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on November 12, 2012
"Canine science is intended to shed light not only on what makes dogs dogs but on what makes people people," says John Homans. What's a Dog For? reviews a wealth of canine science. Some of it pertains to wolves, the dog's genetic ancestor, but wolves don't necessarily tell us much about dogs, at least from a behavioral perspective. Some of it examines a dog's cognitive skills, including the ability to interpret human gestures. Some of it addresses the reasons people seek canine companionship. Dogs are a hedge against loneliness. Dogs are part of our families, but they also fill the gaps when our families disintegrate. When we gaze into a dog's eyes, our levels of oxytocin -- a hormone that promotes bonding and attachment --spike. Perhaps a dog's purpose is to sustain the mental health of dog lovers. While the health benefits of dog ownership are disputed, one study result stands out in my mind as being undeniably correct: dogs are better stress relievers than spouses.
We bestow honorary personhood upon dogs (at least the dogs we love), but are they entitled to it? The central question, according to Homans, is whether dogs, during the course of their long association with humans, have taken on human qualities. It's clear that dogs have developed communicative and cooperative abilities that surpass those of their ancestral wolves, but those abilities appear to be an outgrowth of tameness and are not necessarily unique to dogs (tame Siberian foxes, for instance, exhibit some of the same traits). But that may mean that dogs (and some other tame animals) are much like humans in this sense: they have evolved a capacity for cooperation that supplants the instinctive trait of competition. In other words, dogs are like humans because they are willing to look to others for help when they need it (and dogs need lots of help, given their inability to open the refrigerator by themselves). Like many other propositions advanced by canine scientists, this one is far from undisputed. In fact, canine science is a field that is riddled with disagreement. Homans offers a balanced view, taking care to interview scientists who have sharply differing opinions about canine evolution, canine intelligence, canine communication, and a host of other canine topics.
Of course, science only takes us so far. Scientists caution against anthropomorphism while dog lovers (including Charles Darwin) readily attribute human traits to their canine companions. Homans' survey of the research is filtered through his relationship with his dog Stella. He believes Stella experiences guilt and jealousy and that she has a sense of fairness (although her sense of fairness is skewed in her favor: "two treats for me, one for you"). Yet he understands that his yearning for a connection with Stella inclines him toward a bias. Of course Stella experiences human emotions. Of course she's smiling at her family members. Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't. Separating anthropomorphism from rigorous analysis isn't easy.
Stella is part Labrador, so we learn a good bit about the history of Labs. This leads to a discussion of breeding for pedigree (which served the whims of the aristocracy rather than the needs of dogs) and dog shows (which an early breeder demeaned as "the greatest humbug in the world"). Homans also discusses the genetic basis for cross-breeding (to produce, for instance, hypoallergenic dogs) and the risk that such techniques will lead to puppy mills. He takes a look at stray dogs and the ethical controversy that surrounds the practice of euthanizing them, as well as the growing market for rescue dogs. All of this is interesting if familiar, but only tangentially relevant to the question posed by the book's title.
Of greater value, although not explored at length, is a section discussing cultural attitudes toward dogs. Although many dog owners treat their dogs as family members, many others (predominantly in the south) view dogs as property and consider themselves free to fill canvas bags with rocks and unwanted puppies and drop them off a bridge as a means of population control. "To many a southerner," Homans writes, "the notion that a dog is entitled to humanlike treatment is simply loopy." I don't want to disparage southerners, but I'd like to throw them off a bridge if they think they have the right to murder dogs. In any event, Homans makes the telling point that if dogs earn honorary personhood at the moment of adoption, the same rights of personhood should obtain at the moment of birth -- hence the need (even in the South) to regulate puppy mills and build no-kill shelters. Stella, in fact, traveled to a Long Island shelter from Tennessee -- a fortunate journey for both Stella and Homans.
The book concludes with a discussion of the growing consensus that animals deserve to be treated with empathy and compassion. This sets the stage for the ultimate question: To what extent should dogs have rights that override the owner's property rights? It is a broad question more easily asked than answered, and Homans' analysis -- focused largely on the euthanasia versus no-kill debate -- is a bit superficial.
Homans' prose is lively and evocative, making What's a Dog For? a pleasure to read. In the end, all of the historical and scientific information that Homans assembles is interesting and intellectually stimulating, but science and history do little to answer the philosophical question posed by the book's title. Homans addresses it in a final chapter that is both sweet and sad. To me, and to most dog owners, the answer is obvious. What's a dog for? I love my dog. That's what a dog's for.