Domesticating Dogs and the Ethics of Companionship

Friday, 3 November 2017 10-minute read

I came across an article in The Atlantic recently by Ed Yong about how domesticating dogs has weakened their pack instincts. The article reported a study by Sarah Marshall-Pescini at the University of Vienna who found that dogs perform poorly compared to wolves on simple cooperative tasks. This is because wolves are pack animals and cooperative hunters, whereas dogs are solitary scavengers whose packs are smaller and more loosely knit. The thrust of the piece, especially in its emphasis of the ‘weakening’ of certain collective instincts of canines, is that domestication has diminished skills and traits that are innate in the species. The article quotes Alexandra Horowitz, an Adjunct Associate Professor in Psychology at Barnard College who studies dog cognition, who notes that ‘domestication both refined attention, coordination, and even pro-sociality between species, and weakened social skills within the species’ as if living without human interaction and social contact solely within the species is ‘less natural for dogs’. This evolutionary impact on pack sociality is compounded by the widespread genetic disease caused by inbreeding pedigree dogs for the pet market. Pet ownership has harmed biodiversity in dogs and diminished the coherence of the species. It has also harmed biodiversity of other species in urban spaces, like for instance the way domestic cats severely harm native bird populations in cities.

There are other questions about the morality of pet ownership that have appeared in the press in more recent months. Back in August, Linda Rodriquez McRobbie wrote an article in the Guardian in which she argued that the very fact that a human being can still take a pet to a city shelter and have it put down or adopted at will shows that pets are ultimately property. It doesn’t matter, she argues, that people see themselves as pet ‘guardians’ rather than owners, or that they are consider the pets part of the family. The bioethicist Jessica Pierce describes this as ‘humanising them [pets] in a way that actually makes them invisible’. No matter how benevolent pet owners see themselves as becoming, they still ‘dictate what they [their pets] eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs’. Gary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton, both in the Law faculty of Rutgers University, in an essay in Aeon titled ‘The Case Against Pets’ argued that were humans kept in these conditions, it would be considered torture.

Francione and Charlton consider pet ownership to be fundamentally immoral. They compare it to chattel slavery as pets ‘have no inherent or intrinsic value […] we have rights, as property owners, to value them. And we might choose to value them at zero’. Their value is primarily instrumental, mostly for our own enjoyment or benefit (including the many benefits to the owners’ mental and physical health resulting from the companionship and increased exercise from having to walk dogs). And by their reckoning, all forms of pet ownership, no matter how benign, are fundamentally opposed to the rights and autonomy of animals. This is because, they argue,

Domesticated animals are completely dependent on humans, who control every aspect of their lives. […] we want domesticated animals to depend on us. They remain perpetually in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them. We have bred them to be compliant and servile, and to have characteristics that are pleasing to us, even though many of those characteristics are harmful to the animals involved. We might make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. They do not belong in our world, irrespective of how well we treat them. This is more or less true of all domesticated non-humans. […] They truly are ‘animal slaves’. Some of us might be benevolent masters, but we really can’t be anything more than that.

As hard-hitting as this paragraph is, and as many difficult questions as their critique made me confront about the question of pet ownership, I feel that all critics, Francione, Charlton, Pierce, McRobbie, and even Horowitz, Yong and Marshall-Pescini seem to miss some of the more radical implications of the inter-species relationship that one has with their pets.

To my mind, there are two fundamental questions about pet ownership here: the first is a broader ontological question about what is ‘natural’ to the species, and the putative harm that human intervention and breeding has caused to the species itself. I cannot help finding Francione, Charlton and everybody else’s conviction in what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ to be somewhat misplaced. This essentialist and normative understanding of species and the traits that are innate to them are troubled by a more complex understanding of human and canine co-evolution like Donna Haraway’s figure of a companion species. Both Haraway and Marshall-Pescini begin with the same evolutionary history of dogs: they began as wolves who selected themselves for more docile traits — characterised by reduced production of thyroxine — so that they could be calmer around and more compatible with human company and scavenge food from human settlements (see Crockford, Haraway 305). Haraway emphasises the agency and autonomy of the dog-wannabe wolves in this case, whose mitochondrial DNA shows that they began selecting for these traits long before the skeletal fossil record that shows human domestication. The biopolitics of this has changed over time to the point where human actors have had greater influence and control over the species’ reproduction, but nevertheless the evolutionary story is one of more distributed and shifting agency.

Furthermore, it is true that dogs depend upon human interaction. An interesting result in Marshall-Pescini’s article is that search and rescue dogs, who had been trained by humans, performed much better than free ranging dogs, as if human interaction were more ‘natural’ in the critics’ words to the cognitive development of these species. Likewise, Haraway notes that the reproductive success of dogs depends upon human intervention to augment the provisioning capacity of females (305). While the critics see this kind of dependence as inherently contradictory to a normative notion of species, for Haraway this represents ways in which species are inter-connected in deep and meaningful ways. The central thrust of her argument is that humans are part of the dogs’ extended phenotype, and have been thickly entangled since the beginning of the evolutionary history of both species (306). She argues that dogs use humans for their reproductive advantage or the refining of their skills in the same way that humans use dogs for their advantage. So it follows from this that pet ownership represents a profound blurring of species boundaries and the emergence of complex, reciprocal and interpenetrating relations of companionship. This is a radical proposition, one which has a profound impact on the way we think of ourselves as human actors within a wider ecosystem. These relations and interdependencies are more complex than the critics allow. We do not keep pets solely for our pleasure, but because we evolve together with them in complex ways that make us more than the sum of our parts. Haraway puts this beautifully, that dogs and people are ‘partners in the crime of human evolution’ (297).

The second question about pet ownership is to do with the specific biopolitics of our current relationship with pets and the ways in which we care for them on a day-to-day basis. Haraway and the various critics of pet ownership are on the same page about the problematic breeding practices and the diminishing biodiversity. Haraway advocates radical reform of breeding practices like strategic outbreeding for the strengthening and survival of the gene pool based on species survival plans to address this. But the wider biopolitical question of the way in which we have control over our pets’ autonomy — the way in which we can curtail their reproductive freedom or give them up for adoption or put them down at our will — still remains a perplexing problem. I still don’t have a clear or final answer to this question, but for now I have some tentative notions in that direction.

To begin with, as much as I find Francione and Charlton’s comparison of human chattel slavery with pet ownership really persuasive, I find it somewhat misleading. I don’t think one can substitute human and non-human animals as readily in the moral equations that they describe. Peter Singer notes in his response to J.M. Coetzee’s lecture in The Lives of Animals, species membership is a morally significant category. One would, of course, need to consider species membership here in more complex terms, as not just memberships of a particular taxon but also within a complex inter-species hybrid of companionship. Taking this argument further, many of the moral categories that we ascribe to human beings (reproductive autonomy, for example, or the freedom of movement) might not as readily be applicable to non-human animals we keep as pets (like when we have them neutered, or we restrict cats’ hunting to protect bird populations).

This is, I stress, purely contingent on biopolitical regimes that are in effect today. These grounds keep shifting, and consequently so will the moral categories that we use to assess our relationships with pets. But the relationship we have with pets are ones whose morality is far from straightforward. They are characterised by acts of violent care — neutering for example — which harm the bodily and reproductive autonomy of the pets, but nevertheless are for a wider benefit of the human-pet interspecies hybrid, as well as the individual pet itself (by, for example, reducing the risk of uterine or ovarian cancer because of the excessive breeding, avoiding the pain and labour of gestation and birth). But these lines are not clear, as the judgment of what is good for the pet or for the pet-human hybrid are made entirely by the owner themselves.

At the end of the day, though, the trouble is critics like Francione, Charlton, et al won’t find any of these responses qua Haraway persuasive. Haraway herself notes that ‘neither a cyborg nor a companion animal pleases the pure at heart who long for better protected species boundaries and setilization of category deviants’ (297). There is something unsatisfactory about responding to immediate, pressing ethical questions about the rights of or cruelty to non-human animals with an ontological questioning and dissolution of species boundaries, as if this is a reactionary, over-intellectualised posturing designed to justify the exploitation of animals or duck the more pressing questions. But at the same time, there is something that doesn’t quite fit about the moral binaries of pet ownership and the comparison to chattel slavery. Maybe this is what makes pet ownership such a difficult question, because its morality is far from straightforward. Questions of biopolitics are immensely complicated sites of shifting agency and power, while ontological notions of species identity are dissolving. Haraway’s account of companion species being ‘partners in the crime of evolution’ is profoundly revealing of the moral ambivalence of our existence as well as our co-existence with non-human animals. And the intractable ambivalence of these problems, the lack of clear or definitive answers, and the profound complexity of our long and shared co-evolutionary history with our companion species are simultaneously humbling of the place of Homo sapiens within a wider ecology, but also profoundly enabling, bringing out the best of our species and inter-species relationships.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

Crockford, Susan. ‘Dog Evolution: a Role for Thyroid Hormone Physiology in Domestication Changes.’ Dogs Through Time: an Archaeological Perspective. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000.

Haraway, Donna. The Haraway Reader. Routledge: New York and London, 2004. Print.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Katy Lewis-Hood for all the fascinating discussions on Donna Haraway that we always have, as well as Ellie for being so wonderful to go on walks with and being so patient audience while I contemplated companion species.