What does your dog think when you doll it up in an adorable sweater?
A recent news item sheds some light on this question. It seems a woman in Florida (where else?) attempted to put a sweater on her pit bull mix during a cold snap. The pit bull, named Scarface, took it about as well as you might expect from a dog with a name like that — and a modicum of self-respect. It got into a brawl with the woman and her family that sent the humans to the hospital and the pit bull to animal control.
“Officers responding said the dog was pretty aggressive,” a police spokesman told WFTS-TV in Tampa, with a small amount of understatement.
People who do not have pets given to violence may have less of a chance to learn that what we regard as the ideal life and what our pets regard as the ideal life can be two very different things. Perhaps this woman in Florida had only the best of intentions, possibly planning to also treat Scarface to an easy chair, a magazine and a cup of hot cocoa to go with the sweater. Nothing better on a chilly day!
The emerging science of animal emotions and intelligence is thought-provoking, yet fraught with pitfalls for the unwary, as humans tend to assume that other creatures view and experience the world in much the same way we do.
The silly indulgences these assumptions create, like sweaters on dogs, are (usually) pretty harmless. Sometimes they can become harmful (like overfed animals becoming obese) or expensive: Animal psychiatrists, animal psychics and a host of other people are willing and eager to part pet owners from their money for services of dubious value.
When I was a kid, we used to keep our dog outside, where it slept in the barn or wherever it preferred. This used to be a pretty normal life for dogs. In fact, I always regarded our dog’s life as a sort of canine paradise — a country life of roaming free, chasing rabbits and making exciting discoveries like dead chickens by the road that had fallen off chicken trucks.
But there’s an emerging school of thought that seems to regard keeping a dog outside as tantamount to putting a baby out in a snowbank overnight.
Yet we cared about our pets, albeit differently than many people now seem to. My parents got our first dog when I was a baby, and it was a constant companion for us kids until it died when I was 12. I was heartbroken. The loss of that dog affected me more than any other death I can think of.
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We’d like to get a dog for our boys, ages 4 and 3. A shelter dog would be an intriguing option, but we hesitate to go that route because from what we understand, shelters make you sign an agreement that you’ll keep the dog inside, which we aren’t planning to do.
I once expounded to a coworker my theory that dogs are fine living outside, and she told me I shouldn’t own a dog — objecting, apparently, to the idea that I would let it live outdoors like some kind of animal. Her dogs, of course, not only lived inside with her but communicated with her in complete sentences, conversations she related to me on a regular basis.
With pets increasingly regarded as people, just in different shapes, perhaps someday I’ll be similarly judged for declining to get my dog lifesaving heart surgery.
If the situation were reversed, and animals owned us, what might they assume we’d like and need, based on their worldview?
If a dog owned you, he’d likely pride himself on providing you with a nice tree to sleep under and juicy dead chickens he’d found by the highway, feeling that in this way he was giving you a greatly superior life to the one you’d have if left to your own untutored devices. And the dog’s friends would crowd around, crowing, “Aww, he looks SO CUTE chewing on that chicken. Isn’t it just adorable?”
If a cat owned you, you might be a little better off. It would assume that all you would require out of life would be a patch of warm sunshine and a piece of carpet, an existence that might not seem so bad until you needed to use the bathroom or eat lunch (fresh rodent!).
We may therefore gain some sympathy for animals like the unfortunate Scarface. If the tables were turned, you’d probably fight back, too.
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