Friday, February 21, 2014

What do you think?

So far, this blog has just been me, me, me. Now I need to invite you to take a shot and share some of your insights into the human-nonhuman animal intersection, from whatever perspective you fancy. Obviously, I talk a lot about dogs, because that's my thing with work. In my personal life, I find every life fascinating.

How do you merge and converge with the other living beings that we share this planet with, either personally, professionally, or both? What do you think about?

Original art by Danny Coeyman

Monday, February 17, 2014

Can the Subaltern Dog Speak?

As a writer, I am most comfortable with op-ed pieces, and this is one of them; so if you were thinking I was going to get all academic with this writing, especially after dropping a big term like "research" in my previous heading, and a Spivak reference in this post's heading, think again. This is just straight up, opinion-based blogging. Read on at your own risk.

As a dog trainer, I share methods for motivating—and manipulating—cued responses and behavioral changes from companion dogs. I spend a lot of my time teaching people the basics of learning theory and force-free dog training applications, as well as how to muddle through the abounding popular dog training advice that, with the help of so-called reality TV, creates a lot of confusion and deposits misinformation-posing-as-science into pet owners’ minds. I sometimes think I am helping pet dogs develop coping strategies for living among human beings, and helping people develop a broader lens for viewing and interacting with their canine companions. Other times I feel like I am selling blunted, sugar-coated dominion; dominion-lite.

I spend a lot of time, when I am not working, thinking about the ethics, or lack there-of, underpinning not just my work, but more broadly, the whole human-nonhuman animal intersection. The easy argument for training dogs is it can help keep them safe and alive. They are here, domesticated and living among us, and yet they are not native to our culture and technologies; the way we live can present great risk to them. They cannot operate in their own best interest, left to their own devices. To grant pet dogs total freedom in most residential settings, here in the US, would be to do them harm.

Despite the fact it pertains to asserting change on other lives, which I have to question, I mostly like my job. I do appreciate animals immensely: humans and others. I am fascinated by both uniqueness and commonalities within and between species, and I like sharing myself with those who find me enjoyable company. Dogs generally seem to want to access me, to check me out, make contact, and even hang out with me. Dare I anthropomorphize and go so far as to say they do seem to really like me? 

I know research shows evidence of reciprocal domestication between humans and domestic dogs; and I've read (sorry, not citing here, but ask me and I’ll do so) about feral dogs repeatedly returning to human-populated villages after their numbers are wiped out, despite these culls being performed by people. The attraction between people and dogs seems to persist and be reciprocal, not just from my biased perspective, but also from a broad viewpoint.

I consider the meeting place between people and pet dogs to be a sort of boundary space. I visualize a private garden where I am compelled to look over the wall, but I don't trespass or invade. I make my presence known and then seek an invitation to enter; and dogs seem to welcome me, rather than run off or try to run me off. Once I am "in", I offer friendship in a one-sided manner, trying to consider the dog, but assigning a point of view corrupted by it being based in my mind. I try to imagine what a particular dog-someone might appreciate from me; but I can only interpret dog body language through my human filters, inferring from bits of observation and the cumulative generalizations I carry from past dog encounters. 

I know there is appropriation in my interpretation of the dog and our friendship. I am the only one able to do any of the actual talking; I have a voice and assign the dog an imagined voice: she says to me, "do not harm me!"--because I am able to imagine her saying this. Yet the dog cannot speak for me unless I assign her the task, for example: "Use your skilled snout to let me know if I am on the verge of having a seizure!" 

So, how do I justify speaking for the dog? I guess it is, so far, the best I can do.

Companions animals are actually safest from us (humans) because they live with us. I think this might be because we perceive them not just to be with us, but then to also like us, and even to be like us. More and more the line seems to be blending; for many pet owners—or these days, pet guardians--the individual pet we appropriate is converted into one of us. What other nonhumans have a better camouflage than this? (Okay, cats, too.) But beyond our pets, what generalized love do we feel for the other lives we share this planet with? 

We are not even generalized dog lovers, if we include the wild canid cousins. One area of my research, that I never actually got around to completing, pertained to sampling the way pet dog owners feel about coyotes, which have been popping up all over the place in increasing numbers. In response to their successful spread, it is open season on Wile E., anytime, no permit required, pretty much across the United States. These canines are considered "varmints" and don't have many fans among pet owners, who typically view them as big, bad, almost-wolves who want to eat their tame, cultured, distant cousins--the pet dogs. 

Domestication, reciprocal or not, has shape-shifted pet dogs away from their roots, slipping them into almost-human identities human beings have assigned. And once they are all dressed up in our imaginings, we believe our construction; we see what we want to see. The Emperor's new dog is not naked; he has an expensive new dog sweater. 

The pet dog, here in my part of the world, has risen from a working domestic animal selectively bred for form-relating-to-human-aiding-functions, such as helping to put food on the table or keeping enemies at bay, to a purchased or “adopted” friend/ family member whose primary function is to make people happy. Like a perfect circle, some of this human happiness stems from feeling good about doing good for an animal in need, for “saving” a good dog from a bad end. That sounds relatively reciprocal, so what am I complaining about? 

It is hard to pull back and look at the larger system, which first creates the harm from which dogs must be "saved", and allows our so-called friends to legally be mistreated and worse. In some parts of the world, right now, it is a criminal offense to put certain types of training collars, deemed "cruel", around a pet dog's neck. Though punitive training methods still are employed by many pet owners who view dogs as subordinates who need to be dominated into social compliance, these methods are being challenged by promoters of modern training methods that are based on purely positive reinforcement; and the outcry from dog lovers calling for humane training methods is growing louder. Yet a companion dog can be given up for adoption, sterilized as a behavioral intervention, and even euthanized at the "owner's" whim.  

We (the people) are the ones with the power to grant or deny other animals "rights." Personhood for nonhumans, if it were to be granted (and I truly doubt it will), would be a puppet show; we would be displaying our power though our choice to defer, by creating some pseudo equality. The dog cannot argue for himself, so the personhood issue becomes a moot—and dog-mute—point, with humans speaking for dogs; no matter what is said, the (subaltern) dog cannot speak.

It is sometimes easy to be ashamed of being a person. Some of us do awful things to other living beings, human and nonhuman; I personally hate to be part of it. When vulnerable, voiceless Others suffer at our hands, many of us cry out in their defense. We try to wash our dirty hands with our angry tears of rage at so much injustice. We watch movies like “Blackfish”; we get very upset hearing about Marius, the giraffe. Then we snap the leash on our dog and give him a good walk, letting him sniff and mark--despite neutering--an extra tree or two, finding some relief in the knowledge we care for at least one nonhuman Other as best we can.

And I settle down to the reality that my job is a good job, because even if I can't really do it, I truly aspire to create a middle ground where the needs of both my human and nonhuman students are tended to, where a voice for the dog is at least considered. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Time to Get Writing!

ASI-WAS Undergraduate Prize

The Animals and Society Institute (ASI) and Wesleyan Animal Studies (WAS) offer an annual prize for undergraduate students who have written papers in Human-Animal Studies.

According to information published on the Animals and Society website,,  
ASI and WAS offer a prize to an outstanding, original theoretical or empirical scholarly work that advances the field of human-animal studies. Papers can come from any undergraduate discipline in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences, and must be between 4,000-7,000 words long, including abstract and references. The winning paper will be published in Society & Animals, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles describing and analyzing experiences of and with non-human animals. Topics can include human-animal interactions in various settings (animal cruelty, the therapeutic uses of animals), the applied uses of animals (research, education, medicine and agriculture), the use of animals in popular culture (e.g. dog-fighting, circus, animal companion, animal research), attitudes toward animals as affected by different socializing agencies and strategies, representations of animals in literature, the history of the domestication of animals, the politics of animal welfare, and the constitution of the animal rights movement.

Applicants must be currently enrolled on a full or part-time basis in an academic program at a college or university, or have graduated from a college or university within the 12 months of the application.  Papers are accepted on August 1 each year. 
Read more about the ASI-WAS Undergraduate Prize here:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Help Wanted: Anthrozoology Professors!

For this new school to truly get up and running, the first order of priority is to wrangle some anthrozoology professors. I need some savvy sorts from several different academic disciplines to hustle on in and start offering up some inspiring, thought-provoking anthrozoology instruction! 

According to Dr. Jo Swabe, from the now defunct Humans and Other Animals website:

"In reality, there is little homogeneity in anthrozoological research, certainly as far as disciplinary approach, methodology and theory is concerned. The academic backgrounds of anthrozoological researchers can be extremely varied. There are, for example, social scientists, psychologists, zoologists, ethologists, historians, philosophers, veterinarians and even physicians studying the human-animal relationship."

That certainly opens the door to a whole slough of volunteers! We (just two so far) homeschoolers are ever so open-minded, eager to learn and just waiting for you to open doors otherwise closed to us :'(

I imagine there are many of you out there, chock-full of knowledge, thoughts and valuable insights, ready to inspire ground-breaking homeschool grad school research! Think of all of the papers that might otherwise never get published, if not for your answer to the higher calling of giving your time away :'( 

Conflict of interest, you say? Pshaw!  Sign up now, and get your sign-on bonus as well as guaranteed tenure (provided we like you).

Submit your CV by clicking this link:
Homeschool Grad School Anthrozoology Professor Application

Thursday, February 6, 2014

He Barks, She Barks, It Barks: The assignment of gendered stereotypes to neutered pet dogs

            Following on the heels of my last post and specifically my childhood dismay at discovering Lassie was actually portrayed by a series of male dog actors, I suggest the re-gendering of neutered dogs as a fascinating human-animal, conflict-related, anthrozoology research topic. The pet dog is a unique boundary category that often serves as a blank canvas upon which human owners assign meaning and expectation, sometimes in conflict with the biological reality of the species. The conflict aspect of neutering, and later reassigning stereotyped gender, to pet dogs may not seem immediately apparent; dogs have no “say” in whether or not they will be de-sexed, or re-sexed, for the sake of more harmonious cohabitation amongst humans. One might argue dogs are not cognizant of the neutering procedure or its after effects; and I am not arguing for pet dogs to suddenly be liberated or allowed to run amuck in intact sexual abandon. What I am interested in is human perceptions of, and responses to, dog sexes both before and after surgical sterilization.
            Launching off my daughter/ research partner Monica’s areas of research interest, I find it curious that people purchase dogs as commodified animals, but then immediately after their purchases many elevate their pets to the social status of beloved, gendered, family members, even claiming to view them as surrogate male or female “fur-kids.” As these pet-owner identified  canine “children” reach their teen years and begin showing signs of puberty or sexual maturity, their "personhood" may again be temporarily suspended—at least long enough for their owners to have them surgically altered.
            In my professional experience as a dog behavioral trainer, elective surgical neutering of companion dogs is generally argued to be warranted as an act of population control; however it also seems to frequently be motivated by peoples' expectations for post-operative behavioral changes. My clients have cited anticipation of neutering-mitigated behavioral changes including reductions in perceived sexually driven behaviors such as “urine marking,” "roaming," “aggression,” "humping," and "spotting" (from females in estrus.)
            Once dogs have been "neutered," many pet owners reassign the status of gendered personhood to their pets, evidenced by purchases of stereotypical male and female dog "clothing" and equipment in either frilly, sparkly, prissy, "feminine"--or bold, clean-lined, "masculine"--colors, prints and designs. One of the more extreme products available for the regendering of neutered male dogs is "Neuticles"--prosthetic testicles for post-castration implantation in vacated dog scrotums. I am not making this up.
            I would like to conduct research specific to peoples’ perceptions of dog sexes and behavioral expectations both before and after surgical sterilization. My hope is that this research might include interviews with pet owners who have had their dogs implanted with a set of Neuticles, to explore whether quality of life is improved for either the masculinity-enhanced dog or his human family members.

            If any of my imaginary readers would like to join Monica and me in this research, or if any bored Anthrozoology professors would like to sign up to mentor us and guide our homeschool grad school research, please get in touch!

Anthrozoology: Through the "Lassie" Lens

            “Lassie,”  the TV show (featuring a male collie known as “Lassie,” and a male human child, known as "Timmy,") shaped my earliest interest in anthrozoology. This show puzzled me as a young child. From the zoological, or animal-based, aspect, I wondered: Why was a male dog used to portray Lassie? Why was this dog so obedient, despite being repeatedly referred to as “Girl?” Why was the dog always looking past “Timmy” while he was addressing “her?” Focusing on the other side of my lines of questioning, the “anthro” or human part, I pondered: Why were people willing to make shows that fooled children like me about dogs? Why did Timmy constantly get into avoidable trouble and then repeatedly require Lassie to bail him out? Were dogs actually smarter than human children, as this show implied? 
             I performed experiments.
             I had a collie of my own, named Blue, with whom I reenacted some pretend endangerment scenarios, similar to those Timmy was always getting himself into. Luckily, being smarter than Timmy or his script writers, I took the safe route, calling for help from various ground-level hiding places. Despite compelling performances, Blue totally ignored me. Had I been dumb enough to climb into a well, I’d still be rotting there. Not satisfied with results from my one research subject, I tried similar experiments with many neighbors' dogs and discovered the same discrepancy between Lassie and real dogs. One time, maybe, they took the bait and came looking; after that I was an odd kid who couldn't find her own way out from behind a garage.

            I realize, now, the scientific merit of my childhood experiments was totally lacking, yet they still came to meaningful fruition, introducing the budding lens of anthrozoological  inquiry. And though Blue never tried to save me, I owe him, my neighbors’ dogs, and especially Lassie gratitude for launching me into a well of curiosity that became—and remains--my lifelong field of study. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Getting Started...Time to Read, Right?

So, just exactly where does a 
                     "homeschooling anthrozoology grad student"

Perhaps sharpening some pencils. This might sound silly, but I am not kidding.

As an undergrad, in anticipation of the start of each new term, I did enjoy the little preparatory steps of obtaining my books, notebooks, and writing implements, and then neatly organizing them in my school bag:

Sort of like the way I once color coded, anally-retentively folded, and carefully organized my firstborn child's onesies while waiting to pop her out.

Like school, once things got started, the sense of slight control and resulting enjoyment found in the little details fell by the wayside. There was a lot of shit to deal with, and by the time my third child rolled around, the onesies were lucky to find there way back into the dresser.

That same firstborn, my daughter Monica, now 28 years old and thoroughly potty trained, has played a significant supporting role in my better-late-than-never formal education. She has (sometimes reluctantly, but fair enough) served as a role model and easily accessible consultant. She was well equipped, having attended the University of Chicago as an (anthropology) undergrad, and she is a straight-up smarty-pants:

Monica has taken her studies where my anecdotal experience once could never travel, into the realm of animal personhood, pet animal acquisition, commodification of animals, and other cool academic perspectives on the human-nonhuman animal bond. In fact I just now called her to confirm her areas of focus before sharing them here. Luckily she is generally very patient with me...and she works for me, as an associate dog behavioral trainer (our day job, folks--homeschooling isn't cheap):


So, I invited Monica to be my (our?--Are you there other people? It's me, Margaret!) 
                                               first classmate!

She can serve as a sort of TA, actually. She has already made some good suggestions for our first reading materials, including Donna Harraway's Companion Animal Manifesto, which we both own copies of. I have a lot of books that address some of the topics of interest. Rather than tediously creating a bibliography, I will share a look at some of my books the lazy homeschooler way:

Got any suggestions? Please feel free to add them in the comments section, below, 
because it IS time to start reading...right?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Anthrozoology Drop-Out :(

So, quite recently I was an Anthrozoology graduate-student-to-be, proudly but anxiously enrolled at Canisius College. This only lasted for a week or so...because I dropped out before classes ever began.

I was also a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Continuing Scholar Graduate Award recipient for a few weeks as well...but I dropped that, too.

I do not feel good about my decisions at the moment, but a couple of months ago, on the heels of graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from North Central College in...what else?...Anthrozoology!...I became completely overwhelmed and exhausted, and sadly, just saying no seemed like a solid idea.

Now I am feeling some regret.

I balked at the thought of writing one more paper, added to the existing load of a disabled daughter, a house under construction, a husband about to undergo surgery, a fifteen year old son on high school swim team, a dog training business to run, and a brand new litter of German Shepherd puppies born two days before my graduation, well...yeah. I was pretty overwhelmed. And I have no vices to fall back on, to aid coping during those tough times that seem to crop up WAY too frequently. I try to ride stress out, but sometimes it rides me, and wears me down.

Did I mention that I am 53? (Actually I'll be 54 in less than two months.)
No, but there it is; I am. Old. At least for my college years.

I was a late bloomer. I dropped out of school at 17 to pursue self education and self employment. Despite being perpetually interested in almost everything, especially animal behavior, I was really lonely. I missed out on a large part of the learning experience, namely discourse, though I didn't know that up until four years ago. That is when, one cold January day, I took the GED at our local (wonderful!) community college, the College of DuPage. I did pretty well, there, and they featured me in some press: Student Spotlight: Peggy Moran.

My late-in-life scholarly pursuits have been good for me, if grueling; and now, unplugged and a drop-out again, I feel pretty discouraged.

But enough about me; I want to talk about Anthrozoology, the multidisciplinary academic field also known as human-nonhuman animal studies.

I intend to use this blog as my own, hopefully-not-but-probably-once-again-pretty-lonely, compensatory attempt to self-educate. No more scholarship? No problem!

I am going to be a grad school homeschooler!  

Despite that sounding just as weird as it is, if you are reading this, please consider being my classmate. I am not trying to get a degree, or even a better job; I am just very, very interested in connections, especially ones that pertain to other living beings of both the human and nonhuman sort. Maybe you are, too.

Perhaps we can learn together, you and I--provided there is a you out there, reading this...
I sure hope so!