It is common to hear jokes about wild packs of poodles roaming the earth in ancient times, precisely because poodles lack the capacity to fend for themselves in any meaningful manner. It's not merely that they haven't been trained properly; no successful feral poodle population has ever been recorded. It's not even that their brains aren't big enough or their teeth sharp enough; many creatures thrive with much less.
The fact is, dogs are essentially socially and emotionally retarded wolves. Whereas ordinary wolves pass through a puppy stage on their way to full adulthood, dogs are forever frozen as puppies, both physically in the length and shape of their snout and emotionally or behaviorally in their desire to play and the social conventions they exhibit. Though the Peter Pan syndrome in humans is universally recognized as a disorder to be medically treated and hopefully corrected, this same syndrome is the sine qua non of dogs.
Generally, when viewed through human eyes, these differences between dogs and wolves are seen as an unabashedly good thing. Wolves are considered vicious and uncivilized and have been hounded from the 48 contiguous US states (though their populations have made a comeback of late). In contrast, dogs epitomize the socially venerated values of obedience, diligence, and family devotion. It is no accident that Lassie has been an iconic cultural mainstay for six decades.
But underlying that facade is a problematic inner life rarely probed by humans. Anyone who's handled a poodle or terrier can attest to the deep anxieties that can pervade a pet's life. Whereas wolves exist to rely upon themselves and each other for what emotional support they need, dogs must be ever vigilant to make sure their owners to satisfy their even greater needs. Today in America, millions of dogs anxiously pass the hours while their owners are away, forever fearful that they shall be left alone in perpetuity. Anyone who returns home to be greeted by a frantic dog knows this torment (often severe enough to induce incontinence) all too well.
If we are to continue to have dogs as pets, we should strive to return them some of the dignity that has been stripped by fifteen thousand years of human intervention. Though each of us has friends and acquaintances on the lower end of the intellectual bell curve, it would be unconscionable to propose dumbing down some individuals' intellect for the purpose of making a better companion to their intellectual superiors. And yet, that is what we do to dogs everyday and no one bats an eyelash.
There are well documented benefits to humans of owning dogs. Despondent elderly nursing-home patients show remarkable improvement when regularly visited by dogs. A recent study has suggested that children suffer from fewer allergies when raised in proximity to pets; early exposure to mites and other allergens borne by dogs helps to calibrate human immune systems so as not to overreact to other innocuous environmental contaminants. But the proper response when confronted with evidence such as this is to ask what exactly is necessary to produce the beneficial effects. Wouldn't a mentally and emotionally complete animal suffice? Such an animal wouldn't be any less prone to carrying allergens, and such an animal's greater sense of dignity would be no less inspiring to psychologically depressed humans.
The chief obstacle is not figuring out what to do with existing dogs. Domesticated dogs cannot be released into the wild any more than domesticated sheep or cows could, both because they would surely die and because their co-evolution with human civilization has deprived them of any natural wild habitat. Only lunatics and fanatics would demand such a proposal be implemented. But what is considerably less clear is whether it is moral to perpetuate their populations through systematically breeding and selection of the traits that ensure their intellectual and emotional disability.
Moreover, canid domestication is not merely the legacy of a bygone era. In 1959, Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev set out on a mission that continues today to develop a domesticated fox. Originally intended to help the furring industry by making it easier to raise and kill foxes for their fur, Belyaev's efforts have helped shed light on the original domestication of dogs. And yet, this marriage between the fur industry and the raising of domestic canids is somehow poignant. Though the pet industry is a far cry from the brutal fur industry, both industries share a fundamental objective in common: the creation of a race of animals willing to live under human control and for human purposes.
Short of drastically overhauling America's pet industry and our fundamental need for pets, there are some smaller changes that could be implemented. A greater reliance on cats instead of dogs for companionship would be a good start, since cats arguably are possessed of greater dignity and are not as far removed from their wild ancestors, not having been domesticated for quite as many thousands of years as dogs have. Moreover, the total volume of pets could be much reduced by switching to animals such as parrots which are inarguably more durable than dogs: the average dog only lasts a decade, whereas parrots commonly outlive their owners. Parrots, particularly African greys, are also more intelligent and offer greater opportunities for intellectual companionship.
Though it is arguable whether the plight of domesticated dogs is as bad as Ingrid pet ownership is slavery Newkirk claims, there is much room left for improvement. As computing technology improves and virtual companionship proliferates in the upcoming decades, it may become harder and harder to tolerate our current bio-engineered solutions. At a bare minimum, a small portion of the 27 billion dollars Americans spend every year on pets (of which $8 billion is already devoted to medical expenses) could be devoted to the proper research and development needed to refurbish existing breeds.
Though Sandy the golden retriever may not know what she's missing -- may not comprehend the difference between the existence she currently leads and the one she could lead had she greater emotional and intellectual faculties -- it is our duty as moral stewards to make mature decisions on her behalf. It is time to consider whether that duty impels us to re-examine the current state of the ancient symbiosis between humans and dogs.