How to speak of dogs
‘No one is more thoughtless than a lemming, more deceitful than a cat, more slobbering than a dog in August, more smelly than a piglet, more hysterical than a horse, more idiotic than a moth, more slimy than a snail, more poisonous than a viper, less imaginative than an ant, and less musically creative than a nightingale. Simply put, we must love—or, if that is downright impossible, at least respect—these and other animals for what they are’.
Umberto Eco, 1987
I recently came across an article which grabbed my attention; it debated that the education of children on the nature of animals has shifted over the years between two ends of a spectrum: from absolute vilification to an absolute romanticization.
‘The tales of earlier times overdid the wicked wolf, the tales of today exaggerate the good wolves. We must save the whales, not because they are good, but because they are a part of nature's inventory and they contribute to the ecological equilibrium. Instead, our children are raised with whales that talk, wolves that join The Third Order of St. Francis, and, above all, an endless array of teddy bears.’ Umberto Eco's words, written almost three decades ago echo still highly relevant today.
Initially, the article made me think of the cultural gap between my generation's love for animals and my grandparents' fear and aversion for them. The crush of ideologies that perplexed me since I was a child and I frequently used the logical side of my brain to attribute it to the different experiences and circumstances of their upbringing, in distinct contrast with mine. Their memories of poverty and hunger-stricken times, when farm animals did not have regular de-fleeing medicine, nor necessarily a vet on speed dial and these sickly animals had to be housed within the already crowded homes to create some warmth. In contrast, I grew up in a comfortable clean apartment, where food was always on the table, amidst adverts featuring cute and fluffy puppies, an overflowing array of stuffed animals ornamenting my bed, and all the animals I was coming across were clean and healthy.
But then my mind drifted further, to the ways Eco's idea can be useful to someone in the habit (or profession) of helping dog owners improve their bond with their dogs. How Eco’s theory, broad and applicable to all animals, can be also be used as a prism through which to examine the attitude and vocabulary we use when speaking of dogs in particular. Words are so powerful, and it is not a surprise that the ones we choose influence much more than just our speech…they create narratives in our brains, stories we tell ourselves, they create labels, barriers and expectations sometimes we are completely unaware of, or, even if we know of its existence in our subconscious part of the bran, we still struggle to overcome its patterns consciously.
I have been a witness of the ease with which our society brands of some dog as aggressive, or of some breeds as dangerous. And I find it unfair and narrow-minded. However, in my opinion, the most common and dangerous narrative a lot of us have believed to be true at some point in our lives, is the one of the always social, always cuddly, always adaptable pet dog. The dog that must greet every other dog happily at all times, that must welcome being petted by everyone at all times, and must be at ease regardless of the challenges of the environment.
But, we forget that dogs are not robots.
They have feelings of their own, and it is time we acknowledge this simple truth.
In order to start shifting this narrowing perspective, I usually ask people to imagine themselves in each one of these situations. Would they feel happy to have someone touch them without asking? Would they be comfortable if a stranger ran up to them and hugged them on the street? Would they be all smiles if someone woke them up pulling them to get out of bed? Why can’t we just accept our dogs need to have a voice? Agency over their bodies, and a choice over what and when things are happening to them?
On the other hand, could a dog be all the above and be happy? ABSOLUTELY.
Could a dog NOT fit into the above description completely AND be happy? Of course!
Does a dog HAVE to tick all the above boxes to fit the description of a good dog? Not really…
Does a dog that is less tolerant still deserve our love and a place in our hearts? Of course!
See, the thing is, life in urban centres is nowadays characterised by a fast pace and constant bombarding of stimulation. Neither we or our dogs are physically, mentally and emotionally able to keep up operating at this pace.
Our dogs need guidance, protection from the scary and the crazy, understanding when things become overwhelming, and, ultimately, the power to make choices for themselves.
They also need us to take a moment to consider how we speak of them.