Our Doggies, Ourselves: Breeding New Attitudes

Inuit girl carrying a husky puppyThe picture was a combo pack of cute: a little Inuit girl carrying a squirming husky pup. “That’s a nice doggie you’ve got there.” I said as I crouched down to her eye level. “Yes,” she agreed, then added very matter-of-factly, “but he’s lame, so we’re going to have to shoot him.”

I’d known this unsentimental attitude towards dogs is the norm in much of the world. But that kayak trip to the Canadian Arctic a couple of decades ago was my first in-your-face encounter with it. It wouldn’t be the last. Standard summer practice in the village was to maroon adult sled dogs on a large delta in the river, then cruise by once a week or so to toss an intentionally inadequate supply of meat on shore. Come fall, only the strongest dogs were left.

An adult husky

Sled engine and emergency food in one self-propelled package.

And as that little girl’s father explained to me, he didn’t use a combination of skidoo and sled dogs out of any nostalgia for tradition. “It’s because if you get hurt out on the land, you can’t eat a skidoo while you’re waiting to be found.”

In fairness, this utilitarian take prevailed even “down South” until not long ago. Keeping dogs purely for amusement was limited to royalty and the rest of the one percent; in any working-class family, Bruno had to earn his keep as a herder, retriever or guard.

But even among the pet-owning middle classes, there’s been a major shift in attitudes over the last few decades. When I was a kid, if Fido got an illness or injury that cost more than a couple of hundred dollars to fix, that meant farewell to Fido. Today, many of us are prepared to spend thousands on our “companion animals” (a new term that itself reflects the new attitude).

close up of a shelty dog's head

A smile worth saving.

Over the years, my wife and I have dropped a fair bit on Scotia, our sheltie. After some especially spendy canine dentistry, I jocularly observed to Leanne that for that price, it would have been cheaper to simply replace Scotia. She was oddly unreceptive to the idea.

It is our money and our choice how to spend it, but I’m acutely aware that we buy Scotia access to better medical care than many third-world humans enjoy. If you can afford it, you can even get your pet advanced cancer therapies that are out of reach for a lot of first-world citizens.

Human-centric history describes domesticating wolves into dogs as one of the smartest things people ever did. Of course, from the wolves’ perspective, they domesticated humans. That was one crafty move on their part: if they adopt the right people, they not only get room and board, but an excellent health care plan too.

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