Dogs and Existentialism

I have a Tumblr now! I’m still experimenting with using the platform for short essays and thought nuggets. Here’s an essay cross-posted from that Tumblr:


The Melancholy of Retrievers

(Wandering philosophy. Not attached to most of these opinions.)

I’m staying for a few weeks in the home of relatives who own a Labrador Retriever. I’ve spent a lot of time around this dog in the last few weeks, after many years of not living with a pet. As a result, everything about the notion of “owning a dog” – or the very existence of domesticated dogs – has become strange to me.

The dog, Jasper, lives to play fetch. When he isn’t sleeping or eating or drinking, he picks up anything he can find and brings it to you so that you can throw it. If you don’t throw it, he’ll try another person. If no one else is around, he’ll pant and whine at you and shove his head between your legs to stare sadly into your eyes until you give up and play fetch.

I’m sure this is normal dog behavior, and it’s the sort of silly thing that people love about dogs. But it makes me wonder how it feels to be Jasper.


The Strange Lives of Labradors

Jasper seems like a happy dog, most of the time. He’s also a huge clump of unsatisfied preferences:

*He’s been neutered, so he will never reproduce, and many of his biological instincts seem to have been switched off. (He’s not one of those dogs who humps your leg.)

*He is a retriever, originally bred as a hunting dog, which I suppose is where the “fetch” instinct comes from. But his family doesn’t hunt, so he will never actually do the work he was bred for.

*The only “useful” thing he ever fetches is the newspaper, once per day. For thirty seconds, he is doing purposeful work. and his family is genuinely thankful for his help. But every other object he’s fetched has been something a person threw, for the express purpose of fetching. We all smile at him out of politeness or vague amusement and keep throwing the tennis balls and rubber bones, so he gets a constant stream of positive reinforcement for fetching.

*This means his life is built around convincing people to throw things, and then bringing the things back to be thrown again. Literally running in circles. I’ve seen him play fetch for well over an hour before getting tired, taking a short break, drinking some water, and then coming back for more fetch.

*And he really believes that his fetching is important: When a tennis ball rolls under a couch and he can’t reach it, he’ll sniff around as though it were lost. If he smells it, he’ll paw frantically trying to reach it. If he can’t, he’ll stand there looking miserable until someone reaches under and takes out the ball.

(I wonder how he feels in those moments: An impending sense of doom? Fear that the ball, lost out of sight, may cease to exist? A feeling of something-not-finished, as when a melody is cut short before the final note?)

*Occasionally, he’ll hang out while people scratch his belly, or go out to the dog park to meet other dogs, but in the end he always returns to the house full of non-dog creatures who throw the things for him to bring back, with a constant risk of failure and no real reward other than the pleasure of doing the task his ancestors were bred for.


I realize this is all part of the territory when it comes to being a dog. But Jasper sometimes reminds me of a rat who gets to push a lever wired to its own pleasure center and then never stops pushing that lever. And even though I’m sure Jasper is happy, especially compared to almost every other animal in the world, his existential reliance on an activity without purpose feels like a parable from Albert Camus. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s odd to share space with a creature whose life is defined by rote repetition rather than growth and development

Also, he relies entirely on humans to give him things to fetch. He interacts with these humans using a crude set of behaviorist principles: “If I push them with my nose, the ball is thrown; if I whine in the morning, they let me out of my sleeping cage.” Being a pet dog must feel like being abducted by aliens.


Unsatisfying Conclusion

I should reiterate that Jasper is a happy dog. He gets lots of love and attention from the people around him. I don’t think the world is a worse place because Jasper is alive (certainly he brings happiness to his family). But the whole notion of owning pets still strikes me as weird – from the pet’s perspective, not the owner’s. I can’t go any further than “weird”.

I understand that it’s considered “best” to choose pets from an animal shelter; still, there are plenty of respectable dog breeders in the world. And the job of a dog breeder is “create preferences that will have to be satisfied”. As a preference-based utilitarian – someone who thinks that unsatisfied preferences are the main source of badness in the world – that chills me a little bit.

(Hopefully, we’ll eventually replace our pets with incredibly realistic robots that make us equally happy but don’t suffer from a sense of impending doom when the ball rolls under the couch. If you think this sounds like a bad idea, I’d love to hear why – maybe you’ll change my mind.)


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