When I was a child in the 1970s, the Observer newspaper used to run a Peanuts cartoon every Sunday in the colour supplement. And I would carefully cut out every one from the paper, and paste it into a scrapbook. I wish I still had that scrapbook. That comic strip, surely the best of all time, first came out 65 years ago, and still contains wisdom. Because the Peanuts kids have all the anxieties and troubles of adults, they gently reflect back at us our shortcomings. Snoopy rules the doghouse, the wise hound with human foibles and fantasies. The dog days of summer may be over, but I want to say a word or two about the best friend a human ever had.
We had a dog when I was young, a Labrador called Tensing. He was pale yellow, almost white, and I can still remember running my hands over his skin. Labradors, with their loyalty and greed, are the most popular dog in the UK. Tensing was part of the family, but when I was 12, I came back from school one day to find him gone. My mother, who bore the brunt of pet-care responsibilities, had finally had enough, and found Tensing a very happy new home. It was a traumatic moment in my young life. No wonder my favourite books as a boy were White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s canine adventure stories.
Last year, my partner and I got a Labradoodle, as loyal as a Lab, but cleverer. It felt like a resolution to that childhood rupture. Winston has transformed our life and routines. Admittedly, the woman in my life still bears the brunt of the responsibility, and probably our friends are tired of our dog-obsession. But overall, having a dog has been a wonderful experience.
Britons are more pet-obsessed than many cultures. When an Indonesian friend came to visit, he explained that in his village, dogs would be eaten. Not so much a main meal he said. More like tapas, a snack you’d have with beer. But by the end of the weekend, he was as fond of Winston as anyone. On my trips to Africa, I see people out walking their dogs. Fewer than I would have seen in London or Geneva, but pet-owners, none the less.
Roger Scruton on this programme has suggested that the love of pets “inculcates in us the desire for easy-going, cost-free and self-congratulatory affection.” Another Point of View colleague, John Gray, has argued that our fondness for domestic animals obscures our responsibilities to the wider natural world. In my experience, and with all humility, I suggest that Sir Roger and Professor Gray are mistaken, and here are some reasons why.
Dogs and humans have co-evolved over ten thousand years. They have guarded our homesteads, herded our livestock and collaborated in the hunt. They have pulled sledges, and served as an emergency food source. Unlike any other animal, they have an innate genetic ability to respond to our signals. By helping us, they have helped themselves to thrive. Today, assistance dogs aid blind people, or people with mobility limitations, or people with epilepsy.
To love a dog is not easy-going or cost-free. Dogs, especially clever ones like poodles and collies, need a challenge. Winston is constantly demanding to be taught new tricks. He loves being trained, because it stretches his brain. I am trying to turn him into an assistance dog, one dropped sock at a time. A bored dog, alone all day, is a sad thing to see.
Dogs do give unconditional love. When my partner or I get back from a trip away, Winston’s rapturous welcome is good for the soul, not reassuring for the ego. Evidence shows that being with a pet lowers the blood pressure and cholesterol, and raises feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. Dogs are taken onto hospital wards to calm anxious patients, particularly children. Dogs taken into classrooms help insecure young readers gain confidence. They are even taken into gaols to help rehabilitate prisoners. As the poster for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home says, ‘sometimes it’s not just our dogs who are rescued’.
Dogs help many people overcome loneliness. It’s not just that a canine companion helps ward off the blues, it’s that walking a dog brings you into comradely contact with so many other people who are out doing the same thing. Dog owners win over children, and attract eligible singles. To watch dogs playing together in the park gives everyone else huge pleasure. We connect with other people through our dogs.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman’s research confirms the truism that dogs do pick up their owners’ traits. This goes someway to explaining the bad behaviour of some pets. The oblivious owner fails to train her dog, and then disowns responsibility when the dog misbehaves. The aggressive owner ends up with a savage and uncontrollable beast, an extension of his own masculinity.
Dogs are like people. It’s been argued that they are much more like humans than chimpanzees, despite the disparity of intellect. When Winston came home after spending more than a week in London, he dashed around the garden in sheer delight, just like Snoopy doing his first day of spring dance. I can empathise with that feeling, because I also like my own space best. I can understand him, and he can understand me, whether one or other of us is happy or sad, scared or excited. Evolution has enabled our species to communicate.
Loving a dog is, on the face of it, an odd phrase. When we extend our circle of personhood to include a dog, or any pet more complex than a goldfish, we are overriding the boundary between species in a way that potentially makes us more aware of the value of all animals. It’s not sentimental or undignified, it is inclusive and non-hierarchical.
I remember finding someone weeping over the loss of their family dog. I had coincidentally just heard that a former neighbour had died of brain cancer, leaving a widow and four children. My friend said to me that she felt, in some cases, the loss of a loved animal was as hard to bear as the loss of a human. At the time, I was incredulous, even angry at the equation of a golden retriever with this unique and much loved 49 year old human being we had lost. How could these different griefs be commensurate?
Dogs are not people. I do not think that a dog has the same value as a person. But now that I have a dog in my own life, I can understand the very deep love of a human for a dog, and vice versa, and the terrible grief that each can feel when the loved one is gone forever.
For example, the poet Byron referred to his dog Boatswain as his only friend, writing on his memorial of one “who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.” I think grief may have led him into hyperbole on this last point, because my dog at least has several human vices, above all, greed.
But Lord Byron missed out the most important point about dogs. They have a much greater capacity for contentment than people. Which is perhaps what they can teach us. As Snoopy says “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m Happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”