My late dog, Remy, had balls. I mean literally. And it was not uncommon for perfect strangers to stop us on the street, point to his groin and exclaim in horror (or at the very least complete confusion):
“He isn’t neutered!” (Oh really? I didn’t notice…).
When I engaged in these interactions people would always ask why Remy was still intact, without truly caring what my answer was and usually give me unsolicited advice that he really should be snipped. So far, I’ve gotten fewer stops with the new pup in my life, Sonder — though admittedly his nether regions are a bit less…shall we say “apparent” to passersby.
Strangers feeling comfortable not only commenting but advising without expertise on the choices I make for the animals in my care is part of much bigger, more complicated cultural history of gonadectomy and ownership in the U.S. If asked (I wasn’t), I could go on a diatribe about this for days — but if you’re truly interested, Katie Herzog sums up a lot of it really nicely in her four-part blog series “Moose Nuggets.”
To bookmark for now the chapter on Rem’s testicles, the choice I made for him was based on: one, recognizing what it means to control what happens to another’s body; and two, considering what was best for him as a dog in his situation. At the time, I researched the health pros and cons of both neutering and not, thought about his lifestyle (e.g., primarily supervised as opposed to free-roaming) and made a decision.
Today, I study animal behavior and communication and work closely with many veterinary and animal welfare professionals. It’s literally my business to know how physiology, biology and environment shape a dog’s “umwelt,” or experience of the world. In terms of desexing dogs, we still have a lot to learn about how the procedure impacts short- and long-term health and well-being.
THE WEIRD CANINE BOND
This particular dilemma is also highly culturally relevant. Roughly 75-80% of domesticated dogs do not live as pets in the way many Americans consider. They are not being pushed down the sidewalks of Brooklyn in strollers, nor are they sipping brews beside their humans at the beer garden.
While generations of people and dogs have formed many different kinds of close bonds (that’s what makes our interspecies coevolution so unique), some of these emerging aspects of human-canine companionship can be linked to shifting lifestyle trends related to employment, relationship status and childbearing in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies.
I am admittedly WEIRD — and probably also weird. A running joke for anyone who knows my family is when we die, we want to come back as a dog in the Sexton household. My daily patterns revolve around my dog: I love him dearly as I do human family members — and yes, “Your Dog Has Seen Me Naked,” per Ryan Pfeffer’s New York Times Modern Love editorial — but, I am not his parent and he is not my child, furbaby or whatever other psychoanalyst’s descriptor you want to assign him. I resist such language because simply put, this kind of terminology denies dogs their dog-ness which can have serious implications for dogs and people alike.
If we are going to assume the role as caretakers or guardians of animals who are denied autonomy, personhood and largely legal protection except as property, we must do so responsibly. A big part of being a responsible canine companion is understanding your environment and how the dog fits into it — and recognizing this environment may or may not be what the dog would choose if afforded self-governance.
DEVELOP YOUR CANINE CARITAS
In essence, because we love them and because we are the ones calling the shots, it’s our job to make sure dogs we cohabitate with have the opportunity to thrive within the given set of constraints of human society. Even with the best intentions, as Anna Heyward so vulnerably expressed in her New Yorker article “Bad Dog,” this can be really hard.
Now don’t get me wrong, the idea of someone making all of my decisions for me/having all of my basic needs taken care of sounds lux right about now — but in a dog’s reality that also comes at a price. We know it’s in their DNA to be highly sociable and even to seek out human company and communication. But dogs are also capable of decision making and, like humans, have preferences for food they eat, playthings and activities, and people and dogs with whom they keep company. For many, these preferences are even scripted in their genes. When we force them into certain situations and routines incongruent with the preferred “natural” state, their quality of life is threatened and their reactions can be volatile.
Imagine, for example, you were a city dweller who desperately wanted a border collie. Regardless of how many treats you give, keeping a border collie in a studio apartment all day would be irresponsible at best, teetering on neglect. You’d be actively preventing the dog from engaging in the very behaviors they were bred for — running, herding, working — and could ultimately cause major stress for the animal that gets channeled into “destructive” or “aggressive” behavior.
AND THEN WHO GETS BLAMED?
Look at it this way: If you were a life-long trained athlete from a family of Olympic medalists, would you be content spending your day scanning books returned to the library? Likely not. Might you tear up a few books in frustration? Possibly.
Another important thing to consider is when we bring dogs into our homes is we are responsible not just for their well-being but for anyone who may meet or encounter them.
Not everyone likes dogs. Not everyone should have to interact with them. Forcing this issue can be an especially unsavory form of exercising privilege.
So how, after recognizing our role and our environment, do we begin to display real caritas for our cross-species partners in evolution? Take a class. Listen. Learn something about canine communication and behavior. Don’t assume all tail wags mean the same thing. If I were planning to adopt a five-year-old child who spoke a language I didn’t know, sure as shit the first thing I’d do is learn the language or at the very least take an introductory course. I’d read up on their culture, their background. Why? To set them up for success.
In my life and my work, this is a constant process. I made plenty of mistakes with Remy that prompted me to do things differently with Sonder, but I’m never going to be the perfect pup partner. The key thing to recognize is — and the science is telling us this, too — dogs are individuals. While certain breeds may carry a high likelihood of certain traits being heritable, at the end of the day, just as with people individual experiences matter in terms of shaping a dog’s personality.
And as far as we’re concerned, the way we interact with dogs is not irrelevant to how we interact with and treat others. Be kind. Be gentle. Be ready to learn. Do that and life with a dog can offer the greatest of rewards.
Courtney Sexton is a writer and researcher currently at work on a doctoral dissertation exploring the evolution of canine communication, genetics and social behavior. She is a PhD candidate in the George Washington University Department of Anthropology’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology and is co-founder and director of The Inner Loop, a nonprofit organization for writers.
Looking for general resources for living with pets? Check out the PetMinded Community at petminded.co or on Instagram @petminded for virtual workshops, talks and courses. For local training classes, check out Capital Dog Training Club at cdtc.org.
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