Thursday, March 3, 2011


“Extraordinary creature! So close a friend” said Thomas Mann of his spaniel in his 1918 Essay Herr und Hund. It’s clear that Mann was a man who, when not meditating on the tensions of industrial modernity, liked to walk his dog. You’d be hard pushed to find a better account of the closeness between man and beast or a more eloquent testament of the power to see canines as crypto-humans (though without all the irritating baggage of actual people). For those of us less enamoured, this closeness is something of a source of puzzlement.  Dogs are supposed to endearing, faithful and even beautiful? Man’s Best Friend (assuming that whoever wrote that phrase had some human friends). In the parks of Lewes I am surrounded by people enjoying their pets (and the odd terrified child). I can’t help but wonder then just what is the trouble (or rather my trouble) with dogs?

It’s clear that human/dog camaraderie has been around for a while. The domestication of the wolf  is likely to have started at least 15,000 years ago presumably when some hungry stray decided that wondering into a human village and making a cute face was a good strategy for surviving the rigours of the ice age. Initially bred for work it’s clear that the new, more docile, wolves at some point also gained companion status. Can those who find pooches a pain in the arse have been far behind?

One thing that suggests they are more common than one might think is the large number pejorative uses of the word “dog”. Calling someone a dog signals something less than enthusiasm about their abilities or physical attractiveness. It can indicate low quality (that car is a dog), a poor investment (Enron was a dog) or a questionable effort (dog it). I expect the pre-dynastic Chinese (likely the first pet dog pet owners) had an equivalent phrase for “going to the dogs” to signal the Yangtze Valley neighbourhood taking a dive: Perhaps as a result of the increased in pooh. If you get bored with the word there are a number of negatively connoted synonyms of which flea-bag is one of the more polite. And the troubles with dogs are clearly many. They bark and occasionally bite. They have unfortunate ways of “making friends”, frequently smell (as do you after your un-wanted encounter with them) and their liberally shared faeces contain nasty bacteria.

It may be though that it is churlish to blame them for all this. Despite millennia of breeding it is difficult for dogs to be anything other than... well doggy. It could be here that the real trouble lies. After all it’s people who own them, fail to clear up their excrement and insist that their overtures are friendship. It’s owners who let them out to pee and yap at 6.30 AM. There is plenty of evidence that even dangerous dogs are actually the product of irresponsible owners rather than breeds we assume are aggressive. It’s humans who imbue dogs with emotions akin to our own. Perhaps the trouble with dogs is the trouble with another species.

I’m beginning to think maybe Thomas Mann had a point.

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