A Book Review of With Dogs at the Edge of Life by Colin Dayan
‘With Dogs at the Edge of Life’ is a beautifully written and melancholy homage to the childhood dog that Colin Dayan barely remembers, and to the dogs in general that fill the spaces in all of our lives. From the family dog, to the collective street dogs, to the ghosts of all the dogs killed and hurt in the name of human cruelty and kindness.
I often read nonfiction books back to front. So, when I read Colin Dayan’s With dogs at the edge of life I read “Pariah Dogs,” the final section of the book first. And I’m so glad. If I’d read it from beginning to end, I might not have read past the middle chapters that contain interviews with pit bull breeders. If I’d read the book reviews first, they’d have warned me of the controversy surrounding these middle chapters, and I may not have picked it up. I won’t call them the ‘dog fighting’ chapters, as I’ve seen them referred to, because I think the book deserves a more nuanced and respectful review than that, despite it’s unsettling and challenging content.
‘I am on the lookout for dogs. I know that the dogs will determine how I think…’
I trust that the author is a ‘dog person,’ because at one point she describes a visit to a house in, Pétion-Ville, Haiti, where a Great Dane puppy is being taught to be a guard dog. It is living in a narrow concrete yard with ‘grey stone floors’ and ‘no bed.’ She says ‘during dinner, the dog haunts me. Invisible, an object of disregard, it is less cared for than the gadgets brought out and examined: a camera, an iPad, a laptop. After that evening I realise everywhere I go I am on the lookout for dogs…I know that the dogs will determine how I think about what I once loved…I become a dog. I am the thing that brings me pain.’ That passage in the book haunts me. It resonated strongly with how I feel about dogs that I meet (and often people and other animals, too).
With Dogs at the Edge of Life is a book about real individual dogs, and human representations of dogs in general. It’s also a testimony of what dogs really mean to us, as individuals, as societies and and how they form part of our collective psyche.
Outcast, Disposable Dogs
“Pariah Dogs,” the final section, is an extraordinary reflection of the history of dogs in human societies and culture, through the eyes of street dogs and outcast dogs depicted in literature and film. I can’t do it justice here, but it was in the these pages that I discovered the film Taskafa—a unique documentary about the street dogs of Istanbul, the fight by local residents for the dogs to remain free to roam the city, and the sad history of how dogs have been euthanized and disposed of in the area. I’d urge everyone to watch it for it’s depth of analysis on outcast dogs and their relationships with ‘outcast people.’
Street Dogs – a Noble Idea or Unrealistic Fantasy?
Dayan’s “Pariah Dogs,” enables us to see a different way of living with dogs. One where they have more agency and are less ‘controlled’ by humans. I feel like this verges on a romanticized version of human and dog relationships. Just like the books about dogs that I grew up with, like The Call of the Wild, and Red Dog, Dayan imagines a time where we can live alongside dogs and be wild with them. ‘We need to find a way to feel the dirt and hear the breath of dogs,’ she says. I love this vision too, but it I think it lacks a realism of the complex societies we live in. We often live in densely populated urban areas, relying on technology and modern agriculture. We trade freedom for security much of the time. The lives of semi-wild dogs and street dogs are usually hard and short, and interspersed with state-run population control, usually involving painful and distressing methods of mass destruction. I don’t have the answers to how we should live with dogs in a way that allows them to live their best lives, but I imagine it’s somewhere in between these idealised visions and us becoming more responsible guardians.
This is partly why I find her criticism of reward-based dog training problematic. It lacks a realism of the situation that dogs and humans currently live in. She endorses the (short term) use of a choke collar and says ‘the annoying sound of a clicker…crowds the dog into acknowledging what it might like to ignore. The bribery of treats follows. The coaxing requires no intimacy between dog and person.’ Her analysis ignores the context of dog training and how it’s evolving. The clicker and treat based training isn’t always perfect. I had a dog who was terrified of a clicker. But the basic practice of learning to use gentle luring and shaping techniques, has overcome generations of damaging and often violent training techniques, that caused fear and anxiety in dogs. Not everyone can learn in-depth about dog behaviour, but the shift to less aggressive training techniques is changing a whole culture to one that centres the needs of dogs, which can only be a good thing overall.
In the Words of a Pit Bull Breeder
Because of the deep love for dogs displayed in the pages of her book, I’m willing to accept that the chapter, ‘Dead Dogs,’ which includes the unchallenged words of pit bull breeders who were tried (but ultimately acquitted) in dog fighting cases, comes from a place of wanting to understand why dog abuse happens. I believe she is trying to critically explore the role of the Humane Societies involved in some of these cases, such as the case of Floyd Boudreaux and his fifty-seven pit bulls that were euthanized the day after his arrest. I get the sense that Dayan, like many of us, wants to understand something that feels inexplicable: cruelty, from whichever quarter it may come.
I’m not overly familiar with campaigns against illegal dog fighting in the US, but here in the UK, where dog fighting as sport was banned in 1835, we still have our own problems with it, from the impromptu ‘street rolls’ to the lucrative ‘professional’ dog fights. Nonprofit organisations like the League Against Cruel Sports run undercover work like Project Bloodline and push for harsher sentences for dog fighters. Like many people who work with dogs, I often have to scroll through pictures of appalling cruelty and wonder how to keep focussed on positive ways to promote the wellbeing of dogs.
Dayan lectures on American studies and legal and religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the US, and this academic work is reflected in her evident interest in ‘outcast’ people and working class communities, and she makes some interesting comparisons of how people and dogs are treated in certain communities. People evicted from housing estates, their dogs made ‘illegal’ and destroyed, or shot without warning. Certain people and certain dogs are treated as disposable, she argues. There are definitely some parallels here in the UK where I live. People will suspiciously eye up a young working class man with a hoodie, walking a Staffordshire bull terrier the way they never would a woman with a miniature schnauzer, however badly that schnauzer is being treated. I knew a few men who experienced this prejudice first hand. They had ‘rescued’ Staffordshire bull terriers who’d been used for badger baiting (this was a very common illegal activity in the UK a decade ago). The dogs would often look battered and scarred and my friends would have to go through the ordeal of being assumed dog fighters. The public often has an image of which type of person practices cruelty, which doesn’t always reflect the reality.
Nature or Nurture, it’s the Dogs Who Suffer
Dayan is very familiar with the Michael Vick case, which was a turning point (thankfully) in changing how people view certain breeds of dog. A huge intervention by dog rescue organisations (as detailed on Dog International) meant that Vick’s pit bulls were not routinely destroyed, as was often the case up till that point, being viewed as beyond rehoming because of their breed. Amazing and timely interventions by people in volunteer rescue organisations saved most of the dogs, proving that a dog’s breed and upbringing doesn’t have to be his destiny.
Similar issues exist in the UK. There is much work happening to show that a ‘breed’ does not determine the temperment of a dog as much as it’s environment and how it’s treated. The dogs that end up in the shelters in the UK are a depressing roll call of Staffordshire bull terriers, lurchers and collies. Dogs that proved too much for their owner, bought for vanity or status reasons. We are learning that while breed determines some aspects of a dog’s ‘potential’ personality, the misconceptions about breed traits can be fatal to dogs. People expect their dogs to be a certain way—guarding, strong, able to hunt—and then often experience disappointment when the dog doesn’t live up to expectations, They become the ‘disposable dogs,’ as Dayan calls them.
What’s confusing to me is how Dayan seems to be saying that the destruction of dogs by humane societies and shelters because of their breed is wrong and hypocritical, but at the same time she seems to also be endorsing a view of pit bulls as needing to fulfill their ‘breed destiny.’ What she means by this destiny is unclear. Because the people she interviews have distributed dog fighting videos and use fighting-style words like ‘gladiator dogs’ it builds an unwelcome picture of their destiny as ‘fighters.’
Dayan uses the words of college lecturer and pit bull breeder Robert Stevens, to describe hypocrisy that he sees:
‘You see there is something no animal activist or supporter of these ‘humane’ societies can ever comprehend. That is the feeling of awe, respect, love and companionship one gets from owning and working with a real gladiator bred dog…I don’t agree with making a dog a cutesy, poopsey, butterball. If you want me to define canine cruelty, that is it.’
I don’t want to dismiss the pages of expertly crafted analysis that has gone into this work by Dayan. I think overall she bravely goes where many people dare not: to actually speak to people initially accused on dog fighting charges. But I do have an issue with the uncontested use of their words, and the almost casual equation of dubious dog breeding practices with accidental mistreatment of pet dogs.
Motivation: Intentional Cruelty Versus Neglect
To be clear, none of the men she actually interviews was ultimately convicted of dog fighting, but one of them was a previous dog fighter (when it was still legal) and now diverted into dog strength shows. And they are breeders of pit bulls who are obsessed with bloodlines and have apparent sympathies with the days of dog fighting. I feel like her book unquestioningly repeats the words of these people. I’ve noticed this can be a style in anthropology and other academic disciplines. It seems to say ‘here it is—something uncomfortable to sit with and I am a neutral observer, reporting it.’ I find this approach tricky when dealing with such emotive subjects. The deep analysis and evident love for dogs in the rest of the book makes this a confusing chapter to have embedded in the middle.
I think intention and motivation are hugely important considerations when it comes to cruelty cases—for humans, dogs and other animals, and I feel that Dayan doesn’t distinguish enough between the intentional cruelty of dog fighting and unintentional neglect of bad training or overprotectiveness.
The final chapter, “Pariah Dogs,” changed my world and the way I think about dogs. It opened up the history of ‘outcast’ dogs around the world and deepened my knowledge of how humans have used dogs as metaphors in art, film and books, of disposable humans. The stories of ‘disposable’ dogs help us to know our own frailties and failings, more deeply.
But I have a lingering unease and disappointment with the ‘Dead Dogs’ chapters. I wish the author had unequivocally condemned dog fighting and the people who perpetuate this horrific ‘sport.’ Despite saying that she does ‘not condone dog fighting,’ I feel like this could have been more clearly demonstrated. Whilst the pages are filled with admiration for the pit bulls that were taken by the humane societies and police, it’s often an admiration viewed through the eyes of ex-pit bull fighters and breeders.
In stark contrast my research led me to the award-winning documentary: ‘The Champions.’ It shares the stories of Michael Vick’s pit bulls, and of their rescuers, and follows the story of recovery from fear and pain that (some) of these dogs overcame. I feel like this is the missing jigsaw piece in Dayan’s book. Her criticisms of the humane societies that previously routinely destroyed dog-fighting victims seized from dog fighters is valid, but there is no acknowledgment that these societies should never have been put in this position in the first place. I believe there is no defence of dog fighting or of the people who keep its history alive through books and films and macho rhetoric of ‘bloodlines’ and ‘gladiator breeds.’ Behind it lies human malice and profit. For the dogs it leaves a trail of anxiety, pain and death, and many decades of effort from people dedicated to helping these dogs; people left to pick up the pieces and make agonising decisions about whether some dogs are beyond rehabilitation or not.
One could argue that by interviewing ex-dog fighters and by placing their point of view on the pages, Dayan is playing an important devil’s advocate role. I say that the devil has far too many advocates already and we should instead advocate the outcast dogs, the pit bulls, the shelter dogs and the people who tirelessly defend and rescue them, without needing to elevate the voices of those who would abuse them.
- Anti-DogFighting Campaign Worldwide Campaign Headquarters. Report suspected dog fighting anonymously and join their network of volunteers to stop dog fighting.
- ‘The Champions’ documentary is available on Netflix, Amazon and on The Champions website.
- The League Against Cruel Sports is a UK charity that works towards ending animal cruelty, including dog fighting.
- Sneha’s Care Street Dog Rescue in Nepal is a wonderful nonprofit that works tirelessly to help street dogs in Kathmandu. Dog International recently published a post about Sneha’s Care teaming up with World Vet’s to reduce the street dog population in Nepal. Sneha’s team continuously rescues injured street dogs, gives them medical treatment and rehabilitation if needed. Their Facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/snehazcare/
- Dangerous Dogs: In 2017 Dog International published a 2-part series on “Dangerous Dogs.” Part 1(Taking a Bite out of Dog Bite Statistics) is about inherent flaws in dog bite statistics, problems with breed identification in these statistics, and how commonly pit bull-type dogs are misidentified and villified. Part 2 (Myths and Misconceptions from Both Pit Bull Advocates and Opponents) takes a look at common myths and misconceptions from both pit bull advocates and opponents, including the myth that pit bulls are inherently dangerous because they “were bred to fight other dogs.”
7th Son Studio/Shutterstock.com, designfoto/Pixabay.com, Suz Fisher/Dog.International. Image of injured dog from fight courtesy of the Anti-Dogfighting Campaign.
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