BARKING MAY 10, 2013
Yesterday, Slate tech columnist Farhad Manjoo slipped outside of his beat, which he does infrequently, to rail against dogs. Clearly, the man had had enough. Following in the footsteps of such #slatepitches as “Stop Telling Your Toddler to Share,” Manjoo’s piece, “No, I Do Not Want to Pet Your Dog,” is a screed against the “cultural assumption that everyone must love dogs” and laments that “in the last decade, dogs achieved dominion over urban America. They are everywhere now, allowed in places that used to belong exclusively to humans, and sometimes only to human adults: the office, restaurants, museums, buses, trains, malls, supermarkets, barber shops, banks, post offices.” It is a reasonable piece of opinion—and of trolling, I suppose, as every piece about dogs necessarily is. The commenters and commentators of the Internet responded predictably: Dan Savage loved it (“Your Dog Sucks”), a Mother Jones reporter called it a “fascist column,” and most everyone else fell somewhere in between.
Manjoo insists he does not “actively despise mutts,” and while I agree with his every word, we diverge here. I do hate dogs—the entire species—and not because of some worthy, high-minded idea about our shared public space. I hate dogs both because they're quite dumb, and because humans’ unconditional love for such obviously dim-witted creatures does not speak well for us.
I happen to have a legitimate cause for detesting dogs that invade my personal space: I am allergic to them. I can hear the uproar now: “Oh, so that’s why you hate dogs!” My allergy is often used to dismiss my case against dogs, the logic being: He hates dogs because he can't get close to them without becoming allergic; thus, he’s incapable of experiencing what makes dogs so special, what makes them man and woman's best friend (well, best friend after our actual best friends, who are human, and perhaps also our cars and iPhones). Alas, that is not the case. I am not immune to dogs' cuteness. I have petted a few of them in my time—usually because I’m under the influence, or the dog is hypoallergenic—and have enjoyed it well enough, at least until my eyes began itching and my otherwise mild asthma became suffocating. Other than that, a nice experience!
But boy are dogs dumb, sniffing everything as they go, tongue hanging out, always barking at other dogs, pissing on lampposts and shitting in the grass (sometimes left for me to step on). You protest, I know. Some smart people say dogs are smart! But those smart people are almost certainly dog owners, too. Just because a dog can retrieve a stick or recognize your voice or even, in some cases, find its way home after running away is not proof of exceptional intelligence. I’m more inclined to believe researchers who say dogs are about as smart as 2-year-old humans—which is to say, pretty dumb. Cats, another domesticated animal to which I am also allergic and yet don't hate, are demonstrably more clever. Even leading dog-brain guy Brian Hare, who has an academic and financial interest in promoting the intelligence of dogs, concludes a Wall Street Journal piece—titled “Why Dogs Are Smarter Than Cats,” no less—by writing, “And what might the genius of cats be? Possibly, that they just can't be bothered playing our silly games or giving us the satisfaction of discovering the extent of their intelligence.”
Nail on the head right there. Cats don't rush me the moment I enter a room and put their paws on my chest or sniff my pant leg or shove their snout into my crotch or bark loudly or lick or bite me. Dogs alone do—which, in a way, is why so many people love them. Dogs are almost certainly the world’s most affectionate species, giving their owners what (most) humans, out of self-respect, cannot: mute devotion. This, after all, is how dogs came to be domesticated in the first place, as Hare once explained to Slate: Wolves learned to hang around humans because we're a reliable food source, and a “survival of the friendliest” led certain groups of them to domesticate. Our ancestors learned that dogs were good for protection, hunting, and companionship.
Now, of course, we have complex electronic security systems infinitely more intelligent than dogs, and which a would-be robber cannot trick with a raw hamburger stuffed with sedatives. Few of us, relative to our ancestors, use dogs for hunting. Which means that, aside from several obvious niche uses (guiding the blind, sniffing for bombs or drugs, chasing down criminals; I draw the line at "therapy dogs"), we now rely on dogs for only one thing: to be our living stuffed animal, something to cuddle with when we're feeling sad or wistful or lonely. That is all we ask of them—that they always be there when we need them—and they happily oblige, since we also happen to feed them in the process.
Some find poetry in the simplicity of this transaction. I see human neediness, if not weakness, and perhaps even exploitation. "Dogs don't talk back" is a common refrain, and meant to be positive. But we are the most intelligent beings, ever—capable of profound, complex thoughts, which we can express to each other thanks to the hundreds of intricate languages we have developed over our species’ history. Why not use these wonderful words we’ve invented? Instead, after a rough day, a dog owner might lie quietly on the couch with his pooch, and somehow this makes him feel better, as if through osmosis the dog had somehow helped him work through his complicated feelings. Or the dog owner will talk to the dog, knowing full well that the dog does not, and never will—unlike babies—understand what they’re saying. Talking to humans can be exhausting, and threatens to further complicate one’s feelings. Another human would talk back, and the dog owner would have to sit there and listen, and maybe reconsider what he’s feeling. With a dog, it's one-way conversation: I talk, it listens, and whatever I say is implicitly accepted as truth. Conversing with dogs, we’re always right.
Dogs are, simply put, our servants—personal butlers that bring us fun and affection. And if they don't follow our orders? Well, how adorable. And that is what distinguishes good dog owners from bad. The former, of which there are many, discipline their dogs to behave in public. The latter, of which there are many more, can’t bear to be mean to their puppy, and so the dog grows up to think it rules the world, then runs into Farhad Manjoo at the gym. The owner of a misbehaving dog is obviously to blame for not training this animal he has purchased—as if the sole agreement were that the owner would agree to house and feed it, to not let it die from malnourishment—but the dog surely is to blame, too. Its evolution has not been as spectacular as Hare would have you believe. All these years, still it cannot communicate with its owners other than by barking or whimpering, wagging its tail or raising its ears. Perhaps that’s for the best, though, for when I look into a dog’s eyes, I see a black hole of stupidity, a creature that chose to eat garbage rather than compete with alpha males in its natural habitat, and that now tries to make up for it by mounting or fighting other dogs (or a surrogate, like me). When it’s not doing that, it’s eating French Country Café or sleeping or chasing sticks (or phantom sticks—a little game I like to play).
Come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty good gig (assuming you're not one of the millions that, as a result of our cultural obsession with dogs, are euthanized in shelters every year). All the species had to do win our hearts was hang around our refuse, and now we pay hundreds of dollars for the right to feed them and wash their coats and scoop up their shit with our hands. Sure, some dogs might be genetically crippled, with bum legs or labored breathing, but they get to eat and play and sleep all day—and sometimes even screw. Perhaps I have long misunderstood this storied man-dog relationship. Maybe we are their butlers. Maybe we are the dumb ones.