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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics

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At the Javits Center, the canine past is a fantasy of upper-class country life, akin in some ways to the nostalgic penumbra that exists around my own dog. The antic shapes of many of these dogs correspond to some specific Victorian-era task. Ratters, herders, wolfhounds, guard dogs—a Swiss Army knife of countryside work. But the dogs don’t do the work they supposedly did in the past. They’ve drifted, following the vagaries of fashion rather than usefulness. The AKC’s breed rules are strictly visual—an aristocratic ethic, as if what was outside corresponded to what was inside.

There are an abundance of pure-breed horror stories. Bulldogs have terrible breathing problems (I heard one make the characteristic throat-clearing grunt as he was being led around the hall), and most have to be born by Caesarean. Several breeds—the German shepherd, for instance—are prone to crippling hip dysplasia, partly the result of a stylistic preference for a lowriding profile. Breeders say few AKC shepherds are suitable for police work. The Cane Corso has a head as big and square as a good-size TV. The dignity of a dog beneath its madcap form is the elemental canine joke, seemingly an unspoken dog-breeding tenet. Once the unshakable empire of the dog world, the AKC has been shrinking over the past couple of decades, partly because of competing registrations and partly because this Victorian fantasy—these working dogs that haven’t worked in decades—seems increasingly distant from the modern world.

There are still dogs in the world that work, and their owners are the ones who have the most contempt for the AKC’s dog dreamworld. Working-dog people tend to describe their own dogs in terms of sometimes heroic anecdotes, supernatural feats of tracking, an intuitive comprehension of human aims. I talked to a sheep farmer at the farmer’s market who described an incident where one of her Border Collies listened to a conversation she was having with one of her employees on a walkie-talkie, discerned instantly where the flock had escaped, and ran half a mile to cut them off.

But in the city, where can all those remarkable energies go? Here the dog is a bumpkin, pursuing its questionable aims (chicken bones, butt-sniffing) with earnest zeal. Who is Marley, of Marley & Me, but Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, cheerfully blundering through life, not realizing his country ways don’t make sense. But outdoors, it’s a different matter. Off the leash, finding the high ground to survey the landscape, paw cocked, or blasting through deep snow in a way people (or too many dogs, for that matter) can’t manage, Stella is profound.

Working-dog people also look with contempt on the pampered lives of city dogs. There’s no suffering, sure—but what else is there? No sheep to herd or birds to hunt or sleds to pull. Nothing to manifest the excellence of their character. In an ethic based on avoidance of suffering, nobility (which used to be a rather important concept in the dog world) isn’t possible. On the other hand, these people can seem like Civil War reenactors, clinging to a relationship to nature that makes less and less sense. The dog wants to take us back—but for the most part, there’s not a way to get there.

In a footnote to one of his poems about the deaths of his dogs, John Updike wrote, “Sometimes it seems the whole purpose of pets is to bring death into the house,” a sensationally cruel observation because there’s truth in it. The dog’s mortality is never far from an owner’s mind—it’s the central flaw in this best-friend business. No one is ready for their dog to go. And the dog doesn’t know where it’s going—the dog joke turned into a tragedy.

At the Animal Medical Center, on East 62nd Street at the river, these issues often come to a head. Susan Phillips Cohen, the director of counseling at the center, helps people make sense of this bad bargain. A small, cheerful, white-haired woman (she’s a cat person, actually), Cohen goes person to person in the hospital’s waiting room, gauging the emotional distress of the pet owners who come in. “We don’t consider old age a disease here,” she says. “We wanted to be the place that didn’t say, ‘It’s a 10-year-old dog, there’s nothing we can do.’ ”

The Animal Medical Center is right on hospital row by design. “They wanted it to be on equal footing,” says Robert Liberman, the chairman of the board, whom I ran into in the lobby. He tells me about studies undertaken in collaboration with Sloan-Kettering. On a plaque in the lobby, there’s an A-list of donors—Fanjuls, Kissingers—but pride of place goes to the Vincent Astor Foundation. (The neglect of Mrs. Astor’s own dogs in her senility was one of the drivers of the case that led to the conviction of her son for taking advantage of her condition. Though one can’t help but wonder whether, if some of the love the dogs received had been diverted to Tony, things wouldn’t have gotten quite so out of hand.) Liberman has so far failed to extract any of the vast Helmsley bequest. “It has not been easy,” he says.


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