Posts tagged ‘culture’

Comparing Veterinary and Human Health Care

While this is a gross oversimplification of the system, Balaker makes a couple of interesting points.

I should be a poster girl for health care reform. I’m middle-aged, self-employed and I’ve got a bunch of potentially bankrupting preexisting health problems. But when I see the kind of unintended consequences that arise out of relatively simple, well-intentioned programs like South Carolina’s certificate of need requirement, I remain convinced that rapid institution of broad sweeping reforms is a very bad idea. Changing a few things at a time would mean that problems in the system (and there are plenty of them) will take longer to fix, but a step by step process of reform could help prevent potentially catastrophic adverse effects.

In the world of politics there is sometimes a drive to achieve change by pursuing a system completely different from the status quo. But effective change is rarely made in a spectacular way.  Like our world’s climate, health care is an incredibly complex, dynamical system well beyond anyone’s capacity to understand or model accurately. I really hope our elected representatives don’t unintentionally throw it into a dangerously chaotic state of disequilibrium.

February 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm 38 comments

The Past, Present and Future of Dogs

Because I’m still busy trying to catch up on stuff I haven’t been able to get done and get ahead on a few things in anticipation of another six months of recuperation and rehabilitation — there hasn’t been a lot of time to write thoughtful posts.  So here are a few interesting things I’d like to pass along:

For a look into the past, Ecce Canis, a wonderful essay by Justin Erik Halldor Smith on how our lives have been intertwined with dogs since prehistory, and what this means for both species.

A look into the present – as imagined back in 1974 – from Paleo-Future.

The future of politically correct relationships with pets exposed by Henry Makow in Bad Dog.

And just in case you came here looking for something a bit lighter – check out the emergency yodel button.

December 2, 2009 at 5:12 pm 3 comments

Watching Paint Dry

Or… Why I’ll never be a teevee star.

If you believe what you see on television, dog training is a thrilling profession where remarkably photogenic people with exotic accents spend their days hugging puppies and going mano-a-mano with potentially lethal red-zone killers. The action is like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where, as kids, we watched breathlessly as Jim Fowler wrestled deadly cobras, grizzly bears and piranhas while Marlin Perkins stood safely in the background and provided golf tournament style commentary, “We’ll wait here while Jim wrestles the angry pit viper rat terrier with his bare hands.”

Unfortunately I’ve moved around the country enough that I have a television newscaster’s generic accent and I’m only slightly more photogenic than Steve Buscemi.  Most importantly, when it comes to working with dogs I’m more Marlin Perkins than Jim Fowler.

Being a dog trainer is more like defusing bombs than wrestling alligators. Working calmly and carefully, I want to avoid explosions, not create them.  As a spectator sport, it’s about as exciting watching paint dry.


My foster dog Charlie is a volatile little fellow so it’s important to defuse him.  Practice really does make perfect. The more times a dog is allowed to practice the wrong kinds of reactions to stressful situations,  the better he gets at it.  This is why when I’m working with a reactive dog (one that is extremely excitable, fearful and /or aggressive) I work very hard to prevent the dog from having bad reactions in the first month or two of his training and rehabilitation.

While I’m keeping the dog away from triggers to the extent I can, I also work on building his self control.  With young Charlie this means we practice “sit to get”; long sit-stays; sits at a distance; “leave-it” with food and his favorite toys; “wait” at all doors; polite walking on the leash and to accept being in a crate.

In this program I am attacking Charlie’s reactivity in two ways:

First – I’m doing all I can to keep him from practicing bad reactions.  This means that Charlie gets a whole lot less freedom, attention, exercise and time with my family than a less reactive dog would get. Limiting these things now will help him earn a lifetime of privileges, so I don’t feel the teensiest bit bad about it. He’ll enjoy privileges more after he’s earned them.

Second – I’m teaching Charlie how to exercise his own self-control in situations that are carefully calibrated for success. I started with simple things like having him sit very briefly before I threw his toy and making him move back away from the kennel door (instead of leaping up on it) before I’d open it.  In a little over a week, we’ve progressed to one minute sit-stays (on leash), a stop and sit at 15 feet, a sit-stay while I pretend to throw the frisbee, sit before I open the kennel door, down for treats, and “leave-it” exercises with food in my open hand or on the floor.

As Charlie learned how to exercise self-control in moderately stimulating situations I introduced him to new dogs and new people.  I did this with him on a leash and each situation was carefully structured to help him maintain his composure.  So far there’s been no snarkiness and no drama*.  This is exactly what I want.  As Charlie’s skills improve, I’ll introduce him to increasingly challenging situations and if I go too far and he reacts aggressively, I’ll smack myself upside the head with a rolled up newspaper (bad trainer!) and move a couple of steps back in the program.

* SMACK – Ok, since I started this post we did have a bit of drama.  Since Charlie cheerfully lets me touch any part of his body and because he’s started to shed profusely I decided to brush him.  Touching him with any thing but my hand or the leash is apparently a Big Deal to Charlie. Stay tuned for updates on how we handle this.

September 10, 2009 at 1:58 am 2 comments

Let’s Treat Our Dogs Like Children

According to the results of a study published last year in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the breed most prone to aggression is (drum roll please) the dachshund.  Yup, you read that correctly.  The Dachshund.  The Chihuahua and Jack Russell Terrier fill out the positions two and three on this study’s list of dog breeds most prone to aggression.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania who surveyed 6,000 purebred dog owners.  Researchers found that one in five dachshunds have bitten (or tried to bite) strangers, a similar percentage have attacked other dogs, and one in 12 have snapped at their owners.

Previous studies on canine aggression have largely focused primarily on dog bite statistics.  That data often indicated that large breed dogs posed the greatest danger.  The authors of the new study believe that earlier studies did not tell the whole story, as most dog bites (especially those committed by smaller dogs) go unreported and therefore were not included in those studies.

Most of the dogs I see for aggression problems are, indeed, small dogs like Dachshunds and Jack Russells.  Do these tiny terrors pose a real threat to pet owners around the world?  Instead of banning Pitbulls and Rottweilers, should we be outlawing all dogs that weigh less than fifteen pounds?

Here’s the real news people: IT’S NOT THE DOGS 

I see the pattern over and over.  A person gets an adorably cute little dog and they start to see it as their cute, darling little “baby”.   The “baby” is coddled, gets minimal training and its aggressive behavior is either allowed – or in many cases – encouraged because its owner simply doesn’t recognize it as a dog.

Add a lifetime of this kind of malign neglect to the tendency of many small breeds to be highly reactive and you have a perfect recipe for a nasty case of aggression.  A case entirely rooted in human – not breed specific – behavior.

Why do so many people pamper and coddle dogs like small children – and why does it never occur to these people to take the time to teach, guide and instruct their dog as they would a small child?  I mean seriously – would they let a 2-year-old toddler loose in their house without a diaper on, then be shocked that the baby had an accident on the floor?  Would they turn a 6-year-old child out to roam the streets alone just because ‘he likes the freedom’? Do they expect their children to spontaneously acquire manners and learn the alphabet?


"I just peed outside!"

From the New York Times:

Marketers have a new name for the age-old tendency to view animals as furry versions of ourselves: “humanization,” a trend that is fueling the explosive growth of the pet industry and the rise of modern pet pharma. Americans forked over $49 billion for pet products and services last year, up $11.5 billion from 2003; other than consumer electronics, pet products are the fastest-growing retail segment.

Most consumer spending is still on traditional pet medications like antiparasitics, but Ipsos, a marketing research firm, estimates that at least $15 million was spent on behavior-modification drugs in the United States in 2005. “As people are seeing more complex and sophisticated drugs for themselves, they want that same quality for their pets,” Dr. Melanie Berson, a veterinarian at the F.D.A.’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, has said. People’s willingness to employ behavior-modifying medications stems in part from a growing desire for more convenient, obedient household animals. “Our expectations are really going up,” Lummis says. “Owners want their pets to be more like little well-behaved children.” [bold mine]

I wishmore owners wanted their dogs to be like well-behaved little children. Unfortunately I think far too many of them instead have a bizarre desire for their pets behave like obnoxious, spoiled brats.  To be held hostage by the temper tantrums Fifi throws when mommie leaves.  To turn away guests because Rover doesn’t like (i.e. bites) strangers. To settle for living in a house destroyed by a tiny demon who shreds furniture and urinates indiscriminately.

When little Susie has trouble learning how to read, her mother might hire a tutor to help her, invest in a LeepFrog or send her to private school.  Either way, she’ll make significant efforts to help her daughter master this skill because she understands how vitally important reading is.  But when Fifi won’t sit – her “mother” makes a token effort, waves a higher value treat over her nose – and when this doesn’t work she just gives up. ‘Cause, you know – the dog’s untrainable.

Why don’t pet owners understand that basic obedience and social skills are as vital to a dog’s survival as reading skills are to a child’s?  Lack of training is the main reason dogs get surrendered to shelters.  A lack of training dooms many dogs to a lonely backyard existence.  Or to endless hours crated alone.  Still, many people either think training is unnecessary or can’t be bothered to make the effort.

Like a child a dog needs loving guidance to develop into a healthy being.  We understand that it takes years of time, patience and attention to raise a child.  How then – when we call dogs our ‘fur children’ – can we justify not giving them the patient, mindful ‘child care’ they need?

August 5, 2009 at 2:00 am 8 comments

Hapi Puppy

A friendship that will truly last  forever

Today Discovery News reportsthat a puppy mummified 2,300 years ago was recently discovered lying at the feet of an Egyptian mummy.  The mummy’s tomb was inscribed with the phrase “Hapi-Men” prompting University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology staff to name the young dog “Hapi-Puppy.”

The approximately 2,300-year-old puppy, revealed during a recent CT scan, is thought to be one of the world’s rarest mummified animals. Early Egyptians often preserved cats, birds and even crocodiles, but not often dogs.

Jennifer Wegner, a senior research scientist in the museum’s Egyptian section, explained to Discovery News that unlike some of the other more commonly mummified animals, the ancient Egyptians “had no dog gods, per se, although certain gods, like Anubis, could take the form of a jackal.”

“In this case, we think Hapi-Men simply wanted to be buried with his beloved pet,” she said, explaining that “Hapi-Men” translates roughly to, “The Apis bull endures,” referring to the bull god Apis.

(SmartDogs would like to point out that the statement that early Egyptians did not often preserve dogs by mummification is not entirely accurate.  While most Egyptologists do believe that pet dogs were not commonly mummified and buried with their owners – we do know that hundreds [if not thousands] of Egyptian dogs and jackals were mummified and buried to commemorate Anubis, the god of the underworld.)

The puppy, who is described as being “generally of the Jack Russell type”, may not have been terribly hapi about his own untimely demise.  While the cause of the dog’s death is not yet known, due to his youth, researchers believe that he may have been killed to accompany his master after death.

“We see this as a senseless slaughter today, but in ancient Egypt it would’ve been viewed very differently,” Monge explained. “People then felt life on Earth was very short. Hapi-Men wanted to spend all of eternity with his dog.”

hapipuppy Hapi Puppy

Hapi Puppy may be one of the most ancient mummified dogs yet discovered, but his Egyptian masters weren’t the only ancient culture that honored the bodies of their beloved canine companions after death.  Back in 2006, National Geographic reported that 43 mummfied dogs had been discovered in a thousand-year-old pre-Inca Chiribaya culture cemetery near Lima, Peru.

The researchers found 43 dogs buried in separate plots alongside their human owners, naturally preserved by the desert sands and ensconced with treats for the afterlife.

“We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies,” Guillen told the Associated Press.

“They have their own grave, and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food.”

The discovery speaks volumes about the high status the Chiribaya culture placed on the dogs, which Guillen says were prized for their skill in herding llamas.

Why does Guillen believe these were herding dogs?  In Red Orbit she is quoted as saying:

“They are dogs that were thanked and recognized for their social and familial contribution,” anthropologist Sonia Guillen said. “These dogs were not sacrificed.”


“We have found similar dogs” to the Chiribaya shepherds, he said. “But it is better to take precautions before confirming the existence of a type of original animal.”

Ricardo Fujita, a genetics researcher at Lima’s San Martin University, said the physical traits suggests a link between today’s’ short-snouted, long-haired dogs and their possible Chiribaya ancestors. But the jury is still out.

“We are conducting DNA analysis on the ancient dogs to compare them to the new ones, but it will be months before there are results for a final verdict,” he said.

BBC News reportedthat the Chiribaya shepherds looked like small golden retrievers with long, golden coats.  Even though the data appears to have been collected three years ago, I wasn’t able to find any reports on the results on the DNA testing of the Chiribaya shepherds on the web.  Oddly, several references to DNA analysis of fleas collected from the dogs were available.

Speaking of mummified dogs – has this storyabout a modern canine mummy – the Hound of Waycross.  

He (or she–now there’s no way to tell) was a four-year-old hunting dog in the 1960s. Accompanying its master on a hunt, it ran off to chase a squirrel or a raccoon. The critter must have scrambled into a hollow chestnut oak tree, because the bog did the same. Only the hound dog could not get out. It was wedged in the tree so tightly that it couldn’t move. It died.

Rather than decaying, the dog became a natural mummy due to the conditions of its “coffin.”  First, all scent of the dead dog went up the inside of the tree like a chimney. Predators and insects never got wind of the hound dog. Second, the dog’s body was well protected (and well-ventilated) in the hollow trunk. Finally, resins from the core of the tree may have helped in the dog’s preservation.

Sometime in the 1980s, loggers were cutting trees in the forest. Without knowing it, they cut down the dog’s tree and placed it on a logging truck. Then they looked inside and saw the mummified dog. Rather than send him to the sawmill, the loggers donated the dog and its tree coffin to the Southern Forest World Museum in Waycross. 

Following his or her un-hapi demise and subsequent discovery, the Hound of Waycross is now on exhibit at Southern Forest World Museum in Waycross, Georgia.

May 1, 2009 at 3:06 pm 3 comments

Animal “Husbandry”

Hat tip to BluntObject who pointed me to a atort in today’s Miami Herald.    Apparently Florida is one of the few states where bestiality is not yet illegal.  In a laudable effort to change this and make it a third-degree felony to engage in sex with animals the state senate has drafted a new piece of legislation.  The authors of the legislation felt they needed to specify that conventional dog-judging contests and animal-husbandry practices are still permissible and the Herald reports:

That last provision tripped up Miami Democratic Sen. Larcenia Bullard.

”People are taking these animals as their husbands? What’s husbandry?” she asked. Some senators stifled their laughter as Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican, explained that husbandry is raising and caring for animals. Bullard didn’t get it.

”So that maybe was the reason the lady was so upset about that monkey?” Bullard asked, referring to a Connecticut case where a woman’s suburban chimpanzee went mad and was shot.

While I’m certainly not above a bit of snickering at Sen. Bullard’s expense, I have to say that I find this little anecdote far more disturbing than amusing.  At first glance I thought that the FL senate was engaging in pointless nit-picking when they granted exceptions for conformation and husbandry practices.  But viewed in the dim light of a state senator’s staggering ignorance of very basic animal welfare issues, their disambiguation makes perfect sense.  In fact, now I’m left wondering if they went far enough.

Has modern urban society become so disconnected with the realities of the natural world that we need to worry that conformation judges will be arrested for checking testicles on long-coated dogs or that collecting semen for artificial insemination could lead to years in prison?  Inconceivable!

March 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm 4 comments

“the ratchet of perception tightens…”

While our “friends” in congress argue the finer points of pork barrel spending  financial stimulus, a crisis potentially much more devastating than global depression  continues to be ignored. In an article published in Physical Geography back in 2005, Kevin Gaston wrote:

The most important agent of change in the spatial patterns of much of biodiversity at present is ultimately the size, growth and resource demands of the human population. This is giving rise to: (i) levels of global species extinction largely unprecedented outside periods of mass extinction; (ii) levels of net losses of populations and individuals which may both absolutely and proportionately be several times greater than rates of species loss; (iii) levels of dispersal of organisms associated with the movements of people and goods that routinely overcome long-standing barriers to natural movement and which in some areas have become more important than natural dispersal mechanisms; and (iv) humans having become among the greatest evolutionary forces on Earth, shaping the tolerances and capacities of numerous organisms. (italics mine)

Our wildlife and wild lands are vanishing on a global scale and we seem, for the most part, not to be the least bit concerned about it. Is our increasing love affair with technology partly to blame?  Today the average child spends about 30 minutes a week playing and exploring outdoors… and over 300 hoursengrossed in television, the internet and other technological pursuits.

We’ve posted here before that according to a study published by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning group;

“If children’s natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be flourish during their early years of life, biophobia, an aversion to nature may develop. Biophobia ranges from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned. Biophobia is also manifest in regarding nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.”

This aversion to nature is now the rule, rather than the exception, among city-dwellers and suburbanites.  We have created a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it. And as we spend less time communing with nature, it appears that we may also be losing the ability to appreciate and understand it. In Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenberg discusses the idea of the shifting baseline.

The world as first seen by the child becomes his lifelong standard of excellence, mindless of the fact that he is admiring the ruins of his parents. Generation to generation, the natural world decays, the ratchet of perception tightens… Gradually, imperceptibly.. the wild standard sinks lower and lower and becomes ever heavier to raise. Few notice, few care. Eventually, nobody remembers…

As we change the world the ratchet of perception tightens and we change our ability — and our children’s ability — to understand it. 

Our altered perception of the importance of the economy of nature appears to have put us into a situation where our focus may be on the wrong kind of bailout. In a recent article discussing the current rates of extinction and discovery of new species in Science Daily, Paul Erlich is quoted as saying:

“I think what most people miss is that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy of nature, which supplies us from our natural capital a steady flow of income that we can’t do without.”

When we have problems with our financial economy, there are a number of ways we can deal with them. We  can print more capital, pass financial stimulus packages, cut taxes, change financial and trade laws or just sit back and wait for the situation to right itself. It’s not that easy to deal with deficits in the economy of nature. Once the last member of a species dies out, we can’t manufacture a new make and model to take its place. We are about as likely to be successful at reversing habitat devastation and fragmentation as to find a politician that will accept blame for a minor gaffe.  And invasive species are more difficult to get rid of than French civil servants.  

The laws of nature are far more immutable than the laws of man. And the fact that we haven’t seen massive cascades of extinction and extinction-related problems may not just be related to the fact that we’re not well equipped to recognize them. The Science Direct article also pointed out the important idea that:

An airplane wing has a certain amount of redundancy in its design, as does much of nature. So you can pop off some of the rivets and the wing will still hold together and the plane will still fly. But at some point, you’ll have removed one too many rivets and the plane will crash.

As we spend less and less time in nature, we’ve altered our ability to perceive and understand it. Not only are we popping ecological rivets off at an alarming rate, but in many cases we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We just turn up the volume on our Ipods and bury our faces into the latest in today’s mindless flurry of instant messages as the ratchet of perception tightens — oblivious to the captain’s warning, “brace for impact.”

February 10, 2009 at 10:10 pm 2 comments

“We have dragged them far from their own realm”

In his Sur l’universalité de la langue française the Comte Antoine de Rivarol writes:

“Thus nature and the chance happenings of life furnish animals with signs which means that the kind and number of such signs are greatly limited. Only humans are capable of furnishing them with artificial and varied signs, which, for the animal are neither natural nor representative.”

“When we start to treat animals in this way, an insurmountable hurdle soon arises; we have dragged them far from their own relam without transporting them into ours; and the vast majority of our signs still express needs they do not have and ideas they do not conceive.”

As Rivarol wrote, all animals — including dogs, have their own signs and languages.  The dog’s language is built primarily upon scent and gesture and his signs are far simpler and more natural than ours.  Because human ideals like fashion, commerce and rhetoric are “needs they do not have and ideas they do not conceive,” much of our behavior makes no sense to the dog.  But because all dogs are masters of reading and interpreting human body language we forget how limited their comprehension of spoken language — and of the complex, modern human world really is.

And there lies the rub. While living our own busy and complicated lives we tend to forget that, skilled as his deceit may be, the dog doesn’t understand our language or the odd cultural constructs of our world. Then the poor dog is blamed for “behavior problems” created by an unfortunate combination of miscommunication and unrealistic expectations — not willful disobedience on his part.

Most dogs live in an alien world dominated by strange beings who, for the most part, behave in ways that make just enough sense to keep them guessing.  We make a little sense — and a lot of nonsense.

When dogs behave badly the root cause is often is that we have “dragged them far from their own realm.” Stop dragging  your dog, slow down and find a way to lead him.

January 26, 2009 at 3:58 am 2 comments

It’s Not About Dogs…

I’ve had a nagging suspicion that an increasing number of dog-related laws were being passed across the country.  Apparently (and unfortunately), I’m not crazy.  Last month the HSUS reported that a record number of animal “protection” laws were passed in 2008.  Their website brags that; “The nation’s largest animal protection organization ushered in a whole new era of policies for animals by helping to pass 91 new animal protection laws this year, surpassing the previous record number of 86 new laws enacted in 2007.”

But do we really need more laws?  A post on “The Tyranny of Relativism” I read today at Never Yet Melted got me thinking, once again, on the function of culture in society (it’s an excellent piece BTW – go read it).  As I commented there:

It’s that constellation of fixed values otherwise known as culture that gives us the security and cohesiveness that allows us to recognize and accept those whose values are different from ours.

What the relativists seem to have forgotten (or prefer to overlook) is that the unwritten rules and sanctions of culture are fluid and mutable. Allowances are made. Slights are remembered and often forgiven. But in a governmental or relativist system we are forced to endure rigid, compulsory laws and regulations. We can’t make allowances (that wouldn’t be fair, now – would it?) and transgressions are always punished but then supposed to be forgotten.

Though they may seem to be more rigid and restrictive at first glance; culture and ethics are much more fluid and adaptable than relativism and regulation.

Because they are fluid, mutable and forgiving, cultural mores are a much healthier way to guide general group behavior (i.e. things like excess barking, picking up poop and pet limits) than laws and regulations are.  But if we don’t need  more of them, why are increasing numbers of laws and regulations controlling life with our four-legged friends being promulgated?  A thought-provoking answer comes from a piece written by Michael Brandow in today’s New York Yimes about the city’s poop-scooping law:

I believe that many dog “problems” are symptoms of other concerns that have little or nothing to do with dogs. Like rabies paranoia, these fears tend to be culturally based. Why did a large number of cities suddenly decide to get tough on dog owners after 2001? Just as anti-dog sentiment in the 1970s was a way to express anger over the urban crisis, believe it or not, the new wave of canine waste laws seems to be inspired by the threat of global terrorism. New attitudes on how far we have the right to go in dictating personal behavior, and to monitor compliance with laws, are leading to cleaner surfaces — but at what price? People are taking age-old grudges and dressing them as public safety issues. Suddenly the whole world is on orange alert for sidewalk bombs.

We’ve got all this unresolved stress related to abstract, diffuse, on-going pressures like “is there anything left in my 401K?”  “did they really put melamine in Oreos?” and “will Al Queda bomb shopping malls?”  Add in the fact that we have an enemy that is, for the most part, nameless and faceless — and even the Department of Homeland Securityadmits that the potential health risks of unresolved fear and stress may outweigh the benefits of government terrorist threat alerts.  So, we cope by bitching about what a jerk our neighbor is and vote to pass a law that will make the ignorant b***ard get rid of his stoopid barking, crapping dog.

But do these laws regulating general group behavior really accomplish anything?  Referring specifically to New York’s dog poop law Brandow writes:

You are never going to catch one in a thousand people, not even if you live in a police state. Believing otherwise is only going to give you high blood pressure. Worse, every time you dial 311 and complain, you are giving government yet another opportunity to point a finger at those terrible dog owners. This serves a political purpose, just as it did in the ’70s. It distracts from matters weightier than a few stray piles, and gets government off the hook on the real problems that seem beyond its grasp.

Breed specific legislation, limit laws, mandatory spay-neuter and similar regulations don’t really accomplish much — but, compared to important things like campaign finance reform or balanced budgets these kinds of laws are really easy to write, enact and then — conveniently — forget about.  The legislators and lobbyists who “championed” the laws get their sound-bites. The wack-jobs at HSUS get another notch in their Naugahyde belts and life goes on.  Well, that is, except for dogs and dog owners who are now forced to endure yet another set of rigid, compulsory (and often non-sensical) laws and regulations that complicate our lives without solving any problems.

In the current state of things, dog-related legislation mostly affects law-abiding citizens who license their pets, give them regular veterinary care and engage in other activities that put them in the system’s database.  The irresponsible morons whose untrained, uninnoculated, unrestrained, unlicensed, unsocialized animals bark incessantly, have unwanted litters and attack the mailman fly under the radar until after they’ve committed the offenses these laws are designed to prevent.

Increased respect for and adherence to (gasp!) mainstream cultural mores would greatly reduce problems caused by things like noise and dog poop.  The very un-sexy options of education and increased enforcement of existing laws could significantly mitigate issues related to animal suffering, but these kinds of actions don’t generally lead to newspaper and TV interviews.  Unfortunately, increased enforcement results in media reports that arrests have gone up — which will, of course, be spun by the press to say that problems have gotten worse.  And no politician wants to be associated with that kind of publicity.

So instead of dealing with our pet-related problems within a flexible, forgiving system of common-sense cultural mores – we regulate them in a completely rigid legal system.  The politicians win. The lobbyists win.  And dogs lose.

January 10, 2009 at 3:47 am 6 comments

Dogs and Demographics

From the Toronto Star:

The major trend suggested by what may be the first-ever mapping of Toronto, by popularity of dog breeds, using dog license data, is that some stereotypes awkwardly hold. There seem to be working-, middle-, and upper-crust dogs.

We’ve posted here before that, in much of today’s society, modern dog breeds have developed a distressingly close relation to brand names.  Now, according to the Star, demographic data indicates that they really may be more like status symbols than we’d like to believe.


Predictably, the idea that most readers will get from this survey are pretty much what it appears the Star expected – that pitbulls are more popular in the less desirable parts of town and poodles are popular in tony neighborhoods.  What I got out of it was the bad taste I find in my mouth when someone publishes a haphazard imitation of statistics as science.

If one goes to the AKC website and looks up the 2006 registration numbers (I couldn’t find the 2007 data, but 2006 should illustrate my point just as well) you will see at a glance that the population of dogs within each individual breed varies over four orders of magnitude; from Labrador Retrievers with over 100,000 individuals registered to English Foxhounds with only 11. The data do not appear to be normally distributed and unfortunately I lack the time and software to crunch them right now. But – I was able to find a study published in The Royal Society Biology Letters in 2004, in which Herzog et al discuss the distribution of modern dog breeds in detail. They note that:

…the number of new registrations within each breed obeys a steeply descending distribution with a long extended ‘tail’, such that while most breeds include a small number of new purebred puppies registered each year, a few breeds have a very large number of new registrants. When the relative frequencies of dogs in each breed are plotted as a function of their expected number (…) the data clearly form a power-law probability distribution…

Herzog et al’s study, which used population genetic models to study the biological relevance of how cultural change affects dog breed popularity (and btw, verified for me that it is not a Gaussian distribution), came up with a much different explanation for the distribution of dog breeds. In a nutshell, they believe that we’re a bunch of copycats.  To whit:

A simple model of random copying among individuals, similar to the population genetic model of random drift, can predict the variability in the popularity of cultural variants. Here, we show that random drift also explains a biologically relevant cultural phenomenon—changes in the distributions of popularity of dog breeds in the United States in each of the past 50 years.

…A remarkably useful way to study cultural change is to assume that individuals, confronted with many different choices, simply copy other individuals rather than make ‘optimal’ or ‘rational’ decisions. In general, this process relates to a classic evolutionary phenomenon called random genetic drift, for which quantitative models originally developed in population genetics have proven useful in identifying mechanisms of cultural change.

Proving, once again, that gangbangers don’t get pitbulls and rottweilers because they’re inherently vicious breeds. They get them because other gangbangers have them. And yuppies get chichi rare breed dogs because nobody else has them.  If we outlaw pitbulls and rottweilers, gangbangers will just latch on to different breeds and incorporate them into their culture.  And – when pitties and rotties then become sufficiently rare and exotic, they’ll be the new yuppie dogs de jour.

Gangbanger dog of the future?

Gangbanger dog of the future?

November 3, 2008 at 3:23 am 1 comment

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