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. 

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