The Truth, Mainly - 04/12/2004

Bad news: Dogs being humanized
by Leon Satterfield

Saw a disturbing story in this newspaper earlier this month. It was headlined "No offense, but you look just like your dog."

It was all about how dogs and their owners are similar in their looks and their temperaments.

I'm not disturbed by owners and their dogs looking alike, but the idea that their temperaments become similar gives me the fantods.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't be bothered if the owners' temperaments were conditioned to match those of their dogs. But the owners control the dog food and decide where the dogs get to sleep and whether they get to ride in the front seat or the back seat. So the dogs quickly see which side their bread is buttered on and thus begin imitating their masters in the sincerest form of flattery.

And that's what disturbs me. Owners becoming temperamentally like their dogs would probably be an improvement. Dogs becoming temperamentally like their owners is clearly a disaster.

I believe that new puppies—like human newborns—come into this world pure of heart, humming the music of the spheres, and trailing clouds of glory. And left alone (as human babies, of course, are not), most puppies retain their natural benevolence even as they're dying of old age.

Human babies, however, grow up to be adults, and the vast majority of us are temperamentally way past our age of innocence. Remember: in Adam's fall, we sinned all.

Mark Twain had it about right when he wrote in "Pudd'nhead Wilson" that "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man."

And James Thurber, in his introduction to "Thurber's Dogs," fleshes out the idea that dogs in their natural state are morally superior to humans in their natural state.

Even in dying, Thurber says, the dog acts in the human interest.

The death of dogs, he writes, prepares children for what lies ahead: "In his grief over the loss of a dog, a little boy stands for the first time on tiptoe, peering into the rueful morrow of manhood. After this most inconsolable of sorrows, there is nothing life can do to him that he will not be able somehow to bear."

There's something in the relationship for the dog too, Thurber says. "The dog has got more fun out of Man than Man has got out of the dog, for the clearly demonstrable reason that Man is the more laughable of the two animals."

The dog "has observed them destroying the soil in vast areas, and nurturing it in small patches."

And "his sensitive nose, which can detect what's cooking in the next township, has caught at one and the same time the bewildering smells of the hospital and the munitions factory. He has seen men raise up great cities to heaven and then blow them to hell."

Thurber concludes that "The dog has seldom been successful in pulling Man up to its level of sagacity, but Man has frequently dragged the dog down to his."

If Thurber is right in that conclusion—and I'm convinced he is—we ought to discourage any arrangement whereby dogs' temperaments are corrupted by our own. We ought to go in the other direction and let our temperaments be tempered by our dogs.

Why? Here's a seriously truncated list of reasons:

•Dogs do not sponsor dogfights or pay money to see them. People do.

•Dogs do not kill each other because of religious differences. Dogs are mostly dirty rotten secular caninists.

•Dog A does not go after Dog B for what Dog B may have tried to do more than a decade ago to Dog A's daddy.

•Dogs don't worship at the altar of Big Oil. The stench is too strong for their supersensitive olfactory equipment.

•Dogs don't like loud noises and they're genetically opposed to fireworks, especially to fireworks designed to produce shock and awe.

•Dogs don't forcibly close down newspapers for printing anti-canine stories.

•Dogs don't go halfway around the world to fight. In fact, they fight close enough to home that they can always sleep in their own beds, eat from their own dishes, and drink from their own toilet bowls.

•Dogs never ask one of their own kind to be the last dog to die for a mistake.

•And when a dog beats up another dog in canine conflict over a piece of real estate, he declares his victory by simply lifting his leg and marking his newly acquired territory. Then he goes back home for a little nap, and forgets all about the fight. The next time he sees his antagonist, he even wags his tail.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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