Proposition: A friendship sixty thousand years in the making – Jasper Evans, Lady Margaret Hall
This morning I took my dog Gustavo (Gus, to his friends) for a walk. As we enjoyed our government-mandated thirty minutes of exercise he began to sniff. He slowed, padded gracefully towards a wall and stopped. For ten seconds of leg shaking, hard-squeezing silence we kept eye contact before he stood back up again. He looked at me, and then back at his turd. And as I went to pick up the brown monstrosity, I thought to myself: ‘what is this, if not true friendship?’
For the relationship between dog and man is truly one of the most special in this usually alienating world. While less complex than relationships between humans, it is purer, unadulterated love. It is the love of best friends. Unlike a human, a dog won’t love you for clout, won’t hang around you to meet other people, won’t like you until you’re uncool. As shown by the loyalty of dogs to those even in the direst of circumstances, dogs don’t even stay with you for food. They are the Forest Gump of friends: dumb, kind and loyal until the end.
And unlike other friends, dogs provide great value for friendship. Never have I seen my mate sniff the air and tell me blood sugar was low. Nor have I seen a friend rip a man’s arm off with his teeth for breaking into my house (although, now that I think about it, that would lead me to reconsider my friendship). As shown by dogs that work in the police, they can easily detect drugs in the air, and yet you would never fear your humble hound selling you out to the police. As friends go, dogs are remarkably useful.
So, dogs are clearly good friends, but can they really be rewarded the title of man’s best friend? It is, undoubtedly, a hotly contested throne. Cats would seem the most obvious rival, but their imperious, elitist stare must eliminate them. A cat wouldn’t tell you if your blood sugar was low, even if it knew. It would slowly purr as you struggled to find the medication it had knocked off the table, then escape via the tiny door it insisted you put in. Hamsters and Guinea pigs seem inferior in terms of conversation. Dogs truly seem to (albeit unsuccessfully) attempt to grasp what you say to them, like someone who’s just passed their GCSE in Spanish trying to listen to a real conversation. Rodents only stare at a noise. Fish are too wet, birds are always high, and snakes are, well, snakes. It seems there is no clear competition.
It simply boils down to the fact that dogs have a sixty-thousand-year advantage hard-wired into their blood. Dogs are the only animals that have evolved with us. Together we’ve seen through ice ages and Neanderthals, the saber-toothed tigers and the woolly mammoth. Dogs were there for it all, and it shows. They are not man’s best friend by chance, but by evolution. Millenia of selective breeding to create the cutest, most loving, most friendly beings imaginable. No other friend of yours, no matter how fun, is going to make up for that.
Opposition: Not fun friends, but flimsy family – William McCathie, The Queen’s College
What is it to be a friend? Ask this of Google, and you will be given the following: “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations”. Based on this, all I would need to do to disprove that dogs are ‘man’s best friend’ would be to declare that to be a person you have to be a human, and that dogs are not humans. However, I doubt either you, dear reader, or my opponent here would be very satisfied with that, as you would likely not want to discount the possibility of friendship with non-humans. It is tempting to say, then, that because you know you love your dog, and your dog clearly seems to love you, that we are all best friends with our dogs. However, I believe that far from being ‘man’s best friend’, our relationship with dogs hardly resembles friendship at all.
We’ve been around dogs a long time – we domesticated them from the world for our own purposes a long time ago and have since settled into a symbiotic relationship: dogs provide us with services, and we provide them with food. This doesn’t mean we are friends, however, any more than we are friends with our gut bacteria. Indeed, the dog’s most common modern employment, as a companion, is a relatively recent invention. Wikipedia notes that most references to dogs written before the 18th century depict them more as vicious or watchful than as a friend. If you are tempted to say dogs are ‘man’s best friend’ on the basis of them having been mankind’s cuddly companions for a very long time, you are likely mistaken.
If dogs are to hold any relation to us, it is not that of friend, but of family. Now appealing to my earlier definition, your family are distinct from your friends. When you adopt/buy a dog, you are taking on a duty, similar to a duty to one’s child. No matter the circumstances, personality, needs or any host of other changing factors, you have a duty to family that holds equally true towards your dog. This is notably absent in mere friendships – friends are self-sufficient and of equal status. Dogs are (to put it bluntly) needy, furry slaves.
Their understanding of language is limited, at best, but we nevertheless try hard to teach them commands, and chastise them for their confused disobedience. Think about this from the dog’s perspective – a well-trained dog will view its owner as master, as an alpha of distinctly higher status. Studies show that they will purposely misdirect you from food if you do not have a history of sharing snacks with them. While showing deference under the eyes of their superiors, outside of observation they get only what they can for themselves.
If you still need a cuddly, cute and soft little animal to leech off your food and be your friend, I direct you no further than the cat – an animal that certainly does not see you as superior. You can train it to poo in one place, it’s properly independent, and as a litany of internet videos can show you, whilst dogs are very boring and do little other than wait whilst the humans are away, cats get up to their own fascinating shenanigans. Like a real friend, cats can live for themselves, and won’t hesitate to abandon you if abused.