It’s A Dog’s Life

Copyright © by SuZi, 9/26/12


  From an academic standpoint, judging by the contents of composition-oriented textbooks, literature has been subsumed by nonfiction writing; especially noticeable is a species of hybridized memoir, where the author creates a structure that is a chain-dance between scientific data and first-person observation to support whatever didactic thesis is intended.

  The advantage of this hybrid is readability, and, in some cases, outright charm. Whatever charisma the writing possesses will also come from the topic. Unfortunately, in the case of most composition oriented textbooks, the editors make the spurious decision to include writings that are intended to either relate to the supposed generation of readers, or which dangle their toes into the realms of sociological hogwash that turns up as essay prompts for test writing. Alas, thousands of students then disappear from society as readers of actual literary writing, because they have been taught that reading beyond onanistic entertainment is a type of dental trip without the good drugs.

   Academic agonies would be ameliorated if more bewitching texts were used, if these texts included topics that speak to the intuitive, better self of their captive student audiences. The point is to show students what good writing is, and good writing is that which speaks exactly to that better self. In the case of students who have, in their brief moments of introspective thrashing that is the realm of teenagers (since that ageist prejudice was reinforced in the mid-20th century to keep the job market open for returning soldiers et cetera), not quite discovered their better self, it would serve them—and all of us—to look past our own two feet to the four that meet our gaze as soon as we turn our heads: our companion animals. The term animals itself is speciesism, and is, according to Roger Caras, “ a distinction made in hell that serves no good purpose, just a whole bunch of bad ones” (9). Nonetheless, a good percent of the human population has experience co-existing with nonhuman life forms, and Caras maintains that “people who have the ability to admire the beauty of, and have a sense of wonder over, other kinds of creatures are somehow special. I think those who can’t because they are locked up in some egocentric/love-only-my-own-kind prison tend to be mean-spirited” (11). Caras, known to many as a television journalist in the pre-cable days,  has written extensively about the other creatures on our planet, but his text A Dog Is Listening carefully posits the idea that dogs think—what better way to get nascent (student) reader-writers to become of stronger mind that to suggest that this special-language core family member also thinks.

  From a structural standpoint, Caras supports his point by an alternation between biological information about dogs and anecdotal information, further dividing his information by physical senses: dogs are far more acute than humans, and Caras demonstrates this point with care. About halfway through the text, Caras makes mention of the Jacobson’s organ, which is not well developed in most humans, but which makes it possible for dogs and other species to taste the air. At this point, Caras carefully proves the existence in dogs of a sixth sense, and repeats the idea that he is not discussing that which is “phenomenal or paranormal. If a dog displays sensory acuity far beyond our own it is because he has the physical equipment to do it” (97). Caras cites—albeit incompletely—the suggestion by Dr Desmond Morris that the earth’s magnetic fields, that impact migratory species and which humans map with “electronic gear”(98), are perceivable by dogs. Caras goes on to posit sensitivity to barometric pressure. At that juncture in the text, Caras states: “We have, then, through empirical observation […] raised the probable or perhaps just possible number of dog senses from six to nine” (101). Not satisfied, Caras discusses infrared information used by reptiles and wolves, and then tells an anecdote about a seizure service dog. Ever mindful of his point, Caras seeks to prove why he believes:  “people with a deep interest in animals are not only compassionate […] are not typically focused inward, or at least not quite so sharply focused on their own id, ego, superego, and memories of their own toilet-training […] that the exceptions are really closet ego-maniacs using animals to boost their income, bolster up a dreary, sagging image of self”(11). Obviously, Caras seeks to show us how to reach that which is best in our species by showing us what is magnificent in our own humble dogs’.

  For those readers for whom Caras is too cuddly, Dr Temple Grandin also posits, in Animals Make Us Human, that dogs are “hyper-social and hypersensitive to everything we do” ( 25). Using the work of neuroscientist Dr Jaak Panksepp to posit the correlation between data of electrical brain stimulation of the human brain to emotional states and that of behavior in non human life forms, Grandin, like Caras, argues conclusively for the existence of emotion in dogs. While Caras posits that emotion is a result of sensory input—or its lack, as in the case of sadness, Grandin works from the comparison of dogs to wolves in terms of behavior, and works from the notion of dog emotion as a given. Caras does spend a chapter of his book on the domestication of the dog, the role of the dog in human history, but Grandin’s focus is bluntly on improved life quality for the dogs in our lives. Both authors seek to develop deeper understanding of dogs, to increase the reader’s appreciation for  these beings whose lives are so closely tied to those of humans.

   Grandin’s work on the social life of dogs—and thus their emotional life—contradicts some oft-held myths, including that of alpha-dominance. Grandin says: “The reason everyone thought wolves live in packs led by an alpha is that most research on the social life of wolves has been done on wolves living in captivity, and wolves living in captivity are almost never natural families” (27). Instead, Grandin says, “Wolves live the way people do; in families made up of a mom, a dad, and their children. Sometimes an unrelated wolf can be adopted […], or one of the mom’s or dad’s relatives […]” (26). Thus, a captive wolf group would display social and emotional behaviors more similar to those of prison inmates than of natural families. Grandin argues that the dog pack of a famed dog whisperer is more of the social grouping of the captives than of the family, and strongly suggests that people ought to not keep hordes of dogs. Grandin’s focus in this chapter is on keeping dogs happy, and Grandin states: ‘I worry about the fenced-in lives of dogs today” ( 41). Speculating that increased leash-laws increase dog aggression, that “ dogs are too social to be happy staying alone for hours on end. […] It’s almost as if dogs have become captive animals instead of companion animals, and the house or fenced yard has become a really fancy zoo enclosure”(42).  Grandin sees her task as increasing dog welfare by using the evidence of neurologically demonstrated cognition to improve human to dog interaction and increase  the happiness of both in their relationship. Her text also does the same for horses, cats, cattle, chickens and other creatures for whom human interaction is a part of their lives. Grandin seeks to improve how we behave toward nonhuman beings, and become better humans by de facto.

  Both Grandin and Caras are charming writers: their pragmatic attitude toward both their subject and the science they use as evidence is used with grace. Although Grandin’s text encompasses more than dogs, her concern for their well-being by way of their human companions is not any less than that of Caras, who also lives with multiple species but focuses this text on dogs only. Both texts, even as stand-alone chapters and, in Grandin’s case, subchapters, are more elegant  examples of writing than those found generally in the read-for-test or read –for- writing-instruction  excerpts that log-jam most composition anthologies. That both authors are passionate about their subject without being cliché-ridden, superficial or romantic is the clear demonstration of quality writing that all citizens ought to have as part of their education.

  The additional bonus of a prosaic topic, of that of a species we have neotenized in our domestication, that has such a long, shared history with  humans offers a much deeper stretch for meditation that that of the sociological  and superficial topics generally set before students.

   If a greater, more scientifically educated, and sensitive knowledge of dogs  can achieved the purpose of both Caras and Grandin seek-- of happier dogs – via their texts, then it seems reasonable to stand assured that we are more at our best when we create happiness for our dogs. Both texts are lavish in their factual evidence of the acuity and sensitivity of even the most over-bred dog, although Grandin’s evidence indicates that the most genetically modified dogs have the worst interspecies instincts for appropriate behavior. Given the current statistics  of high dog abandonment, torture, starvation, abuse and the accompanying frequency of nauseating photographs as testimonial, it would seem that Grandin and Caras have a lesson that is crucial to our times.


Caras, Roger. A Dog Is Listening. Simon and Schuster. 1992

Grandin, Temple. Animals Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin. 2010


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