This essay about dog ownership helped me empathise with dogs, and also caused me to update against getting a dog; if these ideas are accurate, it'd either be much more selfish and cruel than I previously thought, or else would require a lot more focused effort in order to give the dog a meaningful life.
Most of the essay is doing valuable and interesting work staring into the abyss and trying to help you see whether there is a dystopian horror occurring around us. But I'll mostly take away from it a clearer sense of what it looks like for a non-human animal to have purpose and meaning; it feels like a conceptual update that I won't easily be able to forget or ignore. (It has helped me think more clearly about animals and their values much more than most of the philosophical discussion I've seen on the topic, and I found it more useful than much extended discussion about consciousness and pleasure/pain.)
Here's three quotes to help you understand the post and entice you into reading the whole thing.
After about three days, the dog started following me everywhere. If I sat on the couch to watch tv, the dog would curl-up under my outstretched legs resting on the coffee table. If I sat at the dinner table, it would sit beside me, and watch me throughout the entire meal. If I went to the bathroom, it would follow me to the door and wait outside. At night, the dog curled up in my bed and slept beside me. The dog started walking more, and she would almost always perfectly follow my lead; she walked at just the right pace so she stayed beside me, neither lagging behind my fast stride, nor pulling ahead. On the rare occasions she got distracted by a smell or other dog, I gently tugged on her leash and called her name, and she scurried over to me.
I found it kind of creepy.
Yes, I know, it’s a dog. But still… I felt like I had been granted a level of submissiveness from a sovereign being which I hadn’t earned. All I had done was feed and walk the dog – and I apparently did this so badly that the dog was massively depressed – and yet she worshipped me.
The following section is something the author is themself quoting from a reddit thread:
The most accurate thing I can say about dogs is I feel sorry for them. My immediate family didn’t own dogs growing up, but my extended family had farms or large acreage plots with 3-5 dogs running around all day. They eat, sleep, shit, and run around exploring with their pack hours a day whenever they want.
Compare to city dogs. Mostly live in matchbox apartments. A typical weekday is likely 9-12 hours home alone. You can’t run. You can’t shit. You are bored out of your fucking mind. Your human comes home and walks you for 15 minutes on a leash. It’s the highlight of your day. Human is tired and eats dinner in front of the TV while you get scratches. Maybe you sleep in the same bed as your human. You’re probably pretty tired after an entire day of mostly not moving.
Weekends if you’re lucky, you go to a dog-friendly park. Maybe you get off leash. Maybe you never get off leash because you’re too spazzy around other dogs/humans. It’s completely understandable to be spazzy. You are chronically understimulated. One of your only opportunities to get energy and action in life is by “misbehaving” or harassing strangers.
When I walk past someone with a dog and the dog is just pulling as hard as s/he can at the leash to pounce on me, you can’t think that’s instinct. No animal in the wild thinks it’s a good idea to go fuck with something 3-30x it’s bodyweight. It’s pure boredom. The dog is just trying to stimulate itself before it’s forced back in front of the TV to watch The Office again.
There’s a laundry list of other topics like neutering, diet, training, etc that I won’t elaborate on. There’s enough grey area for people to get away with justifying whatever happens to be easiest for them, obviously, but I hope it’s also obvious that there are many many ways in which the life of a dog is diminished compared to…. other normal living organisms…
And from the sections on needs, pleasures, and meaning.
With the exceptions of abusive or negligent owners, owned dogs get their needs met. In fact, dogs get their needs met better than pretty much any non-pet animals in the world. Unlike wild animals, dogs aren’t faced with the daily life-and-death struggle for survival. They don’t need to hunt or scrounge for food, they don’t need to worry about a tainted water source, they don’t need to evade predators, etc. And unlike farm animals, their deaths almost certainly won’t come at the hands of their owners, especially not in the first 25% of their max lifespans.
I’d say most dog owners have a mixed record of fulfilling their dog’s pleasure (ignore the innuendo). On the positive side, owned dogs will usually get lots of treats, toys, and petting... Diligent owners will devote significant time to taking their dog out of the house to run around, fetch, and hopefully interact with other dogs, but plenty of owners won’t and will leave their dogs perpetually under-stimulated at home... Where dog owners fall the shortest in providing for their dog’s pleasure is in – again, ignore the innuendo – sex. By the 2010s, 83% of American dogs were neutered, and presumably most other owners do everything they can to discourage their non-neutered dogs from having sex (which is arguably a worse fate for the dog). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that depriving an animal of an act for which it is biologically programmed to derive the most extreme of pleasures is likely detrimental to the animal’s wellbeing. Ask yourself: for what other gains would you be willing to give up sex for the rest of your life?
Third, meaning is activity and goals which provide long-term value to the being. Admittedly, it’s hard enough to identify meaning in humans, so it’s even harder to do so in dogs, but I’m going to take a shot anyway.
Author's partial conclusions to save you a click:
This is a case of "are you asking the right question" for me. If the question is "are you giving your dog its best life," most dog owners will have to say no. If the question is "are you giving your dog a better life than it would have if you did not acquire the dog," most people who get dogs from shelters can honestly say yes. Living in a shelter or being euthanized seems clearly worse than a penned-in, neutered life as a coddled pet.
Another set of questions you could ask:"What are we actually doing here" and "what incentives am I taking part in or reinforcing". For me the answers are "indistinguishable from prison" and "trading time/money for enjoyment." For you, those answers might be different.
This made me curious about where most people get their dogs from. Apparently, something like 34% are purchased from breeders and 23% are obtained from shelters, according to https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics (though their numbers don't add up to 100%, and I'm not sure why). Getting them from friends/relatives is also pretty common, at 20%.
The author makes some good points, but:
In any case, dogs as pets probably increase the empathy for animals significantly, so we should encourage more pets, not less.
I'm not sure I agree that one can make the case that increasing pet ownership really does increase empathy for animals in general. I think (and the brief glance at the original article mentions this, at least indirectly if it didn't dig into it somewhere I didn't see) too many pet owners seem have pets for personal emotional needs. Often the pet becomes some possession existing to serve as an emotional crutch, becoming a means to some internal emotional end.
I'd like to see some empirical studies on the claim -- for instance, how many pet buyers just take for granted the pet is not from some pet farm. When word come out about such places, how many actually change their buying habits? Then, just what does that do for other settings where one might consider the ethics of animal treatment (ranching for instance, or wildlife preserves...). Or maybe even something like the percentage of members of PETA who are pet owners or donors to PETA? (I might think the portions would be different if pet ownership does promote more empathy)
I don't see how using a pet as a personal emotional need relates to decreasing empathy for animals. It's likely to me that would increase empathy.
I think it is a mistake to think merely because someone is receiving some emotional value from a pet with that person actually caring about the pet (this holds for people as well in all sorts of relationships) beyond the pet's ability to delivery that emotional satisfaction.
I am not a psychologist but I suspect one can describe most abusive relationships as having filling an emotional need for the abuser, often with little to no recognition of the what the abusee's true/real needs are.
But it's also a mistake to think that using an animal in that way won't lead to more empathy for animals in general - the question is instead to ask how people will best maintain consistent self - images? In practice for the people who own pets, do you find them more empathic of animals after owning them? I think that
So in my experience the evidence is that both what you and Chris are saying is true.
Agreed. I was offering a counter to the proposition that pet ownership increases the empathy towards animals.
But I'm saying that it does, and that your point is not a counter?
Anecdotally speaking, being forced to take care of a puppy made me significantly more empathic towards animals in general. Whereas I subconsciously saw pet owners as being 'hijacked' (even taking into account a rather animal-obsessed childhood), it was only after fully bonding with my puppy that I was able to empathise with suffering animals on a gut level (again, I used to be able to, then I was desensitised for years, then today I'm back to full-on animal empathy mode).
All this happened over the course of 4-5 days. It was actually quite scary to see my values change so abruptly, to the extent that visiting r/petloss literally makes me want to vomit due to how heavy it makes my heart.
I definitely agree with point 1. We have this Enlightenment-era ideal that relationships should be egalitarian, but in fact, that is the exception, not the rule. And I could probably make an argument that no relationship is truly 100% egalitarian.
I came in agreeing with several of the author's conclusions (many 'aesthetic' breeds are animal cruelty, owning a dog as a single person with a full-time job is probably cruel, dogs are a poor substitute for children, etc.), and yet found something about the article highly offputting.
First is that I think "dominance" is the wrong frame, and having the wrong frame often generates lots of "well, I don't disagree with what you're saying in any particular sentence, but somehow I disagree with the whole thing."
I think from the dog-owner's perspective, the right frame is closer to 'being needed.' Think about the greentext about shrimp and this bit of The Bell Curve:
That said, many of the same complaints apply--why not be needed for something productive, instead of manufacturing something where the need is the feature, instead of the bug? If no one in your life needs you, and you buy/rescue a dog and now one dog needs you, is that an improvement / is that healthy?
I think the answer is "yes," and thinking about the word "healthy" clarifies why. Suppose someone is writing about food, and points out the ways in which food grown without pesticides is healthier than food grown with pesticides. If you're worried about second-order effects, of what additional chemicals you're ingesting, this is right; if you're worried about first-order effects, of whether or not you'll be malnourished, this is wrong. (As an important background fact, pesticides increase yields, such that organic farms produce fewer calories per unit of land and effort.)
In general, I try to be allergic to the "everyone should have <luxury version> of <good>" argument, because in fact people are better off living in tenements than living on the street, and if we had more tenements we might have fewer people living on the street, and so banning tenements is probably harmful. Similarly with minimum wage laws, and so on and so on.
Consider this section:
That is, the author isn't opposed to dominance, or A being better than B. They just think there are good ways to do it and sad ways to do it, and dog ownership is one of the sad ways. If we analogize to video games, they're claiming that playing competitively is good, and only scrubs play against AI instead of other humans.
There's a part of this that seems right--people who win at competitive video games are better at gaming than people who can't win, and people who win competitions / status games are better at competing than people who can't win those competitions--but also a part that seems mistaken, in that it won't be the case that everyone can be above average, unless you include competitors that are 'outside everyone' while still engaging in the correct way.
And in especially in the context of "minimum wage laws" or "looking down on the worse version of things", it seems especially cruel to cut off opportunities for people who aren't very needed / aren't very respected to get an easy source of need and respect, not because it's harmful but because it reflects poorly on them for being on the bottom of the pyramid. That is, in an ordered system, someone is going to be on the bottom, and we get to decide whether it's people or dogs.
[There's a different argument you can make, where you say the relationship is bad for the other side; I currently think it's the case that humanity has made a pretty good deal with cows from the cow's point of view, for example, but don't think that humanity has made a pretty good deal with chickens from the chicken's point of view. The author considers this argument but only accepts it in a limited way, in approximately the same way I do, but I think the 'family dogs' and 'lapdogs' have way more meaning than the author thinks.]
Minor note - having spent significant time in multiple homes with one dog and more recently a home with multiple, my anecdotal observation is that even just having 2 dogs changes the dynamic from dog obsessed with humans to dogs that have each other and are maybe still obsessed with their humans as well.
Solid point, I hadn't thought of that, I would expect that to improve things a lot. Thx.
Spoilers for people who don't want dogs ruined for them.
The author is correct that dogs are an artificial status prosthetic for humans. People misinterpret dog body language. Many of the things that are colloquially interpreted as happiness are actually status anxiety. The way we interact with dogs, especially with regards to food, makes them believe they at the bottom of the pack hierarchy and therefore potentially at risk of losing their place entirely. This likely is exacerbated by the fact that they don't contribute to the pack in any way that they are wired for. It is possible to relieve some of these anxieties but obviously most wouldn't care to.
Where can I read about this? It seems easier to verify than the claims in the OP.
I looked at google images for "dog body language." I see some people saying that showing the belly is happy, while others said it was submission (and one saying both!). This seems like a good example of what you are saying, but are there more? Added: nose lick as stressed vs peace, although maybe that isn't even a confusion, but just opening the box of what it means to sue for peace.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_behavior I'd guess textbooks would be the best place to find research.
If I'm understanding right, you're saying that dogs don't get their basic needs and pleasures met well with humans, whereas the author is making a (to me) more surprising claim that their lives lack meaning.
I think that status anxiety is more unpleasant than is intuitive.
Replaced the rot13 in your comment with spoiler tags. (Accessible via >! in the WYSIWYG editor)
Reminds me of an old essay I wrote (not fully representative of Aaron!2021) about experiences with a dog who lived with a family but not other dogs, and could never get enough stimulation to meet his needs. A section I think still holds up:
Interesting. Does this imply you've solved the comparison-with-nonexistence problem? Presuming dog populations are pretty much defined by human behavior, keeping a dog is a net dog-life additional to not-keeping one. That dog's life is less ideal than one on a farm, but that's not the comparison you're making. Is it less ideal than not existing at all?
[ n.b. I have two cats, no dogs, though I have a number of friends with dogs. The animals in question live much easier and less interesting lives than their evolutionary environment, and do not seem unhappy (though, yes, often bored or annoyed). Note also that this describes me pretty well too. ]
I want to say there was some study that concluded domestic animals -- particularly pets -- are stupider than their wild relative.
(Disclosure: am dog owner)
I found this article somewhat baffling.
At essentially no point does the article consider what the dog's next-best alternative is, or suggest one. The two most likely answers are 'nonexistence' (for dogs you get from a breeder) or 'prison' (for dogs you get from a shelter). I'm open to the possibility that some dogs (abused ones, possibly also tiny breeds with genetic breathing problems) have lives worse than nonexistence. I don't think you can credibly claim most do, and I don't think you can credibly claim that any meaningful proportion of owned dogs have worse lives than they would in shelters.
The article seems to assume that dogs have a full set of human drives, and are disappointed not to be given the opportunity to write Doggie Shakespeare or something. I envision the author watching some videos of lions and then saying 'they have no lives beyond waking, eating, and sleeping. Clearly their life is a misery.'
The article does an impressive dive into Bulverist psychoanalysis of 'here's why dog owners are evil perverts for having a dog':
On reflection I think the most accurate summary of this article is 'willful outrage-bait'.
Okay, this essay convinced me that dogs can have depression. I also think that dogs probably have real feelings and don't just act the part like this creepy robot child, although I wonder how can one actually test this.
I am not at all convinced, though, that a dog can have preferences, long-term goals, or "a meaningful life". I don't think I've ever seen a dog work on a long-term goal. And if dogs really preferred to take their chances alone in the alien world like the author suggests, a lot more would run away.
A dog's mind is different. Just because I wouldn't enjoy being a pet, doesn't mean a dog doesn't. The author acknowledges this, but still says that "it’s reasonable to say that dogs have some sort of conception of meaning that rises above moment-by-moment pleasures, and that the unfulfillment of this meaning has a negative effect on the happiness of dogs." Well, why do you believe this?
I mean, this depends on what you mean by "real feelings," but as far as I can tell the physiological cause of emotions is basically shared by all mammals. (If anything, emotions likely play a larger part in the mental processing of non-human animals, because there's less of other deliberative faculties to play against them.)