A few weeks ago, I received some emails about a new book by Jeff Lazarus called Dogtology: Live. Bark. Believe. I hadn't heard about it previously, so being an obsessed dog lover myself and avid student of anthrozoology (the study of human-animal relationships), I ordered it and looked forward to reading it. Here's a brief take on this entertaining and thought-provoking book.
What is Dogtology?
Dog·tol·o·gy is a noun that has two components:
1. The belief in Dog.
2. The system of rituals, practices, and behaviors engaged in by Dogtologists.
The book's description reads: "Chew on this. As humans, we have a deep need to believe . . . a need to relate to something greater and more ideal than ourselves. Perhaps that's why so many millions believe in Dog. Man's devotion to Dog has come to rival the great -isms and -ologies of the world. This has gone way beyond a hobby. We may not literally worship Dogs, but we come pawfully close. This rabid reverence for Rover has a name: It's called Dogtology. Dogtology is for the dog lover who has bailed on a date because they didn't want Twinkles to be left home alone, for the human whose dog owns a more festive holiday wardrobe than they do, those whose pups dine on free-range bison burgers while they live off ramen, or whose smartphones have more photos of their dog than of the humans in their family. Live. Bark. Believe. Dogtology is a humorous exploration of man's fanatical devotion to Dog. In this book, Lazarus makes the case that Dogtology has become a bone-a-fide belief system on par with the world's great philosophies and religions."
Is your dog on Whizzbook?
Throughout Dogtology there are numerous "cute" phrases such as the one above—"pawfully close"—and the section on terminology at the end is called "Furminology." Here we see entries such as "barktism," "Book of Fleas," "Dog-ma," "Dogtologist," "pawspective," "storypeeing," and "Whizzbook." Whizzbook is "the real doggie social network on which dogs 'post' daily comments via storypeeing." (p. 171).
Dogs are not blank slates: They are not unconditional lovers nor do they live in the moment
I'm glad I read Dogtology, but, in my humble opinion, it's a mixed bag. It's a fun read and I surely found myself chuckling here and there and thinking about my own obsession with the many dogs with whom I've shared my home and my life. These are experiences I wouldn't trade for others.
However, because it's essential to present dogs as the beings who they truly are and, because I've studied dogs for decades and obsessively read what other researchers write about dogs, there were a few claims that made me cringe. As I pointed out in a previous essay called "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks," many —too many—myths about dogs prevail and are perpetuated in popular essays and books about these most amazing beings.
So, for example, in the chapter called "THE BOOK OF BONES," Mr. Lazarus writes, "When you think about it, the things we get from Dog every day are the very things we typically seek through spiritual or metaphysical belief: love, unconditional acceptance, non-judgment, loyalty, a feeling of partnership in life, inspiration, courage, steadfastness, and joy." (p. 16)
I agree that many people get many of these things from dogs, however, dogs do not unconditionally accept humans. Indeed, they are rather selective and will snub mean people. They discriminate among humans just like we discriminate among dogs. Mr. Lazarus also writes, "Dog Is Unconditionally Loving." (p. 19) While dogs might on occasion love “too much,” they’re very careful about to whom they open up. Anyone who has rescued an abused dog knows just how selective she or he can be. Thinking of dogs as blank slates and as "unconditional lovers" misrepresents who they really are.
Another overstatement in Dogtology can be found in the section called "The Ten Noble Qualities of Dog." Here, Mr. Lazarus writes, "Dog Lives in the Moment," (p. 17) He then goes on and claims, "Dog exists in the now. Not in the five minutes ago. Not in the tomorrow. The now." However, this is not so. As I wrote in "Butts and Noses," the past clearly influences a dog's behavior—just ask anyone who's rescued an abused dog. And, they think about the future—just watch a dog running to the front door when their human says something like, "Wanna walk?" or a dog waiting for a frisbee or a ball to be thrown and watch them track the trajectory, although tracking might not be conscious, even in humans. Nothing really is lost about the awesome character of many dogs by recognizing that a dog's life, like ours, is influenced by his or her past and what they're thinking about the future.
Finally, while I understand why the author uses the word "dog" rather than "dogs," the use of "dog" ignores the individual personalities of dogs, a trait that many find to be so alluring. Talking about "the dog" can often be misleading and perilous. A dog is not a dog is not a dog...However, once again, recognizing individual differences among dogs does not in any way lessen their appeal. We can still be "religious" about these fascinating beings.
Surely, dogs openly share with us a lot about what they know and what they’re thinking and feeling, and we just have to be keen enough and patient enough to figure it all out. We surely can learn a lot from the kindness of dogs (please see "The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar's Gotta Go").
Dogs also are wonderful social catalysts and social magnets, and these traits can also help us learn a lot about ourselves. And, yes, Mr. Lazarus is right on the mark when he notes that we can suffer from "Doggie Deprivation" (p. 148) and that numerous people are totally taken with dogs and interact with them with religious zeal, often to the detriment of their relationships with other humans.
Mr. Lazarus' "The Seven Dudly Sins" (p. 153) also is rather interesting. These include, "Reneging on a promise of a walk, Removing sleeping dog from a bed or sofa, Failing to deliberately drop scraps during food preparation, Using the vacuum cleaner, ever, at any time, Stopping a dog's butt scootch while in progress—especially when visitors are in the room, Buying a covered (i.e. snack-proof) litter box, [and] Doing the fake ball throw." If dogs didn't think about the future why would "Reneging on a promise of a walk" or "Doing the fake ball throw" be dudly sins?
As I wrote above, I enjoyed Dogtology. My suggestion is for readers to revel in the author's take on dogs and reflect on what dogs mean to them. Even if some of the traits about which Mr. Lazarus writes are not universal to all dogs, this does not mean that dogs mean any less to the millions of people who are lucky enough to share their lives with these wonderful animals. I know that the many dogs with whom I've shared my life have made it far better than it would have been absent their company. I thank them with all my heart for sharing their lives with me.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)