The strange animals at the other end of the leash (us!)

Ah, there’s nothing like our love of dogs to motivate us to do strange things. What a shame they’re often not in our dog’s best interests. Two projects fitting that description are getting a lot of press lately, and I thought they deserved some attention.

The first is the work of an artist named James Auger on what he calls “augmented animals.” He has a book by the same name and an exhibit that includes the image of a dog wearing a gas mask. I’m the first to say that if I saw the image at a museum of modern art I’d be wowed… what a compelling statement about dogs, culture and our species. However, Auger is also involved in developing technologies to augment our lives and the lives of domestic animals, and is working (seriously) on gas masks that eliminate unpleasant odors for dogs, along with an “augmented dog hackle” that a dog would wear to scare other dogs away. Where do I start?

Let’s start with the augmented dog hackle. (Give me a minute to stop laughing here, and I’ll continue.) First of all, the photo of the device, apparently already tested at a dog park, shows a dog wearing a set of brush-like pom poms that stick up straight from his back. Reportedly, it was successful at scaring other dogs away. No argument there, the dog wearing it looks like an alien. Neither does he look very happy.

Auger is reported to say that dogs have “..lost the natural ability to raise the hair along the length of the back when confronted with dangerous situations..”. I’m not sure what dogs he’s talking about, since I see dogs do it almost daily. Additionally, dogs don’t necessarily pilo-erect their fur to warn others away, it’s an automatic response to a certain type of physiological arousal. Some dogs even play with their hair standing straight up. They may be in danger of becoming overly aroused, but there’s no evidence they are fearful that they are in danger. Besides, wouldn’t a dog who looked like he had eight inches of fake pom pom hair standing straight up on his back elicit aggression as much as inhibit it?

I hardly know what to say about the gas mask. Exactly how horrible is it for dogs to experience unpleasant odors? Worse than what we experience when our dogs roll in fox poop and dead fish? I don’t know about you (or your dog) but I’d rather grimace and gag while I wash the stinky stuff off my dog than wear a gas mask around all day. But, hey, that’s just me. Maybe dogs find our perfume and aftershave lotion so appalling that they’d be happier wearing bulky gas masks on their muzzles. Maybe. Look for that at the same time you see pigs flying overhead.

The second project that deserves some dialogue is far more serious. It’s a new business concept (right now through a company called FLEXPETZ) that rents dogs for hours or days to people who aren’t able to have dogs “full time.” You could pick up your rent-a-pooch through a hotel when you’re traveling, or as a weekend companion when you have some extra time. Here’s a statement from Flexpetz’s website regarding their two available Afghans: “If you think you get stopped on the street walking one Afghan, imagine what it's like when you walk two of them!”

I’m sure many people would have better motives for renting a dog, and I’m all about sympathizing with a person's need for canine therapy, but what about the dogs? I don’t care how carefully the renters are interviewed, there’s just so much you can tell about a person from a brief appointment and a questionnaire. Half of us can’t even figure out what it’s like to live with another person after a year of dating, how much can you really tell after a few minutes?

Besides, even if every single person who rented out a dog was perfect, let’s face it, they are going to be different. Life is confusing enough for our dogs, but what if they lived by a different set of rules, listening to a different language, every day? How many dogs would thrive if they spent two days with Mary and John, and then six hours with George, and then three days with Martha?

The sad irony is that it’s the social nature of dogs that allows someone to come up with a ‘rent-a-dog’ idea, and the same social nature that would make it so difficult. Dogs need social attachment, but most dogs need social consistency as well. Trying to be a “good dog” to all people could be tiring at best, overwhelmingly stressful at worst. That shouldn’t be so surprising to us—traveling is tiring for most of us because we are out of our regular routine. Meeting new people can be exciting, but we all need to get home eventually. This is not specious anthropomorphism; people are more flexible than dogs, not less. There is no reason to believe that being passed around like a videotape wouldn’t be hard on a dog. I’m sure there are a few exceptions, a few dogs who would thrive under these circumstances, but not many.

I also wonder what happens to the dogs when they no longer qualify as rent-a-dogs? The website says the dogs are all two to five years old. What happens when they are six? Let’s hope that when they grow too old for rent-a-pet work, someone provides them with an “augmented animal” device that allows them to live the rest of their days free of bad of ideas--ideas created by the strange animals at the other end of the leash.