Once upon a time dogs entertained us in the circus or in Snoopy comic strips. These days they perform online to staggering audiences. YouTube’s Ultimate Dog Tease has 200 million views and Olive and Mabel, a recent phenomenon, has five million and rising.
At least these are normal dogs. Much, much freakier is @jiffpom, a pomeranian photographed wearing human baby clothes (10.4 million Instagram followers, 12 million likes on Facebook), or poor, quease-inducing @tunameltsmyheart, a deformed chihuahua/dachshund cross (2.1 million Instagram followers). Dog lovers can get interactive with WeRateDogs (8.9 million on Twitter), which makes so much money on merchandising that its teenage inventor quit university and hired his father, a lawyer. “Nobody’s going to stop liking dogs any time soon,” Matt Nelson told Money magazine.
And he’s right. Lockdown, you’ll have noticed, has made dogs ever more profitable, and doing his own bit of monetizing is the writer Simon Garfield, aka the devoted slave to an epileptic black Lab retriever called Ludo. His book is a witty celebration of the long-lasting dog/human relationship — the breaking news, in archaeology terms, is that it’s up to 10,000 years old. This bond has reached the point where we’ve infantilized our pets into little humans.
Or perhaps, if you look at it from the dogs’ point of view, it’s a celebration of how well they’ve exploited the perfect niche in us.
These are decadent western dogs, of course — the approximate nine million in the UK, 99 million in the US. Academics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard estimate there are up to one billion others in the world, with more than 80 percent living near humans, but not in their homes, scavenging off tips and rubbish bins.
From “Fido” to “Henry”
A dog’s job used to be to hunt, guard, herd, track, guide, detect, fight, heal and comfort, but, in the age of anthropomorphism, it boils down to looking cute on Instagram. We no longer call our pets Fido or Spot; we “imprint them with our expectations” by giving children’s names. Hence Max, Bella, Alfie, Henry, Daisy — or, if you’re a member of the London Library, Aurelius, Aurelia and Beowulf. The more human the name, the clearer our desire for them to be like us. (My uncle had a dog called Lunatic.)
Perhaps the key test is shouting the name in public. In the 1930s, as well as the royal corgis, the future Elizabeth II’s family owned three yellow Labs, Mimsy, Scrummy and Stiffy. “Woe betide everyone within earshot when Stiffy went astray and had to be called home,” Garfield says.
The more human the name, the clearer our desire for them to be like us. (My uncle had a dog called Lunatic.)
He debunks some anthropomorphic myths. Barking, for instance, which modern owners interpret as the dog talking. As barkingdogs.net puts it, your dog barks because you have placed him in a situation in which it is more rewarding for him to bark than it is for him to be quiet. When you change the situation and make silence a more rewarding alternative, he’ll stop.
Then there’s that guilty look that humans interpret in dogs. It’s probably just learned behavior. In experiments dogs that were left alone with treats and told not to eat them showed classic signs of guilt even when they didn’t. The hangdog look is merely a response to owner cues.
But does any enthusiastic dog lover care? They’re too fixated on their next preposterous designer dog. And dismissing this trend, Garfield says, is like dismissing the Internet. Available now is the Labradoodle, cockapoo, Yorkie-poo, springador, cockador, lhasapoo, frug, jackshi-tzu, chorkie, pomimo, borkie, bolonoodle, pooton, maltipoo, maltichon, malteagle, chonzer and schnoodle. Only intention and semantics — and one might add money — distinguishes a crossbreed from what we once called a mongrel or a mutt.
Incidentally, raise a cheer for Virginia Woolf and her beloved Grizzle, a symbol of erotica. When her lover Vita Sackville-West left for Persia in 1926 Woolf fantasized about her return: “These shabby mongrels are always the most loving, warm-hearted creatures. Grizzle and Virginia will rush down to meet you — they will lick you all over.” En route to London, Vita replied: “This will be my last letter. The next thing you know of me, will be that I walk in and fondle Grizzle.” Cue Garfield: “Nurse, the screens!”
Available now is the Labradoodle, cockapoo, Yorkie-poo, springador, cockador, lhasapoo, frug, jackshi-tzu, chorkie, pomimo, borkie, bolonoodle, pooton, maltipoo, maltichon, malteagle, chonzer and schnoodle.
We often choose dogs today for bad and random reasons — cuteness and fashion, not desirable temperaments, longer life expectancy or fewer genetic disorders. Dogs considered harder to train, and which suffer more from separation anxiety, are increasingly popular because they look good. Sadly, he doesn’t name the breeds.
In an amusing chapter on Crufts Garfield boggles at the dog-related paraphernalia, designed “to make a dog’s life more like a human’s”. Treadmills for overfed dogs; knitted cushions made from your dog’s hair (urgh!); robes, smoking jackets, body warmers, dry-cleaning doggy bags. Type “dinosaur dog coat” into Google Images, he says, and pick your jaw up from the floor (he’s right).
To some extent all this is plus ça change. Victorians made dogs aspirational and invented the concept of dog food. The showman Charles Alfred Cruft started the extravaganza in 1891. He also worked with James Spratt, pioneering biscuits consisting of grains, beetroot and beef fluid, probably blood, marketed as Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes.
By 1889 the gullible could buy Rackhams’ Distemper Balls, a “certain cure for everything”. More than 130 years on they’re still at it, treating their dogs to turmeric capsules, vegan and gluten-free main courses and snacks made from Himalayan yak milk. Or sachets of fresh wild British pheasant, ox kidney and liver, vegetables, fruits, herbs and cold-pressed oils, designed to mimic a diet from a time dogs foraged wild.
Treadmills for overfed dogs; knitted cushions made from your dog’s hair (urgh!); robes, smoking jackets, body warmers, dry-cleaning doggy bags.
There are some extraordinary facts in this book. I never knew that in 1939, in the first four days of the war, an estimated 400,000 — possibly up to 750,000 — domestic dogs and cats were put down by their owners in London, an act dubbed by the historian Angus Calder as “a holocaust of pets”. The move was officially sanctioned: people were advised they couldn’t take animals into air raid shelters and it was kindest to euthanise them.
Garfield suggests that today even the hint of pet destruction at a time of national crisis would be met by revolution. But this was a different century — during the First World War dachshunds in Britain were stoned in the street and registered ownership of that German breed plummeted from 217 in 1913 to zero in 1919.
Dog’s Best Friend feels like a typical lockdown book: warm, slightly soppy, written at speed (I spotted a couple of errors) and a tad padded. Garfield pulls his punches, understandably, at those who are both his target and his readers. Unforgivably, he even spares those who call their dogs “fur babies”. Are we in danger, he asks, of replacing dogness with humanness? But then he ducks the question, exclaiming: “But then again, lighten up!”
He does encourage others to answer. The canine behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz sees real risk in judging dogs against a human ideal. She believes social media has turned dogs into “furry emoji”, a banal shorthand for sentiment that degrades a “complex, impressive creature”.
Garfield also swerves contentious areas such as the human medical procedures — oncology and organ transplants — now being imposed upon dogs. Nor does he dwell on how owners reject their pets when cuteness fades and vast numbers of pampered dogs, made neurotic by their lifestyle, are abandoned. Less soppy dog lovers — if they still exist — will be frustrated.