Discrepancies in America's relationship with dogs

People told me that my experiences abroad would shock me. That it would shock me in ways I didn't even know possible until I was abroad for a while. I wasn't sure I believed them. I thought I was ready for the poverty I would see, for the instances of corruption, the ineffective government structures - and to some extent, I was. But amazingly, what blindsided me was Indian's treatment of pet animals.

Simply put, Indian's treatment of dogs felt brutal. In the rural village I lived, packs of wild dogs roamed the streets and fields; the villagers kept these at a distance, shouting or throwing rocks at any that came too close. A few herding dogs helped the goatherders that passed my hut every morning; there seemed to exist a purely functional, effectionless relationship between owner and owned. Hardly anyone kept dogs as pets, but those that did used playful slaps and kicks as an expression of affection - an expression that was given to friends and children too. The predominant vibe I gathered was that dogs were a competitor to scant resources, and so coddling in any way was absent. The constant onslaught of emaciated, feral, breeding dogs first overwhelmed me emotionally, but ultimately it caused me to deeply question the way we treat them in the West.

I come from am average place of appreciation for dogs for Western families. My family has always had a rotating door for dogs and cats with given names, books full of pictures of me growing up with historical favorites, and a small pet cemetery where even a very large goldfish, Pierre, is buried. I have had plenty of mornings waking up to small warm bodies pressed into the folds of my person, and I spent many hours with my favorite dog, Noogie. I always took it for given that these animals were "family friends", and deserved the privileges that came with that designation. But why do we keep animals as friends, really?

I think there is must be a physical basis for dog appreciation, especially. We are neurologically hardwired to find things with large foreheads and tiny eyes cute; our parental instincts activate and we go into "nurture-mode". Dogs have also been blessed with way of relieving heat, panting, that looks as though they are smiling. And they are generally not big enough to be too physically threatening. All these are practically "power moves" for ensuring cuteness! It's interesting to think how all this might had happened: generation after generation, humans fed scraps to the dog-ancestors that appealed to them the most, thereby selectively breeding these physical traits. Where alligator's genetic path relied on pure predation to selectively endow them with sharper teeth and faster bite, dogs' relied on selective human charity to optimize traits that appeal to the human "d'awww".

But maybe it goes beyond a purely physical appeal. Maybe dogs satisfy an emotional, existential need in us. Dogs have no knowledge of our clothes, labels, financial well-being or physical beauty standards; dogs accept us merely because we are human. And we, being social creatures, crave companionship; in a consumerist society that alienates us from others, dogs provide a respite from a whirlwind of social insecurity. They remind us of a blissfully ignorant ideal; a glimpse into a Garden of Eden existence that we have irrevocably fallen from, and an answer to the question, "Will I always be alone?"

Now, I think this "dogs are our friends" feeling is partially imagined. To understand why, consider the psychological occurrence called the "Halo effect": upon observing one positive characteristic, such as physical beauty or honesty, we "complete the halo" by assuming that other positive traits occur too. In dogs, we see our own positive traits exaggerated, and we happily assume others and allow all negative traits to fall away. Sure, dogs are cute, but are they really innocent, virtuous, and brave? Stray dogs here in India rarely protect anything, and I've seen some take food from their own puppies. On one memorable afternoon, I watched a puppy swallow six live baby mice in a row.

It's quite possible that dogs don't have a concept of basic morals, friendship, or positivity. We just don't have the evidence to say either way. Perhaps in their framework of reality, dogs view us as superior combatants, and, in Dogspeak, they treat us as such, yet we misinterpret their communication and psychologically fill in the gaps to assume that dogs are moral agents that view us as friends. We see them like small humans that never grow up; they have become what we wish we could be but know we are not.

And yet we humans are not at all threatened by this moral perfection we bestow on dogs. Perhaps this is so because dogs act like the consummate subordinate being. There is a reason, after all, that authors refer to a dog and its "master": in their complete and happy dependence on us, dogs happily bask in our complete control. Perhaps the biggest irony is that their ideal servitude precludes actual serving. Many of tasks American housedogs fulfill - fetching recently thrown objects and sitting on command - are utterly useless.

Maybe for us opportunity to subordinate is necessary. Eduardo Paz, a sociologist, observed that the greater a colonized society's subordination, the greater the importance of rigid gender roles and racial differences. He theorized that the more subordinated members of society felt, the more they invest in social structures to subordinate others. This allowed subordinators to reclaim a sense of autonomy. Dogs might fulfill a similar purpose: perhaps they allow even the most disenfranchised person to regain the semblance of autonomy that capitalism has robbed from us. The 70's trope of the father returning from work and kicking the dog fits this model: alienated in the hierarchy of his work, he asserts his domination at home, starting with the dog.

This brings me to my next point: All this makes it is clear to me that we keep dogs at least in part to help ourselves. But do we really know that our Western model helps animals?

Observing the NGO campus dog, Lucky, I don't think she's less happy than her Western counterparts. To be fair, her carb heavy diet is giving her a pot belly, she sleeps outside under bamboo overhangs while monsoons rage, and day after day she endures playful slaps or kicks and not hugs. To my Western senses, this seems less than ideal. But when I pet her, she happily bites back at me, and when I feed her rice and milk, she excitedly laps it up. She lacks the knowledge of Western comfort, and the ability to speculate a life beyond the one she has. I believe she is perfectly happy; she certainly seems happy. I don't think leashes, table food, or cotton beds would impact her exuberant attitude.

Perhaps the example is more stark in the case of the street dogs. They utterly lack the benefits we deem necessary for our dogs. They are skinny and scared of humans; however, they somehow manage to find enough to eat, they run freely through the expanse of dusty desert mountains, they constantly play with each other, they sleep together at night, and they frequently attempt to breed. I cannot think of a way to objectively say that they are miserable except by focusing on the end of their life - but I don't think that's really a fair way to judge the overall quality of life.

There are examples too where a Western relationship might hurt the animals. Take pugs, who thanks to our selective breeding, are born with an insanely high predisposition for breathing problems. In Purina's 2015 Thanksgiving National Dog Show, insanely manicured poodles pranced across the stage, with large puffs on their heads and feet and skinny legs in between. The dogs had no idea that they looked like a modern art pieces, so they could not derive any pleasure from that fact. All the time confined to a stylist table probably wore on the poodles' patience, and the restrictive diets, exercise regimes and travel probably caused undue stress. Yet these dogs are held up as ideals in the Western pet world - models to strive for. Indeed, our "intervention" into dog's natural lives may not be as positive as we think.

One problem is our difficulty in measuring dog's happiness. To my knowledge, no cross cultural studies have been done comparing animal's happiness, nor is there a solid, established metric that I would trust to transcend cultural bounds. For a layman, our only way of judging dogs in other cultures is in relation to ourselves, which is hardly fair. In ascribing positive human traits to dogs, we also ascribe positive, culturally-specific human desires, such as a cotton bed, house and baths. It's just not clear to me that dogs really need this.

Another problem is that we can't really trust the dogs to answer this. It's easy to use the stories of dogs finding their owners across hundreds of miles to say dogs "choose" the Western life we give them. However, similar stories arose after the Emancipation Proclamation, of slaves that chose to continue unpaid labor at their plantation. Other stories tell of children returning again and again abusive relationships. That piece of evidence alone doesn't make a relative statement on how much better or worse a dog is under Western human care, only that they are attached to that style of life.

Ethically, I think our treatment of dogs becomes particularly problematic when we compare it to the way we treat other beings. Why do dogs deserve these resources that might not even help them when there are starving people all around the world? Why are dogs afforded protections in our society when pigs, cows, and chickens are doomed to a factory farm-like existence? And is it OK for animal rights activists to use a Western concept of animal happiness to justify intrusion into other cultures to right perceived wrongs?

Ultimately, I think that if there exists a difference in happiness in dogs between rural India and America, it is slight. I think it is necessary for us Americans to be explicit about the ways keeping dogs helps us, and be realistic about the ways our lifestyle helps the animals. Otherwise, we risk viewing Western pet ownership as charitable and feel justified in condemning other cultures for "lack of care". Now, more than ever, I question whether Indian's cold and functional relationship with dogs is in any way bad-- or like many other things in this seemingly strange land, it's merely a different culture's approach to a similar outcome.