Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Loyal Dog Stories: Why Do We Enjoy Their Suffering?

A while ago I "liked" a facebook page that posted lots of cute puppy pictures. Who doesn't like puppy pictures, right? They also post dog related news, which depressingly often means stories about animal cruelty and the always inadequate sentences the perpetrators receive. Another depressingly frequent topic is "loyal dog waits X period of time for humans who won't return." Sometimes the humans in the story are dead, but mostly they have abandoned the dog. Here are some examples:

What is it that attracts people to these stories? A mix of pathos, admiration for the "loyal" dog, a longing for some unconditional love? They even appear as entertainment in movies from Australia's Red Dog to America's (version of Japan's) Hachiko.

I hate these stories. With a passion. I don't see heartwarming tales of doggie goodness, I see human ugliness and little else. Take perhaps the most famous "loyal dog waits" tale of them all, Hachiko, for example. The House of Two Bows does an amazing job of eviscerating the mythology around the story:
To me, the drooping ear is an emblem of the years of hardship that Hachiko suffered on the streets. He did not turn his back on any happy home to keep the flame alive for his dead master. The fact is that there was no other home for him to go to. All parties involved were more interested in maintaining the myth of the downtrodden wanderer who had nothing else other than the memory of his master; his impoverishment only heightened the tragic poignancy of the story, and that’s why it had to be maintained. The pedagogical value of Hachiko’s story did not have to be steered towards imperialistically-tinged notions of unerring devotion towards a singular, grand master. It could have been a lesson in humane charity, in animal welfare, in collective social responsibilities towards homeless pets, or really, any needy living creature. But the fact that any alternative interpretations were drowned out by the dominant ideology of loyalty and national unity in a time of heightened militarism is represented by that single, falsely pricked ear.
 In this interview, well worth watching, Malcom Gladwell talks about the hubris behind the human creation of dogs:
Dogs were evolved to pay attention to us...
They are this extraordinary example of a species that we have bred on the basis of how much attention they pay us; how closely they look us in the eye and hang on our every word. I mean, it's the most narcissistic thing we have ever done as human beings.
A dog pays more attention to your face than a human being does.
And that's the thing. We made dogs to love us, to be devoted to us, to DEPEND on us. And we let them down, often and catastrophically.

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  1. Glad I'm not the only one that gets twitchy about way too many "loyal dog" stories. They're as problematic to me as sati/widow burning, or erecting monuments of virtue for chaste widows...

    1. I love your article on Hachiko's ear. I re-read it periodically and it blows me away each time. Thank you :)


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