Dogs are blessed and cursed by their co-evolution with our species. They are blessed in that their numbers greatly exceed any wild canid species. Many of the ones in much of the developed world receive better access to heath care, good food, and clean water than the poorest people on the planet.
As animals relating to people, dogs go more than half way in trying to communicate with us. They go even further in how tightly they bond to us.
But this ease of relationship has certain negative consequences. Because dogs are “almost human,” as goes the cliche, we tend to think their entire existence is much like ours.
However, these assumptions are often faulty. We forget that they are still very much carnivorans, very much wolves. Yes, modified by domestication and co-evolution but still they are of that lineage, that natural history. And we cannot deny this simple reality.
We live in world that is increasingly alienated from nature. The West is heavily urbanized. and fewer and fewer people understand other beings in ecosystems or even in agriculture.
So many people now get dogs without understanding the full context of the animal. It is the only large carnivoran that most will ever see outside of a zoo, and it will certainly the be the only one that most will ever know on an intimate level.
And herein lies the problem. The dog’s co-evolution with us gives it special status in our society, but we are largely operating on an understanding that dogs are just like people.
So we have “fur-kids” and “fur-moms” and “fur-dads.” People are afraid to correct their dogs. They are afraid to train them. They are afraid to cut nails. They are afraid to understand them.
At the same time, the transient nature of modern society has alienated us from each other, and dogs become that ersatz human connection, and this problem compounds with the previous one.
So when I see someone attempting to walk a dog on a harness with a retractable leash, I see two beings in conflict. I see the human, who is seeking to have some sort of communion with the dog, and I see the dog, which has no idea about what is expected in proper society. It is craving essential communication, but this communication it will never receive. If it had received it, it would have learned to walk on the lead attached to its flat collar.
But the retractable leash gives the dog the illusion of freedom, a freedom that it does not seek as much as it would like to know the person on the other end of the line.
The person on the other end, though, either does not know or does not want to know that the dog is not a child. It is no way Homo sapiens. To confront this reality is too difficult for some, for to admit such a thing is to admit the horrors of modern existence, all alienated from human connection and the natural world from which we sprang.
But there is a profound egocentrism in this convenient anthropomorphism. It is saying that no only does the world revolve around us, even our companion animals must fit our narrow paradigms.
This is the tragedy of the dog in the modern era. It lives better than ever in so many ways, but in so many ways, it is removed from what it is at its core, every bit as much as we are.
Yes, it is weird that I feel a sadness when I see a dog in harness being walked on one of those horrendous leashes, but the sadness I feel is justified.
Because I know dogs for what they are, and I love them for it. I try to give them what their animal side truly needs. The best I can anyway. For I am also short of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer’s skillset and privilege, but I can try. Yes, I can try.