The Truth
About Dogs
An Inquiry into the Ancestry,
Social Conventions, Mental habits,
And Moral Fiber of
Canis Familiaris

Stephen Budiansky
There are 55,000,000 or so dogs in the United States. We spend around $5,000,000,000 a year to feed them. Five billion dollars is roughly ten times what we spend on annual food shipments to the starving children in Africa, India, and South America. Our annual vet bills for dogs reaches $7,000,000,000 which is roughly thirteen times what we spend on annual food shipments to the starving children in Africa, India, and South America.

Dogs bite a million people a year in this country, at an annual cost to us (medical, insurance, lawsuits) of a billion dollars, which is roughly twice what we spend on annual food shipments to the starving children in Africa, India, and South America. And our dogs aren't biting that guy sneaking in the bedroom to steal the family jewels: dog bites are like shooting people. Most bites (and bullets) are "friendly" --- eg, they are aimed at someone nearby, a member of the pet-owning family, say; the mailman; the guy from next door jogging down the street; a neighbor's kid.

One of the great problems in Mexico City is dried dogshit, mixing with the dust of the streets, the smog of cars --- forming a toxic, lung-damaging pollution. Humans can be infected by sixty-five different diseases through dog feces, urine, or saliva. American dogs have an annual crap production of two million tons. Budiansky says,

    Two million tons is a difficult figure to comprehend. By way of comparison, the United States each year produces 3 million tons of aluminum and 4 million tons of cotton.


    The 4 billion gallons of dog urine generated each year in the United States...could fill all the wine bottles from a full year's output of the vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, and the United States combined.

Dogs probably took up with humans some 15,000 years ago. The author's most startling statements have to do with the nature of that relationship, telling us things that might appall dog-lovers. (This is not a Oprah style chatty book; the notes at the back of the book take up fourteen pages).

Budiansky doesn't call the relations between dogs and humans mutual love, protection, or a medicine for mutual loneliness. The word he uses is "parasitical,"

    Parasites can never launch a direct assault, as most all organisms have active defenses to fend them off. Parasites instead are evolutionarily guileful, and the most successful ones are Trojan horses that play on the foibles or features of their host. We humans are possessed with a surprisingly suspicious and calculating mind that is always plotting stratagems and imagining the stratagems of others..[but] it is hard to deny that we feel a very fundamental, innate, unlearned, and in that sense quite irrational attraction toward cute little things, especially helpless cute little things. Dogs take advantage of this no end. They play us like accordions.

Almost every myth that you and I have heard over the years Budiansky explodes.

  • House-breaking dogs? When you come home and find poop on the rug, it is useless to beat Rover. Anything that happens seconds after the event doesn't register, he doesn't make the connection. All he will learn to do is to fear your return.
  • Dog's barking to wake up their owner, save him or her from the burning house? Most dogs bark at anything, and it just so happens that some bark at burning houses. They also can bark at, as we well know, their owners coming home, their owners leaving home, the neighbors coming home, the neighbors leaving home, any passing car, you sneezing, me laughing, the wind, the moon, the stars.
  • When your dog hears the siren and howls, it's not because it hurts his ears: he just thinks it's another member of the pack, and he is going along with it to affirm membership. (Dogs closest relatives are wolves, and many of their actions are vestigial. Wolves howl --- always shortly after waking up, and the howling has been proved to reinforce the "cohesion of the pack" according to Erik Zimenin, who wrote about the declining wolf population (caused in great part by Canis familiaris.)
  • Dogs protective of their pups? When a puppy is separated from its littermates, it makes a distress cry. The mother will go over, pick up the puppy by the scruff, bring it back to the nest. Loving parent, right? But if you record the puppy's cry, set the tape-machine around the corner, and play the tape back, the mother dog will go over, pick up the tape recorder, and carry it back to the nest.

§     §     §

Most of our blindness to the machinations of this noisy, ingratiating, and often dangerous parasite have to do with projection. How can we not be influenced by a creature that appeals so to our protective instinct? Those eyes. The head placed lovingly on your knee. Lying down next to us. Rolling over. Peeing on your foot.

When I was travelling last year --- a five day car journey --- my companion insisted, against my vehement protest, on bringing along a German Shepherd puppy, just six weeks old. The first day, I ignored the puppy, and my companion. The second day, I told my friend that the puppy would probably be more comfortable, up at the front of the car, with us --- rather back in the drafty camper shell. The third day, the dog had found a comfortable nitch next to me, would rest its head on my wrist, look up at me with pure adoration. I was loath to move, afraid of waking it, of breaking our rapport. The fourth day, I would have fought a major war against anyone who wanted to hurt my baby, and I told my friend that the puppy belonged to both of us. The fifth day, when the puppy died (we never found out why; the veterinarian said it was probably the drastic change of climate) I mourned my lost friend ridiculously. To this day, I remember that head on my arm, those eyes looking up into my own, the tiny shadow his body made when we finally laid him in the ground; my own tears.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up