Cave Canem Part I: Loving The Alien

April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

BUZZ-V1 (The Lab Model), 50cm x 50cm, Oil on Canvas

Cave Canem | beware of the dog

In Susan McHugh’s excellent book Dog (published in 2004 by Reaktion), she describes the domestic dog – Canis familiaris – as a liminal creature. By this she means that the species occupies a position quite literally on the doorstep between the human world and nature; guarding the entrance to that mysterious, dangerous and chaotic terrain … a place – or space – that we often prefer to feel separated from by the thin, membranous, comfort-blankets of culture and linguistic distinctions.

According to some genetic evidence dogs may have occupied this threshold for 500,000 years – though this is debatable and archaeologists would immediately point to the lack of evidence in the fossil record.  Whatever the pre-historical circumstances, we have shared our meals and habitations – and in some cases our graves – with dogs for at least 12,000 years. These millennia of co-evolution and domestication – some might argue mutual domestication because humans have also adapted to the needs of dogs – have led to the morphing of canine body shapes and  a convergence of canid and hominid mental states. We have come to understand each other on a physical-hormonal and psychological level; becoming attuned to the nuances of each other’s body language and emotions.  

When we decided to bring a dog into our family, I was determined to avoid the pitfall of seeing him as familiar – I wanted to hold on to the strangeness of the presence of this beautiful, furred, four legged creature, with his super-sensory olfactory system and bizarre, wagging tail.

I really wanted to see how surprised I could become by the ‘event’ of bringing Canis familiaris into my domestic space.

Donna Haraway in When Species Meet has written about the profound ontological complexities that derive from viewing human nature as an inter-species relationship; of the importance of taking seriously these complexities, these ‘lively knottings’ that tie together the world we inhabit. She discusses becoming ‘worldly’ through the process of ‘grappling with rather than generalising from the ordinary’ – of enriching experience through knowledge and unprejudiced encounter  … 

My intention in these three short articles is to think hard about this most familiar of companion species, to really take my relationship with my dog seriously. 

Part I: Loving The Alien

“Most of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves. Everyone has seen how jealous a dog is of his master’s affection, if lavished on any other creature … a dog carrying a basket for his master exhibits in a high degree self-complacency or pride. There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear and something very like modesty when begging too often for food.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

Is this love? When I look into your beautiful eyes; so bright, and the colour of polished tortoiseshell, I wonder if it could be. But then you turn your gaze …

My brief love affair with Charlie began early in the summer of 2011. As soon as I met him I knew that we were destined to be together. The romance lasted through the heat of June until, all too soon, the dreadful truth was revealed. Charlie had problems – serious issues – he was prone to biting children.

As far as we could tell, Charlie was a collie/Labrador cross. We had ‘re-homed’ him from the RSPCA in Chesterfield. We didn’t know much about his past, but now we can surmise that he had a history of abuse at the hands of small children. The pain of separation was greatest for my wife and child. I had more of a sense of detachment, and – owing to my own family biology – probably a greater desensitisation to loss, but I still found it very hard to say goodbye to Charlie.

We now have a new companion animal called Buzz. He is a Labrador retriever. If you enter the words yellow Labrador retriever into google images you will see exactly what Buzz looks like. He is an off-the-peg designer dog, a textbook example of the most popular dog breed in the UK. He is descended from Avon (“Buccleuch Avon”) and Ned, two dogs given by the Earl of Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch’s Labrador breeding program in the 1880s. If you examine him closely you will discover that he has webbed paws and an ‘otter tail’ for swimming. Other aspects of his nature – his placid disposition and his apparent  willingness (or desire) to please have come about through a combination of biotechnology (breeding) and emasculation.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the delightful Buzz and I now find that Charlie is less and less in my thoughts … though I doubt that I will ever forget him entirely. You never forget those that you love …

So, this issue of love. As we can see – according to Wikipedia – ‘love’ is a word that means a lot of things. But what does it mean in this context? Did I truly love Charlie and did he love me? I think I love Buzz – and I have told him so many times – but does he love me? It is difficult to be objective when talking about emotions – some behavioural scientists believe that every attempt should be made to explain the behaviour of other species without referring to emotions at all – because emotions are ultimately subjective and therefore not a ‘proper’ subject for scientific enquiry. This tradition of thought, known as Morgan’s Canon after C. Lloyd Morgan – and which essentially condemns attributions of complex emotions as anthropomorphism – reads thus:

‘In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower in the psychological scale’.

Morgan wrote this in 1894, these days we would substitute the word ‘simpler’ for the word ‘lower’. In my opinion both of these terms would seem to echo anthropocentric judgements of relative ‘value’ – and I am not entirely comfortable with either of them.

In any case, many Biologist’s prefer the less loaded term ‘attachment’ to the word ‘love’…

But is it really true that Buzz is just a Cartesian, biological mechanism? Is my assessment of our growing emotional bond always to be tied up with an inevitable anthropomorphism? I am not sure that I would agree with the 81% of dog owners that would ascribe the emotion of jealousy to their canine companions, but I do believe that it is possible to hold a logical view that allows us to credit dogs with emotions that might be comparable to our own – yet still acknowledges the “otherness” of these – other – animals.

The massive amount of kinky human neocortex does, in neurological terms, suggest a more complex consciousness, a greater self awareness; but it also allows us the ability to distance ourselves from emotion – which can be very handy, in a lot of ways, if you want to rationalise your privileged human status.

As I stroke Buzz my blood pressure drops – as does that of Buzz. This is the effect of natural opioids – endorphins such as the neurohomone dopamine – that are produced in the mammalian brian during social bonding activities; during play and mutual contact. Although this occurs in a number of loci within our neural hardwiring, there is a particular concentration of this activity in the limbic system; also, poignantly enough, the locus for the sense of smell, which – at up to 100 million times greater sensitivity – is something not to be sniffed at in our canine companions.

When it comes to stroking there is another chemical mutually released – the motherly hormone oxytocin.

Chemical love? I ponder on the extent to which our brains mirror this intoxication, this shared and heady cocktail …

Like dogs, human beings have also developed the ability to honestly communicate their emotions in order to benefit the sustaining family units that have brought us together out of prehistory.  I have no doubt that my affection – my love – for Buzz is returned to some degree, and that he craves my affection no less than I myself do from the other members of my family.

Although, however much I love him, he will never be one of my children – he doesn’t even look like me. He looks, well, rather alien to tell the truth …

Next – Part 2: What is a dog?


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