Sometimes I worry about the fact that many people still tend to perceive dogs as being little four-footed humans in fur coats. While this may be understandable in casual interactions between a person and a well loved pet, it is not something which is excusable for officers in a major kennel club.
The situation that caught my attention started with a series of performances on the TV competition "Britain's Got Talent". On this show, a white mixed breed dog named Pudsey performed several dance routines with his 16-year-old owner, Ashleigh Butler. The pair danced together, with Pudsey doing pirouettes on his hind legs, weaving through the arms and around the legs of his young mistress, then jumping up into Ashleigh's arms, onto her shoulders and then off again in a victory leap. When this dance duet won the competition, it immediately spiked interest in many other dog owners in the UK who began training their dogs to perform similar routines.
It is at this point when the Kennel Club, which is the Britain's governing body for dog activities, stepped in. The committee in charge decided to address what may be considered to be legitimate concerns over some of the dance moves performed by Pudsey which it felt were “extreme” or “unnatural.” The concern was that that such moves could possibly injure a dancing dpg. This is a valid concern for such a group, and as a result the Kennel Club announced that it was instituting a ban on a number of the dance moves that had made Pudsey so popular. Among the outlawed moves are:
- Shoulder jumps: in which the dog leaps from the owner’s shoulders, which the kennel club claims risks a sprain. (This is one of Pudsey's favorite moves).
- Walking on front paws: which the committee claims can damage joints.
- The wheelbarrow: where the dog’s hind legs are held by the owner and the animal is walked on its front legs. The claim is that this can damage the dog’s back and pelvis.
- The footstand: where the handler lies on the ground with his feet in the air and the dog stands on these. The Kennel Club worries that if the dog slipped, it could sprain a leg.
- Walking on hind legs: which is claimed to be a problem if done for longer than around 10 seconds because it can damage the joints. (This particular trick is at the core of many dog dance routines.)
Now the scientist in me would like to see some data supporting the Kennel Club's claims of injury risk. For example, is there any data that supports the assertion that 10 seconds walking on hind legs is safe for dogs while 20 seconds is unsafe? I certainly could find no such evidence in the scientific or veterinary literature.
I do recognize that dancing, like any other athletic activity, always opens the possibility for some accidental mishap which results in injury. This holds for human beings as well as dogs. Every time a ballet dancer leaps, or pirouettes, or is involved in a lift, there is a chance of a stumble or a missed landing that can result in injury. However my feeling is that the risk for the dog is no greater than the risk for the human dancer who is its partner, Still I can understand how a kennel club might choose to err on the side of conservatism and to ban certain dance moves that might raise the probability of injury to a dog. Let me assure you that if the Kennel Club had stopped with simply banning those particular activities this article would never have been written. However, it is the additional set of regulations which the Kennel Club also imposed on performing dogs that suggests an error in their thinking and calls into question the true motives behind the new rules.
Along with the regulations that appear to be aimed at increasing dog safety are a set of rules against any routines that might be perceived as being "degrading" to the canine performers. This includes dressing the animals in costumes (although apparently fancy dress is still permitted for their human dance partners).
Caroline Kisko, the Kennel Club's secretary, has stated that dogs wearing fancy dress costumes would definitely not be tolerated.
"We are trying to stop what we would see as demeaning for the dog," Kisko said. "They are allowed to wear a certain amount - perhaps the equivalent of a dog coat. But we would absolutely not expect the dog to turn up in a full Santa Claus kit, for instance."
"Demeaning for the dog"? Does Ms. Kisko really think that the dog feels shame by having to wear a tutu, or skirt, or a clown hat and collar? Perhaps the Kennel Club has not read the scientific literature about the canine mind. The most recent evidence shows that a dog has a mind equivalent to a human being aged 2 to 2 1/2 years of age. At that age a child has all of the basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise. However it will not be until the child reaches 4 to 6 years of age that he or she will develop the more complex social emotions which involve learned components, such as guilt, pride, embarrassment or the emotion that the kennel club seems to want to protect dogs from, shame.
Every Christmas I costume my dogs with a collar made of fake holly leaves, and a large sleigh bell hanging from it. They also wear felt antlers to make them look like tiny reindeer. They do look remarkably silly, and everyone laughs, especially the grandchildren. Do my dogs feel shame? Am I demeaning them? The dogs obviously do not think so, since they thrive on the attention that they get, including the extra petting and a few additional treats. They also seem to enjoy and the happy voices which tell them how cute they are.
The Kennel Club should stop trying to treat dogs as if they are little people. They are not. They are dogs. Although they might have the minds of a child of 2 1/2 years age they do not have the minds of the human adult. They certainly do not have the feelings of morality and propriety that might be felt by officers and officials of the Kennel Club. Because Ms. Kisko might feel that she was being demeaned if she was forced to wear a tutu or a funny hat, does not mean that Lassie or Rover does.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission