590 Respecting Dogs' Dignity

by   David Hancock

Two recent incidents involving dogs gave me food for thought. The first concerned a 'fancy-dress competition for dogs' at a local village show. The parade of dogs in themed costumes seemed to greatly amuse the human audience; the dogs however looked distinctly ill at ease. The second concerned a Basset Hound at a dog show which stepped on its own ears, performed a clumsy somersault, drawing unkind and misguided applause. The hound's eyes dropped, possibly from self-consciousness; dogs don't like being mocked. A man is unlikely to stand on his own ears but would still resent being laughed at, when say, tripping over after standing on one of his own shoe laces.

I believe it to be important for us all to respect the dignity of dog. Dogs know when they are being humiliated. I can still recall feeling uncomfortable when observing a tiny Yorkie being painstakingly groomed for an hour -at our village dog show! Most dogs want to please their owners; this one stood still and just endured the bizarre endless combing and preening -even for such a casual inconsequential low-key event. But the demeanour of the dog told its own story, the obedient loyal little dog just didn't want to be there or to be subjected to this treatment. The owner had absolutely no respect for his dog, was just lost in his craft, his presentational desires. I have that same uneasy feeling when I see Beardies subjected to seemingly endless grooming at Crufts or Afghans in their show protective clothing or dogs with bibs. These are not animated warm-blooded display items but dogs with pride and feelings.

Michael Fox, the distinguished animal behaviourist, once wrote: "Only when man learns to see the dog for what it is and himself for what he is can he free his dog from some of the frustrations of the modern world." Dogs suffer considerably from the frustrations of the modern world. We breed into them strong instincts and then deny them outlet. We stop superlative hunting dogs from hunting and discourage gifted herding dogs from herding. We develop the best earth dogs in the world and then deny them any scope for their skills. No wonder dogs feel frustrated. Their spirit is being slowly sapped. Every setter or Pointer owner should ensure their dogs savour air-scent and sniff the wind. Every scenthound owner should ensure that their dog comes across exciting ground scent. Every sighthound should be encouraged to really stretch its long legs, just race with sheer release. We really must learn to acknowledge their simple needs, to respect them -and their dignity.

B M Levinson, professor of psychology and the director of a child pyschiatry unit, wrote thirty years ago: "I would like to state that in the year 2000, man will be able through the medium of pets to regain his sensitivity to events occurring in the animal world and to enhance his empathy with all living creatures. He will rediscover the semantic symbols which he used aeons ago to describe his emotions towards nature and towards pets. He will in a sense be a more complete human being." By respecting our dogs, which is more demanding than loving them, we become more rounded people, I am sure. Down the years, my dogs have taught me a lot about dogs and quite a lot about myself. I wanted them to respect me too.

Talented sensitive artists from Edwin Landseer and Joshua Reynolds to Briton Riviere and Richard Ansdell have captured the innate nobility and natural dignity of dogs, their empathy often attracting accusations of over-sentimentalising their subjects. The perceptive Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote that: "everything in the world was really beautiful, everything but our own thoughts and actions when we lose sight of the higher aims of existence and our dignity as human beings." The higher aims of our existence should guide us towards keeping sight of the dignity and needs of subject creatures like dogs, potential victims of our every whim.

But in becoming more respectful towards our dogs and respecting their needs, especially their dignity, we need to rattle a few cages. Breeds are important but they are not more important than sound healthy long-lived companion dogs. A closed gene pool should never instil closed minds. When a closed gene pool is serving a breed and is working, then that is acceptable. But when we breed faulty dogs from faulty genes we need to free our minds and put the interests of dogs, not us, first. We must ask ourselves the key question, do I respect my dog or just my own need for a dog? Dogs have dignity; we need to respect that. Dogs have basic needs of their own, quite distinct from our need of them. The happiest dogs are not the most pampered or the most indulged but those essentially treated as dogs. It is shameful to accept distressing anatomical features in breeds of dog just because those features allegedly constitute breed-type. The quality of life of each individual dog matters more than any breed point. Accepting that is a major way of showing respect, of respecting the dog's dignity, truly a higher aim of our existence.