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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Must love dogs

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Some time ago, I read an issue of the local Vancouver rag devoted, in large part, to dogs. There were articles on dog naming trends in the province (Fido is out and Max is in!), the best designer crossbreeds (labradoodles rock!) and images of adorable dogs frolicking in a dog park.

As someone reasonably new to the city at the time (and, quite frankly, a cat person), it seemed a little odd that a newspaper would chronicle so extensively the lives of the local canine population. But I have come to realize that this newspaper issue illustrates perfectly the unique relationship Vancouverites hold with their dogs, the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere–either my native Australia, or notoriously dog-friendly Paris.

Although cat lovers tend to express our affections online (see Larry Stout's article on cows), unlike dog owners, we don't generally rub them in everyone's faces.[1] A perfect illustration is Vancouver's service industry for dogs, which has no feline equivalent. Throughout the city, doggie spas, accessory shops, and day care services dot the landscape.

Dogs in Vancouver are also encroaching into those spaces that used to be exclusively human domains–such as supermarkets, banks, clothing shops, liquor stores, and even offices and medical clinics.[2] Those commercial establishments that adhere to provincial hygiene regulations do so sheepishly, with cutesy, apologetic signs posted outside. To make up for this egregious act, they invariably have a water bowl placed out the front (and sometimes doggie treats as well!) so that pet pooches won't feel slighted.

Indeed, it increasingly appears that the rights of dog owners supersede those of mere canineless mortals. For example, many feel entitled to take up the entire footpath when out walking their dog–expecting the madding crowds to part like the Red Sea so that their majestic beast may stride, like Moses, through our midst.

Like most doting parents, they remain oblivious to the fact that others may not share their sentiments. I don't know exactly many Vancouverites have been cornered in elevators by growling or leg-humping Pomeranians while their owners smile besottedly at the antics of little "Trixie," but I suspect they number in the hundreds.

Even more intriguingly, the usual social mores seem to break down when there are dogs in the vicinity. Based on my observations, if you are in an elevator and someone with a dog enters, you're expected to make a comment about the dog or nod and smile approvingly. The general "pretend you're alone by avoiding eye contact and conversation" rule does not apply here. Acceptable comments include "what a cute dog!" or "wow, what breed is your dog?" [3]

However, gendered pronouns should be avoided at all costs–a misplaced "what's his name?" causes an otherwise friendly dog owner to respond defensively "her name is Peaches" and clam up. And you should never, under any circumstances, openly complain about someone's dog. A softly spoken "I'm not sure your dog should be dribbling all over the vegetables/bank counter/bottles of wine" will provoke wholesale condemnation from all those within hearing distance.

Although Vancouverites may be especially fond of canines, anthropologists have long observed that dogs have a distinctive place in many human societies. In numerous cultures, dogs hold a unique status in the animal kingdom–deemed to be half way between animal and human.

Consider the American Indian "Trickster" figure, who, while taking various forms, is most commonly represented in the guise of a coyote. In the Winnebago myths detailed by Paul Radin, he is a simultaneously superhuman and subhuman figure of uncontrolled appetites and excesses. Whether it be throwing his detachable penis at a princess he fancies, or eating a laxative bulb that makes him fart compulsively[4] before culminating in a bout of anal incontinence so intense the Trickster is literally buried in a mountain of his own faeces, his actions are simultaneously amusing and appalling.

It's this peculiar human-yet-animal quality we see repeatedly echoed in mythologies around the world. For example, in the book "Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World," Olowo Ojoade recounts that in Nigerian folkore, all animals initially lived together in a society separate from humans. However, when humans began to hunt and kill animals, the king of humans and the king of animals got together and made a deal: the humans would stop killing animals if they were given an animal to call their own. Votes were cast and the dog was offered to the humans.

Once in the human realm, dogs abandoned some of their crude ways (although not their sexual promiscuity) and generally endeared themselves to humans. However, food shortages soon led the humans to hunt animals again, despite their treaty with the animal king, and the dogs proved adept at this as well. The animals blamed the dogs for this turn of events and pleaded with the humans to return the dogs to the animal kingdom, but the dogs, liking their new realm, refused to go. Animals and humans have been at loggerheads ever since.

Evident in this story, as in the Trickster myths, is the liminal or "betwixt and between" status of dogs. As the anthropologist Jennifer Biddle observes, like humans, dogs are said to have the capacity for shame (or at least act as if they do), although this doesn't stop them from engaging in rampant incest and occasional acts of faeces-consumption–activities that human societies tend to find abhorrent.

According to Edmund Leach, this human-animal quality explains why dogs feature so frequently in insults hurled around the world. For example, he notes that the strongest way to insult one's enemies in Northern Thailand is to insinuate that a dog had sexual intercourse with their ancestors.[5] While we are equal opportunists in the department of animal-inspired slurs (pig! cow! horse! cat! chicken!), there's little doubt that dogs are our preferred basis for insult–as put-downs like "bitch," "dog," "mongrel" and "cur" [6] attest.

This distinctiveness also manifests in the monikers dogs are generally bestowed in European and Anglophone countries. In the 1960s, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted that dogs tend to be given names that are like those of humans but also different (such as "Fido" ), while pet birds are given more typically human appellations (e.g. "Polly" ).

Lévi-Strauss argued that this is because dogs are more anatomically and socially connected to us than other pets. Birds, on the other hand, live in a parallel but separate society. Thus, a sort of cognitive disquiet occurs when we give dogs human names. Calling one's pet bird "Polly" is okay because they are clearly so much more different from us than dogs. But calling your dog George, especially if you know someone named George, well, that's asking for trouble.[7]

Although the lines between dog and human names have blurred to some degree over the past 50 odd years, if the 100 most popular male and female dog names is anything to go by, there are still some subtle differences between them. While "Rocky," "Buddy," "Zeus," "Bandit," "Samson" and "Maximus" are popular monikers for male dogs, few parents pick such names for their children–unless they want them to be teased mercilessly at school. Likewise, "Lola," "Angel," "Princess," "Ginger," "Roxie," and "Honey" might be preferred appellations for female dogs, but this line-up of names is more likely to be found in a strip bar or drag club than your average school.

The sense of outrage many Westerners express at the thought of eating dog[8] is also testament to these human-animal qualities–and is precisely why they tend to be eaten in the first place. When I was doing fieldwork in South Korea in the late nineties and early noughties, dog was consumed occasionally amongst some members of my acquaintance (usually at the height of summer) primarily for its health-promoting properties. Likewise, Olowo Ojoade notes that dogs are occasionally eaten in Nigeria precisely because of their unique relationship with humans, which is perceived to imbue their flesh with magical properties.

As Donna Haraway has shown, we have always been intertwined with non-human animals. From dogs and cats to horses and cows (as Larry Stout's article on the latter attests), they have shaped us as much as we shape them. In her words, "We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh."

However, although the human-animal hierarchy we subscribe to may be an illusion, it's clear that dogs have a privileged place within it. At least, this is what I will tell myself tomorrow when my neighbour's giant dog once again displays an unseemly interest in my crotch, and I restrain my own unseemly desire to reciprocate with a well-placed kick.

Dogs are said to have the capacity for shame (or at least act as if they do), although this doesn't stop them from engaging in rampant incest and occasional acts of faeces-consumption–activities that human societies tend to find abhorrent.

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A dog all rugged up for cold weather. Photo by 玄史生, via Wikimedia Commons.
A dog all rugged up for cold weather. Photo by 玄史生, via Wikimedia Commons.