Due to circumstances beyond my control, I recently acquired three robotic dogs. Inspired by Sony’s AIBO (the $2,500 artificial terrier that became a sensation last year), they respond to my presence using light, sound and touch sensors. The toys are small, about Chihuahua-size, and metallic. They bark a good deal, chew on magnetic bones and wag their tails enthusiastically when I pat their heads. The cats hate them, crawling with bellies low to the ground whenever the dogs are awake, huddling together in the corner suspiciously.
I hate them, too.
Sure, they are small and moderately cute. They sit or come on command and bark winsome renditions of songs like “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “B-I-N-G-O.” One of them even farts. But they lack something fundamental — they don’t engender the rush of sentiment I feel whenever a flesh-and-blood dog passes my way. Big or small, cute or ugly, mutt or purebred, I’m completely indiscriminate toward real dogs. “Hello, you lovely handsome thing, you!” I coo to the fat chocolate lab that lives in my building. I stroke the warm, wriggling body of the local Rottweiler and anxiously watch the growth of a bichon frisi puppy that has moved in up the block. (I have not had a dog since my mother gave a husky mutt named Trouble away to some close friends in 1972. Clearly, it is high time.)
People love dogs for two basic reasons. First, they are cuddly, whereas the robot dogs are not. “Neoteny,” the retention of juvenile features and behaviors in an adult, is a big part of why we feel so emotional about dogs, two recent books argue. Second, though people don’t much like to think about it, dogs are easy to dominate. We love them because we can control them.
In “How to Speak Dog,” which is essentially a guide for humans who need help interpreting doggish tail wagging, ear wiggling and barking, Stanley Coren argues that “domestication and neoteny seem to go hand-in-hand.” People have bred pet dogs for floppy ears, short muzzles, frequent barking and other infantile behaviors that no adult wolf or fox ever displays. “In effect,” writes Coren, “our dogs are the Peter Pans of the canine world.”
We prefer pets that resemble puppies long into their adulthood partly because their perpetual juvenility allows us to express huge degrees of affection and sentiment toward them. It would be harder to snuggle and kiss an adult animal that had all the qualities of an independent creature. Wolves are not cuddly; Peter Pan dogs are. That is why I feel instant fondness toward even the inanimate lump of a Beanie Baby SharPei, while my robot dogs’ hard metallic bodies and stiff postures fail to trigger any emotion.
Less practical, but more rigorous in its examination of the emotional allegiance between dogs and humans is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ follow-up to her bestselling “The Hidden Life of Dogs.” In that first book, Marshall Thomas argued that what dogs really want is other dogs. She wrote about her own pets’ forming a pack that essentially excluded the humans on whom they were dependent.
Now, in “The Social Lives of Dogs,” her remarkably touching sequel, she argues that sometimes dogs do want human beings. When new puppy Sundog finds himself excluded from the established elderly pack in the author’s house, he commits himself to the people, forming a group with Marshall Thomas’ husband and the top cat of the household, a bruiser named Rajah. Subsequent dogs bond across species as well.
Marshall Thomas reasons that neoteny is part of this phenomenon — dogs treat us like parents. But she also notes that the dog-human bond is more complicated than that and, without providing any ultimate answers, traces the stratification of her multianimal home while speculating persistently on the reasons for her dogs’ choices. Eventually, she asserts that she and the members of her animal group share a telepathic connection:
What happened to one of us happened to us all. In our lives, in our minds, in our joys and sorrows, and even in our deaths, we were united. We were related, like the wolves of a pack, or the parrots of a flock, or the cats of a barnyard, or the people of a little band of hunter-gatherers. Perhaps we belonged to different species, and perhaps we had not shared a common ancestor since the Permian or the Triassic, so that three hundred million years divided us, but we were one thing.
Whether telepathic or simply sentimental, the emotional response dogs elicit in humans is the subject of nearly every dog story ever written. We begin with children’s book heroes like Clifford, Carl, McDuff, Blue, Biscuit and Spot, and never get tired of them. Recently we’ve had works by Willie Morris (“My Dog Skip”), Margot Kaufman (“Clara, The Early Years”) and Peter Mayle (“A Dog’s Life”) — and almost every year brings a new litter of dog books. On shelves now, Marshall Thomas sings the song of Sundog, who “demonstrated such a complete understanding of human behavior that if I believed in reincarnation, I’d have been convinced that in an earlier life he’d been a person”; Charles Siebert’s “Angus” projects readers into the dying memories of the author’s spunky Jack Russell terrier; and Rick Bass’ “Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had” is a portrait of a runty brown animal who became “one of the greatest bird dogs that ever lived.”
Indeed, almost all books of this genre are stories of the best dogs their authors ever had — making the dog memoir the opposite of the regular old human memoir. Humans like to read about other people’s depression, sexual confusion, artistic struggles and failed marriages, but we don’t much like to read books that chronicle the brilliance of their authors’ children. We don’t want to know how young Harold saved another kid from drowning, became champion of the debate team and won honors at Yale. Not unless he plunged into a drug addiction afterward. But we do want to read such things about other people’s pets: the perfect dog, the best bird dog, the best dog ever, the bravest dog, the dog with the biggest heart.
We can stand it all because people are dominant over dogs — and that, of course, is the other reason that we love them, next to their cuddly neoteny. Unlike Harold, whose accomplishments might easily make us feel inadequate in comparison, a dog never competes with a human being. We can feel empathetic pride in Angus’ bravery or Colter’s skill because they do not threaten our own.
Two nearly identical spring releases — “Working Dogs: Tales From Animal Planet’s K-9 to 5 World” by Colleen Needles and Kit Carlson, with photographs by Kim Levin, and “Dogs With Jobs: Working Dogs Around the World” by Merrily Weisbord and Kim Kachanoff — mimic the memoirs in that they generate a glow of readerly pleasure in the achievements, heroics and exploits of canines, and at the same time remind us that in dominating them we do not treat dogs as equals. Much of their perceived happiness may be human projection.
Using text and pictures (Levin’s are lovely, humorous and full of character) both books stress how pleased dogs are to work as drug enforcement agents, actors and Seeing Eyes — a suspect assumption, but one that feeds our image of canines as perennially joyful in their servitude. Dogs who find land mines in Bosnia, for example, wear no protection whatsoever (although their handlers do), but the pictures show them grinning wide doggy grins. A dog actor named Wrangler (featured in “Very Bad Things” with Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz) sits quietly in a crate under a sign that asks people not to pay any attention to him. He is “studying” his part, and the authors assume he genuinely desires privacy, rather than that his owner keeps him isolated so that he’s more pliable when he arrives on the set. Both books steer clear of aggressive guard dogs and mistreated racing greyhounds, emphasizing rescue dogs, shepherds and celebrities instead, painting a picture of respect and gratitude.
In loving them for their neoteny and obedience, we infantilize our dogs. We like to think of their lives as simpler than ours, their hearts filled with treacly, unambiguous affection. Weisbord and Kachanoff, for example, describe a nursing home dog named Honey Hurricane as “a small castaway mutt graced with the gift of reawakening love and hope in all those her little body touches.”
And even the more emotionally powerful (that is, better written) dog books take readers into a world where pleasures are huge and relatively easy to get, where, for instance, a neglected mutt’s solution to a silly test becomes a moment of triumph. Marshall Thomas measures her dogs’ intelligence by putting a dog biscuit under a dish towel. The smart dog will remove the towel and scarf the treat. Others wonder sadly where the biscuit has gone, or look pleadingly at the human for assistance in moving the covering. But one naughty, incontinent creature does something different: “Ruby simply grabbed the lump that was the hidden biscuit and crunched it right through the towel. Moments later she danced from the room having swallowed the entire test — biscuit, cloth and all — leaving me speechless with surprise and my best kitchen towel reduced to a rag with a hole in it. Ruby was unconventional, it’s true, but she was a dear little, smart little dog.”
Dogs are a kind of screen onto which we project our idealized notions of their perpetual happiness and our satisfaction in their willing submission. They are a funnel for our sentiment, sentiment we have trouble conveying to one another, relying instead on inadequate greeting cards and boxes of chocolate. To dogs, we express it directly: We coo and praise and cuddle and kiss. They are the perfect children — forever cute, willing to perform on command and always happy to see the master or mistress when he or she arrives home from work.
Of course, this is not the truth about dogs themselves. It is the truth about our notion of dogs. I suspect Wrangler is miserable in his crate, and that the Bosnian land mine dogs suffer injury that belies their wide grins. These animals may well feel resentment, or loneliness, or frustration. They may feel emotions of which human beings cannot conceive, or they may feel much more pain and fear than we are able to recognize.
We do not care. We hold onto our fixed image: the sweetest dogs, the bravest dogs, the best dogs that ever were. Dear little, smart little, almost human servant/babies. Holding that notion, we can love our big infantilized pets more easily than we can prickly adult human beings who might threaten our social standing, children who grow up and rebel and anyone who ever talks back.
Emily Jenkins is the author of "Tongue First," "Five Creatures," and a forthcoming novel: "Mister Posterior and the Genius Child."More Emily Jenkins.