On Dog Ownership and Authority

By Aviv Khavich

A family washes their Labrador. Source:  Cade Martin

A family washes their Labrador. Source: Cade Martin

I never had a dog growing up. The most our family ever had was a goldfish. As a child I was afraid of dogs, especially small, voracious ones that would jump at you. As I grew older, though, dogs became less a source of fear and more a source of envy; I saw dogs in the park, an inextricable component of a happy family; I saw a companion to be loved and played with. Now I would like nothing more than to own my own dog, although college life is unfortunately prohibitive of it.

Often conservatives will make fun of the feminist woman for her inevitable decline into the “cat lady”, a spinster with no friends, no husband, and only ungracious felines to surround her and provide her comfort. And as birth rates decline and many young folk choose to remain unmarried and childless, it seems this picture has more than its fair share of truth. It seems more and more that people rely on animals rather than each other, and this is certainly not a recipe for long-term happiness.

But let’s return to the first image I mentioned--that of the happy family with a dog. Do animals, when used not for dependence but for bolstering the ranks of a complete family unit, strengthen or diminish our soul? I would argue that the presence of a dog in a family brings something that modern society truly lacks: a showcase of the benefit of subordination.

We are raised today on egalitarian, Enlightenment values--it pervades every aspect of our consciousness. We are taught that “all men are created equal”. Our Civil Rights Acts prevent the most common and ancient forms of discrimination. As Marxism seeps into our thought, we grow to despise hierarchy altogether. There are rants against “income inequality”, calls for “workers’ rights”, cries for unconstrained self-autonomy. Disdain for our governing officials, contempt for our parents, our professors, our teachers, for ministers and rabbis.

Are some of these justified? One could certainly make the case, but there is something lost when everyone is reduced to the same level, when one’s place in the world is exactly as everyone else’s. A certain reverence for things greater than ourselves, and a drive to move upwards.

As limits on classically unequal relationships increase, be they employer and employee, husband and wife, father and son, pastor and churchgoer, governor and governed, teacher and student, this sense disappears. No longer are there those who are followed without question, whose authority is not to be trifled with.

Where does the dog come into play here? The dog is a perfect picture of subordination; he loves his owner, he trusts his owner, he comes to his owner for his mere existence, and most vitally, he accepts punishment and reward from his owner without question. A dog is a servant, a servant who loves and is loved by his master. There is no subversion from a dog. No disagreement. He knows who leads him and who commands him, and he knows that that person knows better than him and deserves to be where he is.

In Roman times noble families would often keep Greek slaves. These slaves were educated men, academics of science and literature and medicine. They would teach the Roman children,  and there would be a respect for their tutelage, despite their poor standing. The Bible also mentions slavery, namely in how slaves should be treated--it is not mercilessly or tyrannically, but firmly and wisely.

Obviously, this is not an argument for forced slavery, and to inflict that on a human being is abhorrent. But slaves taught us something about authority, as kings did in the other direction. We knew our place in the hierarchy. There were those above us, and those below us, and these were healthy relationships that were morally righteous to uphold despite their unequal nature.

Today’s culture feeds the myth that the only relationship that can be reciprocal and healthy is the equal one. But the dog stands in stark contrast of that. One of the only fields of modern existence where servitude remains and is even exalted is that of pet ownership. Many pets are either uninteractive or provide little to no utility. But the dog protects his master; he hunts for his master, he rids his home of pests, he provides physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. And he does all this out of affection and dedication to a master which provides for him, a master who in every sense dominates and controls his life.

In this way the dog teaches a family about authority, and this extends to a healthy respect for inequality, a knowledge that difference is what constitutes identity, and an awareness that there is a unique place and role for everyone in the world. It places in us the humility to know that sometimes we must put aside hyper-individualism and our own desires for the needs of those above and below us. Whether that means provision for one’s family, acquiring profit for one’s manager, following God’s will, respecting others’ rights, there is a recognition that we can be subordinate to purposes beyond the immediate, obvious, and selfish, and that that is okay.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that red states tend to be dog owners, while blue states tend to be cat owners. The dog is inexorably linked to hierarchy and therefore to conservative tradition. That sense of responsibility for raising oneself to higher places, of having authoritative role models to look up to, is something that can really only be appreciated when one looks into the eyes of an absolutely devoted companion, a sidekick that doesn’t wish to supplant or overthrow his superhero, that takes solace in knowing there is someone else who can and does bear the responsibility of greatness and superiority.

This is, to me, a more than convincing enough argument to include a dog among the traditional family that, as so many wise men have said, forms the backbone of civilization. Like the learned Greek slave, he is not merely man’s best friend and humble servant, but one of man’s greatest teachers.