What you do is a great thing, and i know it’s important to you, lori, but you have to remember that they’re just dogs

“What you do is a great thing, and I know it’s important to you, Lori, but you have to remember that they’re just dogs.”

The words, spoken by a family member, stung.  We had just been discussing who would be “on duty” to care for my hospitalized mother that Sunday; despite having already put in numerous hours at the hospital that week, I had agreed that, if necessary, I would make an early departure from an event in which my nonprofit animal welfare organization was participating so that this family member could run a personal errand.  In the interest of maintaining familial harmony, I held my tongue and ignored this unprovoked verbal slap in the face, but as I hung up the telephone, a searing outrage boiled inside me.

“Just dogs”?

After brooding a bit, my rage cooled to a dull despair.  How many of my peers within the animal welfare community have faced a similar lack of understanding – even hostility – from friends, family, and the general public over their dedication?

All too often, we are dismissed as sentimental saps, a bit too enamored of fuzzy faces and soulful brown eyes.  At best, we are grudgingly indulged as a little quirky – a bit eccentric, perhaps, but harmless.  At worst, we are accused of having skewed priorities – why should we care about mere animals when there are human beings equally in peril?

After all, they’re just dogs.

“Just dogs”:  the new mantra of football fanatics everywhere since the Philadelphia Eagles’ signing of Michael Vick, convicted in 2007 of felony dogfighting charges.  “He’s done his time, now let’s get him on the field and WIN!” they cry.  “After all, there are guys in the NFL who have assaulted human beings and are still playing… Vick’s victims were just dogs.”

One could counter those remarks by pointing out that human beings in America are free to do what they wish, and can make the choice whether or not to engage in a brawl-sparking argument with professional football players outside a night club; domesticated animals, on the other hand, are subject to the will of those in whose care (or lack thereof) they must live.

The modern domesticated dog, canis lupus familiaris, is purely an invention of mankind.  To ancestors such as wolves, jackals, and other wild canids, man applied the process of selective breeding to capitalize on whatever genetic mutations suited his needs or fancy.  In so doing, he created an end result which, while nearly identical in genetic structure to the modern wolf, is quite different in psychological makeup.  The instincts of the wolf so necessary for his survival in the wild have been in some cases modified, in others suppressed or altogether eliminated.  For example, in the development of herding breeds such as the border collie, man exploited the natural predatory behavior of circling and chasing prey, but bred out the urge to make the kill.  In most terriers and some hunting breeds, the urge to kill was left intact, but the instinct to devour the kill was eliminated, enabling a farmer to keep track of his ratter’s progress or a hunter to reap the benefits of his dogs’ efforts.  In some cases, such as that of the stout, pug-nosed English bulldog, a breed originally developed to perform a specific function was later grossly manipulated for the sole objective of looking the way elite dog fanciers wanted it to look; the original working bulldog was actually very similar in appearance to today’s boxer and American pit bull terrier.  The result of all this genetic orchestration is a vast multitude of dog breeds which, though widely varied in structure and temperament, were all developed solely to suit the needs and aesthetic tastes of mankind.

The domestic dog is our creation.  He was rebuilt and retooled to suit man’s needs, and ingrained from the earliest days with a need to live, work, and cooperate with man; he therefore relies upon man for his subsistence and the future of his race.  Dogs are, in a sense, very much like human children: we are responsible for causing their existence, and they depend upon us for their food, shelter, medical care, and social and behavioral upbringing.  It is truly heinous to abuse this dedication and dependency for the purposes of one’s own entertainment and financial benefit by cruelly exploiting the tendencies our species developed in this creature.

Just dogs?  Perhaps, but if man plays God with nature, he has a responsibility to properly care for what he created.

There is a far more insidious factor, however, behind the outrage we advocates of the canine race feel over the Michael Vick case – one of which, due to old misconceptions which are still widely prevalent today, those less schooled in the science of animal psychology may not be aware.

At one time it was believed that dogs were merely “dumb animals,” driven primarily by instinct and sensory reaction.  Sure, they could learn a few tricks and commands, but complex thought and language comprehension were beyond them.  It was assumed that, like other biological organisms from insects to impalas, dogs’ behavior was simply the result of automatic responses to external stimuli.

Through the research and published observations of modern animal ethologists and behaviorists such as Patricia J. McConnell, Ph.D. (author, The Other End of the Leash) and Dr. Nicholas Dodman (author,The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs), modern understanding of canine emotions and the expression thereof has been revolutionized.  Humans have gained a greater understanding of canine communication – accomplished much less through simple barks and growls, as originally thought, but far more through a rich and complex language of postures, movements, and facial expressions.  McConnell, in particular, has written a great deal on canine emotions and the various similarities between dog and human psychology.  Researchers have also discovered a great deal about how dogs learn and think… and the newly uncovered reality may surprise you.

Experiments conducted on Rico, a German border collie with an astounding vocabulary of 200 or more recognized words, have revealed that dogs do not merely learn human language by memorizing commands and names of objects, but that they are capable of learning by significantly more advanced thought processes such as deductive reasoning.  When presented with a roomful of toys whose names Rico had already learned, the dog retrieved each item correctly upon request.  A new toy which Rico had never seen was brought into the room and given an arbitrary name which he had never heard before.  When asked to retrieve the item, Rico paused a moment to look over all the objects, then retrieved the correct item.  Even with his owner out of the room and therefore unable to give any visual signals to direct him, Rico was able to consistently repeat this process.  Upon being asked to retrieve an object whose name was unfamiliar to him, Rico simply took a mental inventory of the available objects and correctly deduced that the only unfamiliar object present matched the new word.  After a few repetitions, the new name would be added to Rico’s vocabulary; he could recall the object associated with that name and retrieve it months later.  This rapid learning process, known to scientists as “fast mapping,” is similar to the method used by human toddlers learning to speak.

Just dogs?

My everyday observations of my own dogs have produced similar proof of complex thinking and language comprehension.  Every dog owner knows how certain words – “cookie,” “walk”, “ride” – can get his or her pet’s attention in an instant.  Most people attribute this to simple name recognition, similar to that exhibited in very young children, whose first spoken words are names and objects (“Mommy”, “Daddy,” “ball”).  In my household, however, beginning a sentence with “Do you want…?” always causes heads to pop up and ears to prick, even if the sentence is left incomplete.  Past occurrences have taught my dogs that these words are generally followed by something good – a snack, a trip outside, a ride in the car.  Therefore, they have applied this phrase to the expectation of a positive experience, and react accordingly.  They have learned to pay attention and anticipate whatever word will complete this question.  Rather than simply reacting to a word they have come to associate with a specific object or activity, they comprehend the abstract concept of something good possibly being offered to them.  Pretty advanced linguistic learning for a creature once dismissed as being driven by simple reactions to sensory stimuli.

In his ground-breaking work The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, discusses various forms of intelligence – adaptive, instinctive, linguistic, intra- and interpersonal , mathematical, and so forth – and illustrates how all are developed in and exhibited by the domestic dog.  To enable the average dog owner to observe and measure various learning and thinking processes in his or her pet, Coren developed a Canine IQ Test in which, through a series of simple exercises, one’s own family dog can present clear proof of observational learning, problem solving, social learning, and other thought processes once considered beyond the scope of the average canine brain.  In a presentation at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention, Coren stated that dogs have been proven to exhibit forms of learning once considered to belong exclusively to humans and some apes.  In fact, in comparison with human intelligence, Coren places the mental capabilities of the average dog at the level of a two- to two-and-a-half-year-old child.

Just dogs.  Are you now questioning the validity of that phrase?

This is why we animal lovers throw ourselves into our cause with such dedication.  It’s also why we cannot forgive Michael Vick.  The dogs he forced to fight bloody battles against each other, and the eight dogs he brutally killed when they failed to measure up, were not mere “dumb animals.”

They were not “just dogs.”

They were thinking, feeling beings, with emotions quite similar to our own.  They felt frustration and grief, fear and pain.  They even had their own individual personalities.  They were capable of problem-solving, basic logic, and – like our own children – learning from observation.  I shudder to think of what these creatures learned about humans in their last moments of life. 

Had Michael Vick drowned, hanged, electrocuted, and beaten to death eight human two-year-olds, would he deserve to be not only reinstated to the NFL, but handed a multimillion-dollar contract?  Would you glorify him as a sports hero and proudly wear jerseys emblazoned with his name and number?  Of course not.

But Vick’s victims weren’t children.  They were… well, you know.


McConnell, Patricia B.  2002.  The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs.  New York:  Ballantine Books.

Coren, Stanley.  1994.  The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the Thoughts, Emotions, and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions.  New York: Bantam Books.  Chapters 2, 4 through 9.

Hamilton, Jon.  “Dog Prodigy Gives New Meaning to Language.”  NPR.com.   2004.  August 21, 2009.  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1952976

“Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says.”  ScienceDaily.com.  2009.  August 21, 2009.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm

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