Ashes to Diamonds
The thousands of people, natives and tourists, who walk, cycle, jog or ride on red London buses past Victoria Lodge in London’s Hyde Park every year probably don’t even notice it. This Lodge is by far the plainest, drabbest little house in the Park. But if you stop and peer through the iron railings surrounding its back garden you’ll see row upon row of tiny headstones. This is Hyde Park’s Pet Cemetery. It contains around 300 graves of mainly dogs, but also cats, birds and even a monkey. Some of the stones contain just a name and date others bear touching inscriptions and while now the plots are crowded and overgrown with ivy, during its Victorian heyday each memorial was neatly marked with clay curbing and many would have been laden with flowers and mementoes.
Well that’s the Victorians for you! Death obsessive, mawkish and sentimental. Surely this was an upper and middle class indulgence of the well-heeled residents of this part of London? Maybe. If it wasn’t for contemporary accounts of how fees for interments were regularly adjusted up or down according to the bereaved owners ability to pay. Such as this abstract from The Puritan, Volume 9, (1901) ‘There is a tinge of charity about it all. for if a poor washerwoman conies along, as one did not long ago, with a common cur rolled up in her apron and a big lump in her throat, the kind hearted keeper of the lodge buries her dog for nothing. If the owner is well to do, and the pampered pet has been fed on pate de foies gras all his life, a corresponding charge is made.’ Nice.
Today there are new pet cemeteries in the counties around London, along with dedicated services throughout the UK offering individual cremations, ceremonies, gravestones, websites where you can enter your own dog’s obituary, and dedicated pet bereavement helplines. While some Victorians were fond of remembering their dogs via post mortem photography today we can wear our dogs’ ashes in the form of a manufactured diamond.
In fact today’s pet industry is a multi-billion dollar one—some modern dogs are pampered fur-babies, with their own wardrobes, specialist diets, daycares and therapists. We might assume that spoilt pooches of today are a 21st century phenomena, with previous times being tougher and less knowledgeable, more cruel? Perhaps, but today’s shelters are bursting at the seams and reports of animal abuse are depressingly regular. Maybe we share more in common with our ancestors in their attitudes to their dogs, for good or ill?
Let me get a selfie with you
Thankfully, nowadays we’re not so keen on Memento Mori images of our dogs, but we do like pictures of our dogs and we like plenty of em! Dogs of Instagram, dogs of Twitter, famous pampered and coiffured, and not so famous mutts are all over the internet. People just love to capture their lovely, funny, uniquely individual dogs again and again and post them up with amazing frequency. That’s one of the joys of modern life, we can capture, document and share our love for our pets all the time.
If you’re a dog lover you’ll be cool with this phenomena, we’re inclined to believe our dog is the most, engaging, good-looking and endlessly fascinating creature and yet that doesn’t stop us finding other people’s dogs interesting too. It’s no different from how others in society share their passions online, whether that’s food, cars, horses, crochet or cockroaches. Thanks to camera phones and the Internet we’re all artists nowadays—dogs as subjects in art are, of course, nothing new. From the earliest cave paintings to David Hockney’s portraits of his Dachshunds, dogs as our constant companions for thousands of years are, of course, bound to be a prolific subject. It’s interesting to gauge what breed types were in vogue at different times, the elegant Borzois and dapper fox terrier of the 1920s, spaniels and sight hounds of the 1700s, the French poodles of the 1950s. What’s today’s stand out star? The French bulldog? The pug?
Fashion as they say just goes around and around, check out an early celebrity pug.
This is the Artist William Hogarth with his pug, one of Britain’s best known and loved artists. William Hogarth was a pug devotee and this fella was his favourite. This painting was later reproduced as an engraving to make prints, and so by 18th Century standards was ‘mass produced’ making Hogarth’s pug famous in his day. It’s still a very well-known and much loved image, I wonder if any of today’s Insta Star pups or his namesake* will still be remembered 270 years from now……
*He was called Trump.
Now how about those ‘selfies’ side-by-side?
Working like a Dog
Dog’s like Trump had a pretty OK life, were companions first and foremost, city dogs who probably weren’t expected to do much beyond catching the odd rat. In reality many did work, from the earliest times of our relationship with dogs they helped us hunt. Once we settled to the land and started raising livestock they helped us guard and herd our animals. They kept vermin down on our farms and in our houses, they guarded our properties and us, they went to war with us and still do.
Of the 7 dog breed groups outlined by the British Kennel Club; Hound, Toy, Terrier, Utility, Pastoral, Gundog, Working, just one is described as containing companion or lap dogs (Toy), all other groups were bred for specific purposes. But if you look at the breeds within the Toy group you’ll see quite a few Terriers are in there too (just because of their size)—nearly all recognised breeds were bred for specific job types.
Behavioural problems with modern dogs are attributed by some, at least in part, to the lack of opportunity to ‘work.’ Can this be right? It’s not as if we only just started keeping dogs purely as companions in the last few decades. What about our graceful Borzois and cheeky Fox Terriers of the 20s? What about the lap dogs of the Romans, What about Trump! Today, pure breeds are very popular in urban households—Vizsla’s to Ridgebacks, Spaniels to Collies—all dogs designed to do specific jobs. Does this mean they’re living a life of unfulfilled potential? Of misery and boredom? Are mixed breeds innately more able to adjust and cope to modern life with humans? The answer of course to all the above is yes and no. Yes many dogs live frustrated lives because of lack of physical and mental stimulation, too much time alone, poor diets, illness and inadequate owners. But all of these variables and their negative influences can apply to pure, cross, designer or mixed breeds. From Chihuahuas to Great Danes to mutts it’s our responsibility to give each individual dog under our guardianship outlets and safe expression of their nature, their drives and their joy!
As a dog trainer I’m sometimes called in to ‘fix’ an innate, natural part of being a dog, furthermore it can be a characteristic which has been selectively bred into their dog, the dog type, shape, colour and size of dog they chose. It’s even a trait that they quite like but only in very specific circumstances or when their dog was young, and it’s not so cute now. So I let them know we won’t be ‘fixing’ that and why, and we then design different, safer ways for their dog to exercise that trait.
Is this different from our expectations of dogs in the past—are we more disconnected from what and who they are? Do we have unreasonable expectations? Or inaccurate ones?
How the waters got muddied
Modern dog owners should be forgiven for being confused. For years they’ve been told to be aware of the wolf in their living room. A wolf whose main aim will be to dominate them and supplant their role as the Pack Leader within their home. They have been told to be ever wary and vigilant, as to relax even a little will allow their dog the upper hand.
Examples of this theory can be extreme such as never allowing your dog onto your lap, never to allow them to go through a door or gate before you, always to eat after you’ve had your meal first and so on. Yikes! That doesn’t sound very conducive to a relaxing home atmosphere.
To take you through the history of dominance theory versus modern training methods based on force free positive reinforcement models is the subject of a whole other article or even a book! Sadly the influence of pack and dominance theory has been very resilient. Many owners I meet today use language of pack theory while also employing positive reinforcement and positive punishment too. No wonder they get themselves and their dogs in a muddle!
Because of the recent and massive influence of some very well-known trainers employing dominance-related methodology, many also assume that it’s a modern and new. Again the picture is confused and examples of positive and punitive methods of training are both ancient and modern. See if you can guess what era the following quotes are from?
- ‘Patience, perseverance kind treatment and a real affection for the dog will in time accomplish much’.
- ‘If you give your dog any opportunity for him to lead you, he will take it’.
- ‘Use your wits to foresee what he is likely to do, and if necessary coax him to do something different’.
- ‘… dogs be praised and rewarded with meat for doing the correct behaviour.’
- The Dog Owner’s Guide – Eric Fitch Daglish. 1950.
- Cesar’s Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems – Cesar Millan 1997.
- Getting to Know Dogs – Vernon Stokes & Cynthia Harnett, 1947.
- Practical Training – Stephen Hammond 1882.
Not as straightforward as we thought is it? The best training is based on science, and a thorough understanding of not only how all dogs learn but also on how best to communicate and motivate your individual dog(s). It’s a lot more fun too.
Basing Our Treatment of Dogs on Flawed Wolf Studies
Just as we projected our wolf-like assumptions, it turns out our assumptions were assumptions, or, more accurately, based on flawed studies of captive wolves, Expressions Studies of Wolves, R. Schenkel 1947, being perhaps the most influential. David Mech’s 1970 book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, D. Mech 1970, based on the study of wild wolves has illustrated that wolf packs do not operate a dominance-based hierarchy as interpreted in the Schenkel studies. Despite the influence and high regard of Mech’s studies, the reach of misconceptions based on Schenkel’s work were perpetuated for several decades. In recent years the field of canine science has become very active and although comparisons are still made between wolves and pet dogs, they explore the differences between the two as well as conducting purely dog based research into cognition, social awareness, expression, genetics and so the list goes on.
The difference today is that these studies are not confined to laboratories but examine family pets, because, of course, for our pet dogs their natural environment is the same as ours.
Perhaps because of our shared lives and our very long association, we’ve also always been brilliant at imbuing dogs with many human characteristics. We really can’t help ourselves, we all do it. I’ve done it in this article, Borzois are elegant, Fox Terriers are Dapper! Really?
It is of course completely understandable to do this, it’s part of being human, enables us to be empathetic, and we know that dogs and humans experience some emotions in very similar ways. Where it’s not so helpful is when we read our dogs inaccurately, assuming human emotions and reactions that truly aren’t in the dogs emotional or psychological repertoire. Have you guessed where I’m going? Yep.
The “guilty look”—several studies over several years have concluded that dogs are not exhibiting guilt but rather that look means, uncertainty, fear, and a reflection of our displeasure, and yet this myth persists and is exacerbated by platforms such as Dog Shaming sites.
Here’s two more human traits that we often ascribe to our dogs, spite and revenge. One of my favourite examples is the “protest poo,” I’ve been called in for this one a few times. If your dog really has the ability to hold and then release a poo in retaliation of something you’ve done or not done then he is an absolute genius and I suggest we contact Britain/America’s Got Talent immediately!
We may assume there were harder, more pragmatic and less anthropomorphic tendencies in earlier times, but there are many, many examples of similarity to today’s humanisation of dogs.
‘A Dog is a cunning actor, he’ll rend your heart by his imitations.’ p.82 Getting to Know Dogs, Vernon Stokes & Cynthia Harnett, pub. Collins. 1947
‘The Dog showed himself very jealous and out of humour at this, and he was left alone, he took the opportunity to kill and bury two hens.’ “A Dog’s Remorse” Sept. 1883 p.101 Dog Stories from the Spectator pub. 1896
(This abstract taken from an account of a dog which retrieved a kitten from a pond after it had been thrown in) ‘…running all the way home with it and safely depositing it before the kitchen fire…’ p. 109 “A Dog’s Humanity” April 1891. Dog Stories from the Spectator pub. 1896
The ‘stories’ above from The Spectator were all submitted from the readership and are their true life doggie anecdotes. Today dog issues are still covered in this respected current affairs weekly paper, and we continue to circulate our personal doggie tales through many specialist magazines, websites and on social media.
Whether revered or reviled we’re still talking about them, writing about them, producing art featuring them and honouring them in death as we have been for thousands of years. Yes thousands—the Victorians it turns out were doing nothing new as discovered in Siberian dog burials dating between 5000 and 8000 years old. Dogs here were laid to rest adorned in their best collars with objects around them in a manner very similar to the human burials from the same community.
Our preoccupations, it seems, are in many ways similar to those of the past in relation to this—our most constant animal companion.
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