Alexandra Horowitz, right, speaking with Melissa Dahl at New York's Mid-Manhattan Library
“Somebody has a bagel, and it’s not you. And it’s not gonna be you with that kind of behavior!”
This quote, spoken by a man to a rapacious hound and taken from Alexandra Horowitz’s recent “Things People Say to Their Dogs” essay in The New York Times (itself adapted from her new book--Our Dogs, Ourselves--The Story of a Singular Bond) was a fitting way to begin her “Author Talks” conversation Wednesday evening (Oct. 2 at New York’s Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street.
Horowitz, who serves as senior research fellow and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of three previous books (including Times best-seller Inside of a Dog), was prompted in conversation by Melissa Dahl, executive editor of health/science publication Elemental and author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. Perhaps more significant, Dahl is herself a dog owner, though “owner,” as Horowitz related, is debatable.
“On one hand, dogs are members of the family,” said Horowitz, “but they’re also things we own. We call ourselves ‘dog owners,’ but over the years I use ‘owner’ less and less and less. It’s descriptive of the law [in the U.S.], but other places use ‘guardian’—and that makes more sense. I think of myself as ‘my dog’s person.’ It’s mutual ownership!”
Actually, the jacket bio of Our Dogs, Ourselves identifies Horowitz as being “owned by canines Finnegan and Upton, and tolerated by feline Edsel.” No surprise, then, that the issue of ownership is central to the book, worthy of its own chapter, “Owning Dogs.”
“Thinking of dogs and living with dogs all the time, there were still things of the legal landscape I didn’t know anything about,” said Horowitz. “I didn’t know that dogs were considered chattel property, that [divorce court] judges laugh at the request for custody of dogs because they’re [legally] like a chair—and you don’t get visitation of a chair.”
Under the law, dogs are in fact no better than furniture, said Horowitz.
“They get distributed like the rest of the property,” she said. “They’re no different than the chair I’m sitting on, and maybe worth less since I paid a shelter to get [my dogs, and] we can do whatever we want with dogs—they don’t have rights.”
As she notes in the book, hitting and other corporal punishment of a dog that doesn’t follow an order to “sit”--rationalized as “necessary, justifiable discipline”--are “completely accepted by the state.”
Horowitz touched on other key sections of Our Dogs, Ourselves, including naming dogs (the second chapter, “The Perfect Name”). She recounted how she reached out on Twitter for dog names and the stories behind them, and received 2,000 responses within the first 12 hours, 8,000 after a few days.
“I think everybody wants to tell you about their dogs,” said Horowitz, relating that her dog Finnegan “is a very cheery, professional dog,” and Upton was named for his “big, strong personality.” She added, “They’re individuals to us.”
Indeed, dogs, according to Horowitz, are individuals whom we form intimate relationships with, speaking to them directly even though they never talk back. But dogs also “have lives separate from us,” she noted, and are “their own agent” despite their dependence on us.
Unfortunately, dogs’ own agency does not extend to breeding, and Horowitz devotes chapters in Our Dogs, Ourselves to both artificial (“The Trouble with Breeds”) and natural breeding (“Against Sex”)--topics both addressed at her “Author Talks” appearance. She said that while humans have bred dogs for function for thousands of years, breeding strictly for form is more recent, and frequently results in breeds that by intent may look “cute,” but suffer from unnatural disfiguration and health issues.
She also noted how certain breeds can become problematic for humans who take them out of their genetically predisposed environments: These include sheepdogs that are bred for herding sheep and are thereby “very sensitive to motion,” and unexpectedly but naturally respond like a sheepdog, say, to an urban youngster on a skateboard, and golden retrievers, a breed “way over-represented in ‘biting literature,’ but since we think they’re friendly with kids we put them in situations where kids are rolling around on them.”
As for current breeding practices, particularly in the U.S., Horowitz has taken a stand against the norm.
Noting that spaying and neutering has been prevalent in America since 1970 as the means of lessening the problem of millions of unwanted dogs and cats (though there are still a million annually that are euthanized), Horowitz said that other countries do not rely on such surgical “de-sexing” to solve a problem brought on solely by our unwillingness to keep track of our pets.
“We all believe [in spaying and neutering], but it hasn’t solved the problem,” she said, noting, too, that de-sexing—and she prefers to call it that--also is a cause of obesity in dogs and produces “all sorts of deleterious health effects” by removing reproductive hormones that are also vital for other bodily systems.
“In Norway they consider it important not to perform unnecessary surgery on sentient animals—and [spaying and neurtering] is unnecessary for dogs,” she said.
For Horowitz, it all comes down to, “We don’t want them having sex!”
“Should they be allowed to have sex?” she asked. “How are we choosing that they’re not going to have a sex life--which is important for us, but we don’t want our fur babies to be sexual, so we pretend they don’t have that problem at all. I don’t have a policy, but I’m always for the dog and the dog point-of-view.”
Being that Halloween is around the corner, Dahl asked Horowitz how she felt about Halloween costumes for dogs. Sure enough, Horowitz sided with the dog’s point-of-view.
“Sometimes I feel like a super big grump, but I’ve never been pro costume,” she said. “I feel like it’s not respectful to the dog. Animals have an inherent dignity: They’re individuals, and the thing that we celebrate most about nonhuman animals is who they are in the world--and doing their thing. But it’s a short-term insult, and I’m not going to scream at someone for costuming their dog--but I’m not putting a costume on mine.”
Horowitz further addressed the concept of a dog’s inherent dignity as her talk neared its end.
“In some countries in Europe, respect for the dignity of the animal is heightened,” she maintained. “There, you can’t leave a dog alone for more than eight hours, which is hard for us, but good for them: We bred them to like us, and I do think we should be around for them.”