Notes and Thoughts on Gopnik's "Dog Story."

August 8th's The New Yorker magazine has an article titled “Dog Story,” by Adam Gopnik, that examines the complex bond we have with our canine companions. “Dog Story” begins with the author’s persistent daughter (April) lobbying her reluctant parents into purchasing a Havanese puppy. Although Gopnik is an avowed dog-phobic (the result of a dog bite he suffered as a youth), “Butterscotch” quickly becomes a part of the Gopniks’ family. Butterscotch spurs the author’s interest to investigate the allure of the canine species further.

What Mr. Gopnik discovers is that in important ways our views about our closest companions disagree. Worse, not only is there often no consensus, there is often dispute. Even when it comes to the origin of the species itself, (what he calls “dog history”), there is disagreement. When and why did dogs break apart from their wild, wolf brethren and become domesticated? Did dogs begin their domestication as our allies, helping early man hunt, or did they originate as dependents of us from the beginning, scavenging in packs for our throwaways in much the same way as dogs do now in developing countries?

The range of stories such as the two above, Gopnik argues, demonstrates a key facet of our relationship with our companions - that part of our attraction to them is the stories we tell about them. Just as Butterscotch loves certain types of music, many (most?) of us proclaim our companions to have complex emotions (including jealousy, hope, anxiety, guilt and even depression, for example), and behaviors. As examples of myth-making Gopnik cites Millan's (the dog whisperer) pack-animal theories of dog behavior and Grogan’s (the author of the celebrated book “Marley & Me”) portrait of the all-sympathetic dog. At the other extreme we tell stories that try explain those behaviors in mechanical, instinctual terms. Gopnik cites Horowitz, the author of “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know,” who argues that characteristics we frequently attribute to our canine companions, such as the complex emotions mentioned above, are illusory projections of our own emotions.

To explain, Gopnik describes how Butterscotch sits by the door before their daughter (April) comes home from school. One explanation of this behavior may be that Butterscotch likes April’s companionship, and looks forward to it. But another competing theory may reduce this behavior by arguing that Butterscotch sits by the door all afternoon because she associates that behavior with food stimulus (treats that April often gives her). Under this theory, dogs are the ultimate scam artists: we provide them with food stimulus, and they provide us with the illusion of love. Both competing theories describe the same empirical phenomena, but which one is true? For us dog lovers the second theory is very difficult to accept - could our entire set of beliefs about our canine companions be illusory mirages that disappear upon further examination?

Perhaps we should assume there is some virtue in attempting to navigate towards an Aristotelian middle-course. Indeed, as Gopnik notes we can find a little bit of breathing room in the middle if we remember that while we could also reduce inter-human accounts in the above manner (for example turn love for a partner into disguised sexual appetite and love of our children into a desire to continue our genetic pools) for the most part, in our everyday lives and transactions with each other we don’t.

In fact, many of us already attempt this “middle course.” Gopnik argues the advocacy for animal liberation that Rudy argues for in “Toward a New Animal Advocacy” seems extreme to most of us. At the other extreme, beating a dog or starving it because it doesn't have feelings like ours also seems extreme to most of us. Indeed we seem to naturally favor a moderate view.

Besides, we can reach consensus in certain key respects: we can all certainly agree that our study of dogs is in its infancy. The tensions in the accounts above certainly provide evidence of that. In addition, we can all appreciate that the human-canine bond is rare, and perhaps unique in nature. While there countless intra-species relationships, the human-canine bond is unique in that it’s so familiar to most of us, yet, as the above discussion points out, remains shrouded in mystery. Difficult as it may be, we continue to try to peer into our companions’ souls.

Dog Story” touches me personally as well; like the author I too had a dog phobia that also began from
a German shepherd bite in my youth. Now, having shared my life with a canine, I also can attest to the warmth, joy, and love that can only come from having experienced dog-ownership. (R.I.P. Mousey, I love you.)

This brings me to a final point, that dog-ownership is one of those experiences that, like child-birth or falling in love, just isn't translatable in verbal terms. The warmth you get when your companion is always around you, the pleasure of a simple game of fetch, the heartbreak when you say your final goodbyes - they're all necessarily experiential. You can describe the experience of owning, loving, and caring for a dog, but no matter how good your description, it doesn't come close to the experience itself.

Gopnik’s article is thought provoking and interesting. It is well-written and well-researched; I highly reco
mmend it. It is in the August 8th issue of The New Yorker. The issue is about $6; alternatively you can sign up for a free trial of the magazine and get free access to the article online at