When you think of the words “dog lovers”, you might have visions of the legions of breeds, their breeders and fans at their show-of-shows, the Westminster Dog Show. A great sendup of this world can be found in the Christopher Guest mockumentary “Best in Show” (which also includes Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, more recently of “Schitt’s Creek” fame).
Our little town has hosted one of the biggest regional dog shows for many years, and has a very active kennel club.
While not members of the kennel club, my wife Valerie and I love dogs – a lot. About twelve years ago we decided to take action to help the dogs in our community. There were hordes of hungry, roaming dogs invading the playgrounds and knocking kids over to steal their lunches. The dog population was out of control and “fixing the problem” meant dog shoots or endless impoundments and transport to shelters in distant communities. We set out to get closer to the root of the problem. We started programs for community education about animal care, compassion and dog bite safety, and to help low income families have their dogs spayed and neutered.
We thought that it would be great to make contact with our colleagues at the kennel club. After all, they loved dogs and the Canadian Kennel Club had started a program to help create good canine citizens. Responsible guardianship and training – sounded great to us. Surely there would be opportunities to work together for the sake of dogs and the community, and elevate the levels of care, compassion and safety.
So one frosty day, after running a batch of abandoned puppies to the shelter, Valerie and I travelled to the nearby town, where the brass of the kennel club were meeting at a Chinese restaurant. Valerie went in for the meeting as I took care of other business around town.
She was “warmly” greeted by the chair of the meeting, who informed her: “You are here to listen, not to present information. You can leave information and we will consider it later.”
When the meeting was over, I picked Valerie up. I was excited to hear all about the new potential partnership for the betterment of dogkind. Instead she shook her head and told me that the meeting had gone on as if she was not even there. The information we had to share about our education program, and the encouraging numbers from our early spay / neuter programs languished on the corner of the table.
However, the meeting time was filled with important topics. The chair had been quite frustrated with the judging of her prized Boofenchasser bitch (maybe I heard the breed wrong but it was something like that).
“Girls, I could not believe it. She lost points for nose colour. The majority of the nose has to be dark. And I tell you, her nose is only forty percent pink! And most of that you can’t even see – it is in her nostril!”
Much pursing of lips ensued, a few grunts of indignation and some encouraging words about the quality of judges expected for the show in our little town. That was probably the matter of most substance, or so I recall from the discussion with Valerie.
The individuals in the kennel club clearly did not see all dogs as we did, as valued individuals worthy of great care and attention. It was “our carefully bred angels” vs “those mutts from over there”.
That was over a decade ago, but it ties into an interesting podcast we heard this week – featuring psychologist Melanie Joy. Her most notable book is “Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”. The main concept is how we slot animals into different categories. Those categories are set up by culture and custom, and program our brains for the acceptable treatment of those animals.
As Joy said in the podcast: “If I give you a juicy, grilled burger with all the fixings, and you see and smell that burger – you will salivate. And it will be satisfying and tasty – until I tell you it is a Golden Retriever burger! At that point you will be repulsed and freaking out…”
Cow – now that is an “eater”. Golden Retriever, not so much.
When her book was translated, the first language was Korean. In Korea, while not universal, it is more customary to eat dog meat. The above example might have led a Korean reader to say “Golden Retriever burger, eh? What’s the problem?”
However, when the editors changed the translated text to “Maltese burger” (a breed treasured as a pet), the natural response reverted to revulsion.
So even in the animal category of “dog”, just as we saw with the kennel club meeting, there were different subcategories that meant love, respect, indifference, loathing, killing, eating. At the root, all involve the same wonderful beings who will love you unconditionally, even if you mistreat them. Social creatures with intelligence that goes far beyond the crowd pleasing performances on the agility track. Communicative animals who can read our eyes and speak through their vocalizations and their body language.
Humans can be very clever in the compartmentalization required to “rationalize” the different treatment of each group so they can sleep at night.
The challenge is to rise above the cultural programming and examine whether these arbitrary lines make sense. There is a richer answer to the question “Why?” than the old parental standby “Because I said so.” With some added perspective, can we connect the dots in a way that is more caring, compassionate and in line with our core beliefs and values?
The key word is connection. So many of the problems we see in the world today are a failure to connect: to each other, across societal lines, to the global community, to nature and all the sentient beings who share the globe with us.
Sadly, with the coronavirus crisis in full swing, this year our little town won’t be able to see all the bitches running around the show ring with their carefully judged noses in the air. We do hope their guardians take the chance to reflect and build some of those connections.
Image from “Best In Show” (2000)