Raise Your Dog to be an American

December 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My local online webiste WestSideRag today ran an article with the title “Barnard Researcher Has Studied The Minds of Upper West Side Dogs, and They’re Way More Complicated Than You Think.”

I don’t have a dog, but I started reading.* And as I did, I saw that while the article was about dogs, it was more importantly a document about American culture, particularly our values and beliefs about Choice. We value individual choice as inherently good. We also believe that choice is beneficial and that denying people the freedom to choose will in some way harm them. So we insist that people make their own choices.

Recognizing the wonderfulness of choice is not something that comes naturally. You have to be carefully taught. And it’s never too early to start. It’s just that most of the time, we don’t think that we are hammering American cultural ideas into our kids’ psyches. We just think we’re raising them the right way.

In My Freshman Year, an ethnography of an American university, Rebekah Nathan** includes a chapter (“As Others See Us”) about the perceptions of the foreign students. A Korean student tells her:

Everything here is: “What do you want?” “What do you think?” “What do you like?” Even little children have preferences and interests in this country. I hear parents in restaurants. They ask. a three-year-old child, “Do you want French fries or potato chips?” Every little kid in this country can tell you, “I like green beans but not spinach, I like vanilla but not chocolate, and my favorite color is blue.”

If we think it’s good for three-year olds to make their own choices, why not dogs?

All dog owners should allow their dog to make certain choices, according to Horowitz, who strongly believes that giving dogs choices increases their welfare. . . . Owners should “allow the dog to make their own choice as opposed to your definition of the walk.” She recognizes that people want to feel in control, but points out “what we are in control of is to let the dog have a life in which the dog is partly choosing. This is something we want to give to anyone we love.”

WestSideRag has a relatively small readership — we’re not talking Slate.com — and an article extending our ideas about choice to dogs is extreme. But often the extreme case can call attention to the less extreme versions that are widely taken for granted and unnoticed. In America, even those with a more authoritarian outlook find it hard to refute arguments based on the idea of choice. It’s not just liberals who ask their kids what kind of cereal they want. 

* What originally drew me to the article was the opening paragraph, which contained a pun that I am nearly certain was unintended.

(Click on the box for a larger and clearer version.)

** “Rebekah Nathan” is a nom de plume. The author, Cathy Small, probably wanted to remain anonymous since she was writing about the school where she teaches. The ruse did not work for very long.

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