Dogs and Dragons

Regular readers will know that my editing blog occasionally hosts sociological or political rants that are then tenuously connected with something to do with writing. This is one such post.

The frankly bizarre case of Lennox the Dog has caused some considerable upset, and rightly so. I confess I really didn't think that the British or the Irish would stand for such a thing, and indeed an awful lot of them protested very strongly, and many took all sorts of action to seek a solution that would not result in the killing of a family pet.

I don't wish to speculate on the storm of incompetence, arse-covering, buck-passing and blinkered jobsworthing that must have been behind it.

I do, however, have some thoughts about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). Lennox is, technically, a victim of BSL. BSL is rife in the UK and in the USA, and in both countries it is imposed variously, at both local and national levels. When you move to a new town with your family and the authorities tell you your dog can't come along, it feels like racism. Why is that?

Supposing you strike a pedestrian with your car at 30mph (50kph) you are most unlikely to kill them, and somewhat unlikely to cause serious harm. The same is not true at 60mph.
If a dog is raised to be fearful and aggressive, and it is a cairn terrier, when it attacks you, assuming it catches you, it might well draw a little blood. If it is a doberman*, it will chase you down and kill you.
Just as a gun is not dangerous unless there is a dangerous and stupid person to pull the trigger. So you deprive dangerous and stupid people (that's pretty much all of us) by controlling the availability of guns. If dogs raised by dangerous, stupid, aggressive people become dangerous themselves, surely it is better that such people cannot acquire dogs that have the physical characteristics necessary to kill you (size, speed and strength). So why are dogs a special case?

Guns are intended to be dangerous. Cars can be dangerous if adequate care is not taken. Dogs must be made dangerous on purpose. It follows that the person who owns a dangerous dog is himself dangerous, not to mention cruel. I put it to you that a person who owns a dangerous dog who is not dangerous and cruel will attempt to improve the dog's temperament and failing that have it humanely destroyed**.

BSL, therefore, does arbitrary harm to dogs and the families that own them without addressing the issue of the people that create dangerous dogs in the first place. Only legislation that discriminates on size could deprive the dangerous people of potentially dangerous dogs. But this isn't about the dogs. The dog just happens to be the weapon of choice, but deprive dangerous and cruel people of one weapon, and they'll find another. Weapons are pretty easy to improvise.

There is another reason why dogs are a special case. It is that we have coexisted with them probably since we first started forming social groupings. Dogs are part of our families and part of our society. There is growing evidence that human and canine cognition coevolved*** — that dogs created us almost as much as we created them. If you grew up with dogs and have ever lived for a while without one, you will know what I mean when I say that I feel handicapped if I don't have a dog.

So a person's dog can tell you a lot about the person. And if the person's dog is dangerous, unpredictable, fearful and aggressive, that should tell you that the person at the very least needs therapy, and at worst needs to be in a secure unit.

Which by a very roundabout and tenuous root brings me to the shortage of dogs in literature. Everone can tell you about Jack London. London often makes the dog, and it's relationship with people, central to the story. I prefer (when showing examples of the relationship of dogs with human society) Laurens Van der Post, who in both fiction and non-fiction never fails to mention the presence and role of dogs; he is strongly aware of their importance.

I frequently feel their absence in both historical novels and in fantasy, even more than in books with a more modern setting. Until about 1900, living without a dog was unthinkable for most people. Dogs variously belong to individuals, to families, to tribes or villages, to noone, but they are always there, and they are usually part of us. Throughout the middle ages a dog was a necessity.

Which makes it all the more odd that they are so often absent from fantasy, which usually has a medieval setting of some kind, and indeed equally odd that they are absent from post-apocalyptics. I for one wouldn't even begin to consider trying to survive a Zombie Apocalypse without a dog or two.

A number of recent fantasy books have, to a certain extent, redressed this, by replacing the man-dog relationship of the main protagonist with a man-dragon relationship. I guess the dragon as a fantasy dog is not a big stretch. Are there others?

In any case, read London, read Van der Post ("Story Like the Wind" is the place to start), and remember that dogs are only domesticated in that we and they became domestic at about the same time in our shared histories. Remember that our species includes theirs.

* the doberman is a scary dog, right? Dobermans that are raised as guard dogs have their tails and ears docked. Dogs use their tail and ears for visual communication at medium distance. A dog that has had them cut short cannot clearly indicate his intentions either to people or to other dogs. As a result, everyone it meets is nervous of it. This makes the dog unpredictable and aggressive, because it is afraid of all those people and dogs who are nervous of it. In short, the dog's ability to communicate is handicapped as a quick and easy way to make the dog more aggressive and frightening.
Dobermans raised unmutilated are kind, friendly and playful. I once spent a whole afternoon playing with a pair of them on a beach in Cornwall. One of them seemed to be deliberately clowning, by walking through the shallow surf like a dressage pony, provoking gales of laughter.
** I have no objection to the term 'euthenased' being applied to dogs. It just isn't the first vocabulary that occurs to me.
*** Google: anthropology and dogs

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