himself as a handful. “Drop!” she tells him. He drops. “See, he’s not really a handful.” Still, he’s a retriever with nothing to retrieve just now, which might explain why earlier he’d been spotted making off with my small pink gym towel clutched in his jaws, plucked from my bag as a poor substitute for waterfowl. Like most dogs, he thrives on having a purpose. He flourished at the dog camp Leahy took him to.
“It’s true that they are, in some senses, slaves. We control their sex lives, their reproduction, their ability to move around.”
Ruh-ruh-ruh, he goes again with his deep bark. The ruh-ruh-ruh-ing and aggression towards other dogs is one reason he’s not allowed to attend her training classes. Leahy loves Bear passionately, but even she admits he can be a challenge, and in her darker moments, a mistake she has to see through. Those two feelings can coexist. He’s a big, powerful dog for a not-very-well woman in her 70s. Leahy broke her arm one time when Bear pulled her over, although it wasn’t his fault, she says.
A few days later, at one end of the dog park where Leahy runs training classes, dozens of dogs are romping and leaping together in an exuberant riot of fur. At the other end, dogs on leashes are being persuaded to follow human commands. The dogs don’t seem to mind, although some are tugging at their leads and looking longingly at the carousing dogs.
It’s like a canine United Nations here. ’Oodles of all stripes. A tiny whippet dwarfed by the big dogs. A staffy cross that’s mucking up. A stately red setter. A brassy Pomeranian charges into the class, yapping madly, before charging out again. Aside from coats on a few of the small and elderly dogs on this chilly morning, no dogs are sporting crazy outfits or wild fur dyes today. Leahy has mixed feelings about anthropomorphising dogs.
“I do think that by imagining if the dog were human or if you were a dog, we learn things. They’re other mammals and they’re very similar to us in many ways, so there’s nothing wrong with a bit of it. Putting bloody diamond collars on them and pink coats, I have no time for. But the people who do do that mostly don’t damage the dog and yes, you could say they waste money but people waste money on Porsches, or yachts, or drinking beer.”
The general line on this seems to be that if the dog doesn’t mind, it’s harmless enough. Then again, dogs are such obliging creatures, sitting patiently while someone puts them in an elf costume or a fright wig, that it can be hard to know if they do mind. Humans often misinterpret what their dog is trying to tell them. Some dogs, for example, don’t like to be hugged. That quick tongue-flick that dogs do, lip-licking or yawning, a tense pose or ears back, can all be signs of stress or discomfort. (Vickie Davy recommends Doggie Language by Lili Chin as a simple guide.)
Leahy, of course, believes in positive training classes and thinks the dogs probably enjoy it. “If you do it properly, it’s actually pleasant for the dog. You’re doing a cooperative act together, the dog is getting treats and praise, it’s exercising its brain, and so on. You’re also making it easier for that dog to have a good life. It can go to the coffee shop, it can visit your friends, your friends can visit you without you having to shut it in a crate.
“So, if you’re going to have a slave, as it were, you don’t want to have one that’s a ravening idiot in the backyard; you want one with the basic social skills. But you are controlling them. Whatever way you’re doing it, you’re socialising them to be with human society.”
That’s true. But there’s joy there as well. We just have to learn how to be their best friend.