On Dogs, The Relative Quality Thereof
So yesterday I was crossing the street to my apartment and there was a dog (with owner) sitting at the corner, waiting for the light to change. I looked at the dog and in my mind I was thinking, "You're a good dog! Yes you are!" And then it hit me: I have no basis for that statement.
Lord knows I have no understanding of dog breeds and qualities, and I couldn't even tell you know what breed the dog even was. He was sort of medium-sized, and dark. See? No idea. So when I said he was a good dog, it wasn't like I was thinking that he was a particularly good example of the breed, with lustrous coat, proper body structure, and outstanding musculature, or whatever else they'd talk about at the Westminster Kennel Club.
Maybe it was his behavior I was thinking about, but again: what do I know? He was sitting there. I saw him for one second. For all I know, that was the one second out of the day when he actually was sitting still, and the rest of the day he was sprinting around his apartment mauling pillows and barking and projectile shitting on the walls. My experience with the dog wasn't, as they say, statistically significant enough to really judge his behavior.
A third possibility is that I somehow intuited his alignment within the good vs. evil spectrum, but again, doubtful. Although it's politically unfashionable to admit this, I don't really get off on just saying that anything I like is good and anything I oppose is evil. I'm all, like, "It's a complex problem, and you have to look at the motivations of the people involved, and what they're doing, and why..." You know, that knee-jerk liberalism that suggests you need some slight degree of intelligence to understand the world and you can't just simplify to good and evil. So anyways, seeing as how I'm not a big good and evil type of guy, I doubt that's what I had in mind. Besides, in my experience most dogs are neither good nor evil; they're almost all Chaotic Neutral.
Anyways, it got me to thinking about how we rate dogs. I like dogs a lot, and most people I know are dog people. In fact, I will go that one further: I don't think I know anyone who doesn't like dogs, at least a little bit. They're very enjoyable critters. But as a result, I'm not so sure we really accurately assess their merits with the cold, clear eye of objectivity.
Think about it. The vast majority of dogs are "good dogs." For the mere fact of their existence, and in the absence of any outright destruction of property or production of waste products indoors, dogs are praised endlessly--even when doing stuff they enjoy doing. If you throw a stick or a ball and a dog chases it down and brings it back to you, what's your response? You praise the dog: "Good boy! Good boy!" But here's the thing: the dog likes chasing the stick. That's what he does. It's his deal. If he could figure out a way to cut you out of the equation and just chase sticks by himself, he'd do it. The whole praise-as-reward system, it's all out of whack there. The dog's all, like, "Shit, man, I was gonna chase that stick anyways. I'm not here for the praise, I'm here for the stick."
Hell, we even praise dogs when they should be praising us. You're sitting on the couch and your dog is curled up next to you, and you're petting it while it takes a nap. What are you saying to the dog? That's right, you're breaking out the "I'm talking to a dog voice" and saying, "You're a good dog. Yes you are. Such a good dog." Think about that: you're giving the dog a back rub and telling him how great he is. The only other situation in the world where the person giving the backrub also feels compelled to profusely praise the backrub recipient is "pathetic high school guy trying unsuccessfully to get laid." When I'm getting my back rubbed, it's either because I've paid for the privilege in cash or else I'm praising the virtues and merits of the backrub giver to high heaven: "Oh baby, that's the best, you're the best, you're wonderful, oh, don't stop...right there, now to the left, now up a little, now over...oh yeah, that's the spot..."
(And yes, I know that the "backrub praise" script sounds remarkably similar to a script useful in other situations. That's the thing: us formerly pathetic high school kids weren't completely wrong. We knew that the backrub and the sex were on the same map, we just didn't know how to get from the one point to the other.)
Anyways, back to the dogs. My point is, they're graded on a pretty easy curve. Maybe we need to get Harvey Mansfield on the case or something, I don't know. For me, personally, I just want to be a little bit more rigorous about these things. Maybe a bit less with the "good dog!" and a bit more with the "perfectly acceptable dog!" Or even withhold judgment until sufficient data can be accumulated. "Okay, boy, now demonstrate your merits! Prove to me your quality and worth as a small furry animal, in exchange for which I will then tell you that you are a good dog!" It sounds tough, sure, but I think it needs to be done to help toughen these dogs up for the real world. Besides, there are enough people out there artificially pumping these dogs' self-esteem to unreasonable levels with all of the meritless praise thrown around like so much cheap confetti. Good dog, indeed.