1st Prize 2015 Sentient Student Essay Competition
What do we talk about when we talk about dogs?
By WanRan Luo
What do we talk about when we talk about dogs? Usually we speak, smiling, in terms of love, of touch, and of laughter. There is little question that mankind is drawn to dogs- we have made approximately three hundred and forty flavours of our familiar canine friend. Our biophilia is instinctive, covetous – and selfish.
For all that we love our dogs, the human-canine relationship is commonly defined only along the human’s terms. In its most elementary form, we see this in our inability to understand them. Anyone who has lived on the internet has seen videos of ‘funny dogs’. These generate millions of views and likes, but often the comedy is derived from the attitude of a highly uncomfortable dog. Not only does this reveal the disconnect between us and our dogs, it normalises their distress and makes it okay for us to laugh about it. Additionally, the constant stream of reports about people attacked by the family pet – “with no warning!”- demonstrates either the prevalence of psychopathy in dogs or our inability to recognise signs of stress. Unfortunately, even our attempts to initate play are less successful than we’d like.
A more complex form of silencing our dogs comes from our suppression of their autonomy. We jerk the leash when the dog fails to walk with us. A small dog is picked up whenever a human wants it. We force dogs to interact by cuddling them even when they are uncomfortable with it. By taking away what little choice they have, we frustrate their attempts to communicate their needs, wants, and preferences.
Studies have repeatedly found that removal of choice is very stressful. Uncontrollable stressors produce negative physiological and behavioural effects such as gastric ulcers, immune suppression, and learned helplessness. An animal which is allowed to exercise choice is calmer, more tolerant, and plays more. On the part of the human, an important element of the pleasure we find in a dog’s company is their surprising and amusing behaviour, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. These are lost when the animal does not feel free to choose or play.
The one-sided nature of the human-canine relationship creates health and behavioural problems in our dogs, endangers the human-animal bond, and is sometimes actively dangerous. Perhaps most crucially, it is a matter of life and death to many dogs. The latest statistics show that, in the space of a year, 4700 dogs were euthanased by the RSPCA Australia due to ‘behavioural’ reasons - nearly 70% of the total number euthanased. As the custodian of animal welfare and the human-animal bond, it is imperative that the veterinary profession addresses this issue. As the perceived authority of such matters, it certainly has the power to do so. However, the unique nature of pet ownership presents ethical challenges that may complicate a clinician’s approach to the problem.
The ethical problem therein stems from a conflict of interest between the owner and the dog.
Companion animals, and especially the dog, are called upon to fulfill several different roles in an owner’s life. They can be a simple wellspring of unconditional love, a substitute for parents, spouses, children, or friends, an extension of the self, a toy, a symbol of social status, and more often than not, a mixture of some or all of the above. However, a degree of anthropomorphisation is required for the owner to perceive the dog as fulfilling some of these roles, especially where it is to be a substitute for human interaction. By viewing canine behaviour through human-colored lenses, we risk suppressing or misreading the dog’s self expression.
The interests of the dog can only be inferred. We can present them with choices and gather from their behaviour what they prefer and do not prefer, even if we cannot extrapolate their emotional needs. Dogs, being animals, prefer to have choice and control over their environment, and prefer to live with minimum stress.
A conflict of interest occurs when the human needs to cuddle but the dog finds the experience threatening. It occurs when the human wants to run an errand while walking the dog but the dog wants to peruse the daily urine bulletin at every tree on the way- so on and so forth. The question of how these conflicts should be resolved is the fundamental ethical question of how we should act towards animals.
There have been innumerable attempts to answer this question. However, none so far have been satisfactory. The utilitarian approach fails because, the problematic nature of measuring pleasure and suffering aside, it seems inherently wrong to let a dog live in anxiety if it would make a family happy. There will always be those who walk away from Omelas. Kant asserts that to cause an animal suffering may not be wrong in itself, but is impermissible because in doing so the perpetrator “damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind”. However, many feel that there is indeed inherent wrongness in causing distress to animals. The animal rights movement rides upon the validity of natural rights, which remains dubious.
Each ethical theory fails because they are unable to satisfy our moral intuition. This raises the distinct possibility that if we try to put these intuitions about right and wrong into words and axioms, we may be doing so in vain. In making moral judgements, we are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes deontological, sometimes virtuous, but we are always exercising empathy. Empathy as the only morality is worthy of consideration, but even dismissing moral sentimentalism, empathy is crucial to making moral judgements. When the veterinarian finds herself weighing the interests of the owner and those of the pet, she will do well to keep her empathy well honed.
In attempting to resolve the conflict between a human and her dog, the veterinary profession must commit itself to advocacy and education. The veterinarian must model the offering of choice in the clinic wherever possible, which can be as simple as asking before petting. Though veterinarians are not generally thought of as educators, we must learn the skills of relaying knowledge with clarity and conviction, so that we can help our clients understand the language of their dogs.
Perhaps even more important than the education of pet owners is the education of the veterinarian herself, who must reliably identify stress in the human-animal bond on either side of the relationship before she can begin to diagnose and treat it. Unfortunately, the ability of a veterinarian to empathise with her patient can be dulled by the very education she goes through to become a vet.
Vet school divorces the animal as a feeling individual from the animal as a subject of study, dissection, and treatment. Concern about an animal’s welfare must not get in the way of our education. In the dissection lab, it is acceptable to linger a while over the stark reality of death, but we are expected to get on with it. We must get on with it. Questions about an animal’s tolerance of a procedure, especially with regards to livestock, always have a succinct and definitive answer that does not invite discussion. The practical class must go on.
The implicit values and norms of the profession that a veterinary student absorbs is intimately linked to the issue of gender. The urge to put aside feeling for doing is characteristic of a society and a profession in which, until very recently, male-socialised voices have touted culturally masculine traits over feminine ones. In 1960, the veterinary profession was 98 percent male. The number of women enrolled in veterinary school only exceeded the number of men two decades later. Given that the majority of academics in Australia and probably everywhere else is aged over 50 years, it is not unreasonable to conclude that most of the teaching staff in veterinary school are male. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of veterinary students today are female. The ‘hidden curriculum’ of veterinary school conflicts with the inner twelve-year-old girl who still believes in being kind to animals. This creates cognitive dissonance, which is usually resolved in one of two w ays. Some drop out of vet school, thereby depriving the profession of strong and alternative voices with regard to animal welfare and ethics. Others assimilate the values and norms, and in doing so blunt their empathy and are less able to identify insidious welfare issues in pet ownership and elsewhere. Where the assimilation is incomplete, it may plausibly contribute to the high rate of mental illness in the profession.
For this reason, the veterinary profession will do well to encourage and give due consideration to the emergent diversity of voices, a diversity that includes not only gender but also race, age, sexuality, social class, mental and physical disability, and so on. By hearing their voices we exercise and strengthen our ability to empathise, and by listening to what they say we discover novel and inclusive solutions to our problems.
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