BOOKS: Dog Is My Co-Pilot

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:

Dog Is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World’s Oldest Friendship
from the editors of The Bark. Crown Publishing Group (299 Park Ave.,
New York, NY 10171), 2003. 304 pages. Hardcover, $ 25.00.

The Bark magazine began as an eight-page newsletter in 1997,
aimed at persuading the civic authorities in Berkeley, California to
legalise exercising dogs off-leash at a local park.
Through this campaign the founders, Claudia Kawczynka and
Cameron Woo, discovered the emergence of a new dog culture in
America, and set out to explore it.
Kawczynka and Woo in Dog Is My Co-Pilot present essays,
articles and short stories about dogs and dog people by 42 different
contributors. The content is grouped into four sections, entitled
“Beginnings,” “Pack,” “Lessons,” and “Passages,” but the breadth
of vision and style of writing makes the distinctions arbitrary and
unnecessary. Philosophy is too broad to be shoe-horned into
compartments, and some of these writings are as philosophical as Zen.
Among the more memorable passages may be a discussion of the
common allegation that childless people who are crazy about their
dogs (or cats) are sublimating their desire for children. Responds
Ann Patchett, author of four novels including The Patron Saint of
Liars, “I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what
they really wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other
people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.”

The new-wave dog culture, in which dogs have moved out of the
backyard into the center of human lives, is discussed with humor and
Charles Siebert, author of two novels including Angus, contends
that, “Most breeds have been pulled by us so far from their original
purpose–be it to aid in the hunt or help keep the domestic herds in
line–that they’ve essentially been rendered retarded, four legged
renditions of us: shepherds of shifting moods (theirs and ours),
exceptionally eager humpers of couch pillows in sky-borne apartments.”
Jon Billman, author of When We Were Wolves, points out that
although most dogs today are kept essentially for play–to catch a
ball or a Frisbee or go walking, riding or running with their
people–no kennel club yet recognizes any such breed as “play dog.”
Breeders insist upon retaining categories and breed standards that
reflect the roles of dogs in 19th century Britain.
Behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell observes that, “People all
over the world have sought an answer to why we love dogs….and I
don’t think it’s a trivial question either. If you compare our
behavior with that of other animals, we share more than we don’t.
We humans may not roll in cow pies or eat the placenta after giving
birth, but like dogs, people sleep, eat and hunt together…we
raise our young together, sometimes deferring our own reproduction
in order to assist another member of the group…Dogs, like people,
live in social hierarchies, and are generally amenable to doing what
high-status individuals ask of them.”
Actually, a good case can be made that human patterns of
civilization were learned from dogs. Our nuclear family structure
bears much more resemblance to canine pack life than to the usual
troupe structures of primates. None of the other great apes live in
family structures parallel to ours. Interestingly enough, though,
some South Sea Islanders in cultures largely without dogs lived in
societies structured much more like those of chimpanzees than like
the organized societies of other humans, and the same could be said
of the harem culture prevailing (well before Islam) in the parts of
the world where dogs have long had the least status.
The higher the status of dogs, including among Native
Americans, the more closely the societal structure resembles that of
dogs, with packs and subpacks, occasional gatherings of the clans,
and gender egalitarianism.
The stamp of dog culture upon human culture may be
interpreted in opposite ways, depending upon whether or not one
really is a “dog person.”
The romanticized version is that we keep dogs because we need
them in some way or other. However, once we have dogs, they show
us such selfless devotion that we cannot help loving them. Once paw
prints are allowed in our homes, in no time they become imprinted
upon our hearts. So in effect dogs become our moral tutors.
The non-“dog person” may conclude that people keep dogs
because they are suckers for the underdog. But once we have a dog,
the dog takes over the house. Once the pawprints are allowed in the
home, in no time they become imprinted upon our necks, keeping us
down. We become dogs’ slaves.
Of course, some humans will always fight tyranny. As we
tell our own dog when he is particularly overbearing, for every
human who sees dogs as cherished members of the family, there are
still those for whom a dog is merely a security system tied to a
backyard chain. However, our dog is supremely unfazed by our subtle
threat, and as we write is lying in the sun on the sand outside our
office, keeping eye contact through the large window. Everyone is
in his or her proper place and the world is as it should be, until
some human comes along and screws up the whole system.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan

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