This essay about dog ownership helped me empathise with dogs, and also caused me to update against getting a dog; if these ideas are accurate, it’d either be much more selfish and cruel than I previously thought, or else would require a lot more focused effort in order to give the dog a meaningful life.
Most of the essay is doing valuable and interesting work staring into the abyss and trying to help you see whether there is a dystopian horror occurring around us. But I’ll mostly take away from it a clearer sense of what it looks like for a non-human animal to have purpose and meaning; it feels like a conceptual update that I won’t easily be able to forget or ignore. (It has helped me think more clearly about animals and their values much more than most of the philosophical discussion I’ve seen on the topic, and I found it more useful than much extended discussion about consciousness and pleasure/pain.)
Here’s three quotes to help you understand the post and entice you into reading the whole thing.
After about three days, the dog started following me everywhere. If I sat on the couch to watch tv, the dog would curl-up under my outstretched legs resting on the coffee table. If I sat at the dinner table, it would sit beside me, and watch me throughout the entire meal. If I went to the bathroom, it would follow me to the door and wait outside. At night, the dog curled up in my bed and slept beside me. The dog started walking more, and she would almost always perfectly follow my lead; she walked at just the right pace so she stayed beside me, neither lagging behind my fast stride, nor pulling ahead. On the rare occasions she got distracted by a smell or other dog, I gently tugged on her leash and called her name, and she scurried over to me.
I found it kind of creepy.
Yes, I know, it’s a dog. But still… I felt like I had been granted a level of submissiveness from a sovereign being which I hadn’t earned. All I had done was feed and walk the dog – and I apparently did this so badly that the dog was massively depressed – and yet she worshipped me.
The following section is something the author is themself quoting from a reddit thread:
The most accurate thing I can say about dogs is I feel sorry for them. My immediate family didn’t own dogs growing up, but my extended family had farms or large acreage plots with 3-5 dogs running around all day. They eat, sleep, shit, and run around exploring with their pack hours a day whenever they want.
Compare to city dogs. Mostly live in matchbox apartments. A typical weekday is likely 9-12 hours home alone. You can’t run. You can’t shit. You are bored out of your fucking mind. Your human comes home and walks you for 15 minutes on a leash. It’s the highlight of your day. Human is tired and eats dinner in front of the TV while you get scratches. Maybe you sleep in the same bed as your human. You’re probably pretty tired after an entire day of mostly not moving.
Weekends if you’re lucky, you go to a dog-friendly park. Maybe you get off leash. Maybe you never get off leash because you’re too spazzy around other dogs/humans. It’s completely understandable to be spazzy. You are chronically understimulated. One of your only opportunities to get energy and action in life is by “misbehaving” or harassing strangers.
When I walk past someone with a dog and the dog is just pulling as hard as s/he can at the leash to pounce on me, you can’t think that’s instinct. No animal in the wild thinks it’s a good idea to go fuck with something 3-30x it’s bodyweight. It’s pure boredom. The dog is just trying to stimulate itself before it’s forced back in front of the TV to watch The Office again.
There’s a laundry list of other topics like neutering, diet, training, etc that I won’t elaborate on. There’s enough grey area for people to get away with justifying whatever happens to be easiest for them, obviously, but I hope it’s also obvious that there are many many ways in which the life of a dog is diminished compared to…. other normal living organisms…
And from the sections on needs, pleasures, and meaning.
With the exceptions of abusive or negligent owners, owned dogs get their needs met. In fact, dogs get their needs met better than pretty much any non-pet animals in the world. Unlike wild animals, dogs aren’t faced with the daily life-and-death struggle for survival. They don’t need to hunt or scrounge for food, they don’t need to worry about a tainted water source, they don’t need to evade predators, etc. And unlike farm animals, their deaths almost certainly won’t come at the hands of their owners, especially not in the first 25% of their max lifespans.
I’d say most dog owners have a mixed record of fulfilling their dog’s pleasure (ignore the innuendo). On the positive side, owned dogs will usually get lots of treats, toys, and petting… Diligent owners will devote significant time to taking their dog out of the house to run around, fetch, and hopefully interact with other dogs, but plenty of owners won’t and will leave their dogs perpetually under-stimulated at home… Where dog owners fall the shortest in providing for their dog’s pleasure is in – again, ignore the innuendo – sex. By the 2010s, 83% of American dogs were neutered, and presumably most other owners do everything they can to discourage their non-neutered dogs from having sex (which is arguably a worse fate for the dog). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that depriving an animal of an act for which it is biologically programmed to derive the most extreme of pleasures is likely detrimental to the animal’s wellbeing. Ask yourself: for what other gains would you be willing to give up sex for the rest of your life?
Third, meaning is activity and goals which provide long-term value to the being. Admittedly, it’s hard enough to identify meaning in humans, so it’s even harder to do so in dogs, but I’m going to take a shot anyway.