Why Dogs Matter
Dogs matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings.
Posted Jan 01, 2019
Why dogs matter, what's a dog worth
"I love my dog because she is"
One of my favorite books by the late British philosopher and animal advocate Dr. Mary Midgley is titled Animals and Why They Matter. It's worth quoting the book's brief description because the subjects with which Dr. Midgley was concerned more than 35 years ago are still highly relevant today. Her concise book "examines the barriers that our philosophical traditions have erected between human beings and animals and reveals that the too-often ridiculed subject of animal rights is an issue crucially related to such problems within the human community as racism, sexism, and age discrimination. Mary Midgley's profound and clearly written narrative is a thought-provoking study of the way in which the opposition between reason and emotion has shaped our moral and political ideas and the problems it has raised. Whether considering vegetarianism, women's rights, or the "humanity" of pets, this book goes to the heart of the question of why all animals matter."
Dogs matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings
In a conversation I overheard at a coffee house a few days ago a young girl (I'll call her Arianne) said, "I love my dog because she is." Arianna then went on to tell everyone at the table how wonderful her Sadie is, enthusiastically spelling out many of the reasons so many people share their lives with a dog. She said Sadie was her best friend, loved just about everyone, and was always there when she needed her. I was so happy to hear Arianne say Sadie "loved just about everyone," because dogs are not unconditional lovers, although they're often mischaracterized as if they are. In fact, dogs are rather choosey in the ways in which they interact with humans and they are not our best friends. (See "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?")
I smiled as I listened to Arianne extol Sadie's wonderful traits, and my friend asked me, "Did you hear what that young girl just said?" I did, pocketed it, and just this morning I thought about it again. What caught my ear was the "is" in Arianne saying, "I love my dog because she is." I also thought what a great message with which to begin 2019.
Summarizing what Arianne said, I came up with dogs matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings. Solid scientific research supports these claims (see also). They also help some people cope with various maladies, both emotional and physical. For Arianne, the word "is" simply means that Sadie matters because she is alive and valuable, not only for what she can do for us (often called an individual's "instrumental value"), but rather because she is a living breathing being and that's all that matters. I couldn't agree more. I wish I could have asked Arianne what she meant, but it was clear to me and my friend that Sadie matters simply because she "is."
What's a dog worth. Along these lines, people often ask, "What's a dog worth?" While most are thinking in monetary terms, my answer is that each and every dog's life is priceless because, as Arianne aptly said, they exist -- they are alive. Dogs (and other nonhumans) aren't objects on which one should put a price-tag, although many people do.
Dogs matter because they can serve as members of a "gateway" species who help people bridge the empathy gap by extending goodwill toward individuals of other species who are routinely abused and killed by humans in different venues, and by being more consistent in how they feel about other animals, (See "Walking a Dog Can Help Us Walk the Talk about Other Animals" and links therein.) These other animal beings do not suffer less than dogs when they're mistreated and abused, so it's important to ask, "Why the disconnect?" and "Why are there rampant and blatant inconsistencies in how dogs (and other companion animals) are treated and how non-companion animals are treated?"
Let dogs be dogs
Let's welcome in 2019 by focusing on why dogs (and, of course, other animals) matter. And let's do all we can to give each and every individual the very best life possible in an increasingly human-dominated world. And, let dogs be dogs and recognize that each and every dog is a unique individual with a unique personality and view of the world.
Please stay tuned for more discussion of these and other topics that focus on dog behavior and dog-human relationships. Canine science is a rapidly developing field, and almost daily something appears in my email inbox about research in this area. And, keep in mind that available evidence makes it very clear that dogs are not necessarily our best friends and are not unconditional lovers, so it's high time to recognize these facts and learn more about why this is so. We owe it to dogs to learn more about the various relationships they form with humans and more about who they are and what they feel. We need to better understand their perspective and how they sense their world. As we do, it will surely help us appreciate that there likely are very good reasons why not all humans consider dogs to be their best friends, and why not all dogs are unconditional lovers.
As the Year of the Dog comes to an end on 4 February 2019, it would be a good idea for people who choose to share their homes and hearts with a dog(s) to celebrate every year as the year of the dog. And better yet, it would be wonderful to make every day the best day it can be for all dogs. Let them play to their heart's content and have fun with their friends including dogs, other nonhumans, and humans. And, let them be who they are. Most dogs don't get what they need from their or other humans and we can always do more for them. (See "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us," "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them," and links therein.)
As we learn more about dog behavior and dog-human relationships, there will be many valuable lessons about how to form and maintain the closest and best possible reciprocal social bonds given who the individual dog is and who the humans with whom they interact are, and it will be a win-win for all.
And, keep in mind and heart what Arianne said, namely, that Sadie matters because Sadie is.
A comment I received from Dr. Patricia Gowaty:
"Indeed, I love Rocky 'cause he is…. and, I can’t help but mention he is also, kind, wonderful, thoughtful, and sentient. He’s even diplomatic, choosing to sleep closest one night to me and the next to Steve (Hubbell). And, occasionally, he is a jokester. It’s very, very funny when he plays jokes on us, as when he furtively usurps the best seat in our video room….and then refuses to give it up, always with that look in his twinkling eye. Steve is delighted to realize how much Rocky knows of the world and how effectively he communicates it. Steve just didn’t know and he tells me daily 'I didn’t know', always with a glow of appreciation for who Rocky is."
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, New World Library, 2019.