Studying the Dog

A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide
By D. L. Pughe, November 2008, Updated February 2015

Spinoza defines far and near like this: far he said, is the constellation of the dog in the night sky, and near is the animal who barks—the distance between abstraction and reality, the ideal, elevated theoretical realm and our earthly, immediate lives. So it is surprising to find that, at colleges and universities—bastions of abstract thought—scholars are closing the gap on what dogness means, both the far kind and the near. Not one but several dogs are barking at the foot of the ivory tower, and a friendly pack is scrambling up the stairs.

As the subject of human-animal interaction is now deemed worthy of serious scholarship, efforts to understand dogs in depth are emerging on college campuses around the world. It wasn’t that long ago that when one thought of dogs and research, shudder-inducing visions of laboratory animals with implanted electrodes came to mind. While some of that still exists, increasingly, scholars are focusing on the ethical treatment of animals, and taking a hard look at university practices along the way.

Changing the Canon

The interest in dogs as thinking beings has been on the rise since the 1970s when Peter Singer, the Ira W. De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, published Animal Liberation (1975), exploring a range of human-dog interactions, including dog fighting, and their resulting ethical dilemmas. The book has since become the bible of the animal rights movement. Singer expanded on his original position in Animal Rights and Human Obligations (1989), even taking on such illicit subjects as canine-human sex and the Kinsey studies (Heavy Petting, Nerve 2001). Soon after, Cary E. Wolfe edited Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003), with essays by intellectual heavyweights such as Jacques Derrida and Alphonso Lingis that fostered critical discussion. Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice University, also wrote his own treatise that year: Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory (2003), while Giorgio Agamben pursued his theoretical exploration of “human being” through our interaction with animals in books like The Open: Man and Animal (2003).


Another player in this fundamental shift was Marjorie Garber, the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, who published her book Dog Love a decade ago. Exploring the portrayal of dogs in film and literature, and the roles they play in American culture, her work signaled a trend in literature courses and seminars, and at national conferences in many humanities fields. Animals and dogs—as ideas and in reality—were suddenly ripe for exploration.


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From Trend to Mainstream
In the fall of 2005, Teresa Mangum, a noted English professor and activist at the University of Iowa, co-hosted a semester-long seminar titled “Articulating the Animal.” She and Jane Desmond invited several of the researchers doing the most interesting work in various departments to collaborate on a weekly exchange of ideas about animal life at UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. In their individual classes, these researchers used their work to foster a fresh dialogue with students about animals and humans and how they interact. Among Mangum’s colleagues was a bench scientist who used animals in his psychology lab; a theater director interested in equestrian theory; a museum director with a penchant for paintings of cows; the head of the Rhetoric Department, who was fascinated with bonobo language; and Desmond herself, an American Studies professor interested in the way animals extend human bodily capabilities.

Mangum, whose background is in 19th-century literature and who has a personal affinity for dogs, had found herself shifting in recent years to the ideas that concern us daily, and how those ideas show up in literature, providing a resonance and also a resource for rethinking common human problems. She began with Victorian literature on aging, and gradually became interested in the ways pets fit into human lives and begin to define us in new ways. Her article, “Dog Years, Human Fears” (Representing Animals 2002) considers the interplay of human anxieties about aging and the rise of middle-class pet culture. And in the course she taught as part of the Articulating the Animal project, she asked her students to analyze the stories humans tell about animals, both in literature and at the local animal shelter.

Mangum was interested in getting her students out of the classroom and into new “narrative zones,” and placed many of her students as volunteers with the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center under the direction of Misha Goodman. A county shelter first featured in Bark (“Being in Dog Time,” Fall 2005), it is a model among shelters around the country, having successfully reinvented itself as a humane, low-kill facility with an excellent reputation for both animal treatment and placement. The students got to know the staff and other volunteers, and spent time observing and actively working with the animals, relating what they learned to the rigorous course reading Mangum required. For their final project, they were asked to creatively interpret all that they had learned using a variety of media—film, video, visual works and essays. The hope was that these projects would also benefit the shelter itself, either as a way to educate more people about the mission of the organization or to orient volunteers to new ways of understanding their canine companions.

Donna Haraway, a noted theorist in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also shifted her focus, from cyber-studies to dog culture. As the owner of a small pack of Australian Shepherds, Haraway found herself drawn to the issues of “breeding,” and how technology is poised to sort out canine genetics and cloning. At bottom, Haraway is interested in the affection we have for a particular look or kind of dog, and how it comes about:

…what might possibly be meant by love in a way that disrupts various romanticisms, troubles certain kinds of certainties about the relationship that we have with this other complex species, dogs, and perhaps leads us into a place I’ve tried to get throughout most of my work: that is, elsewhere.
In The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness

In her most recent book, When Species Meet, Haraway continues to explore the philosophical underpinnings of our animal-human encounters—the ways that curiosity, respect and affection come to define how we treat one another. Haraway’s work echoes the exploration of canine human affection done by Garber, and has popularized the notion of a “companion species manifesto” to redefine dog and human interactions. The immediacy of exchange with the dogs in the lives of their professorial companions—their literal nearness—appears to inspire far-fetched and ground-breaking ideas.

For Teresa Mangum, the questions raised about dogs and animals began in series of discussions at a conference of 19th-century scholars whose research interests were mostly related to literature. In the late 1980s, these academics had witnessed the “sudden explosion of cultural studies … that challenged assumptions about how we see animals.” Harriet Ritvo, a professor of British history at MIT, published a seminal book, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age in 1987, which represented the culmination of those early discussions. Twenty years later, Deborah Denenholz Morse, professor at William and Mary College, edited the book Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007) with Martin A. Danahay of Brock University; included are many who were involved in those early dialogues: Mangum; Cannon Schmitt at the University of Toronto; Susan David Bernstein at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Nigel Rothfels, a history professor and director of the Edison Initiative at UW–Milwaukee.

Rothfels, whose historical interests are in zoos, circuses and elephants, spearheaded efforts to create a wider dialogue about animals among historians and professors of literature. He is currently working with Mangum to create a North American/UK critical animal studies biannual conference. “Nigel is a lynchpin in the ‘critical animal studies’ movement” Mangum says. “It was a crystallizing moment at a conference in Milwaukee he organized a few years ago, where we realized we all were seriously exploring similar ideas and were anxious for a forum in which to share them.” In the last two years, Rothfels has been at the University of Texas at Austin, which hosted a conference on “Animal Humanities” in April 2006, and at a 2007 York University conference, “Envisioning Animals.” Rothfel’s own book, Representing Animals (2002), included essays by Mangum and other key members of the original 19th-century literary group and is now a curriculum standard in many animal studies classes.

Around the same time, across the pond in the UK, Erica Fudge, a lecturer in English Literary Studies at Middlesex University, London, was creating her own curriculum in literature and animal studies. In the last few years, she has published a remarkable succession of scholarly books: Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2002); Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (2004); and Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (2006). The topics showing up at conferences and in the number of new course offerings around the world made Fudge aware of how many other scholars were interested in similar subjects of animals in literature and science. As a member of H-Animal, a special section of the scholarly web zone H-Net (Humanities Network,, she has been instrumental in fostering greater communication among colleagues around the world.

Companion Animals in Our Social World
As Teresa Mangum found in her own research on Victorian dog owners and the stories emerging from the animal shelter, the relationships we share with our pets are a fertile field for study. “Companion animal” studies have grown in many departments and have led to widely accepted programs, including allowing dogs in nursing homes and hospitals, and—most notably—pairing prisoners with therapy animals to their mutual benefit. At Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, graduate researcher Jordan Schaan is exploring how pet lovers’ relationships with their dogs resemble those between humans, specifically, parent and child. She is focusing on the ways the homespun “pack” travels, and where societal limits prevent us from taking our dogs along—particularly to restaurants. “For my thesis, I wanted to look at the extent to which dogs have the companionship role in a human’s life, and whether pet owners are psychologically and socially disadvantaged by their pets being excluded from public venues,” she told the Monash Newsline.

While this may seem like a trivial pursuit, particularly to those who do not have pets, it may also be a study that eventually changes policies. Just a few years ago, many dogs now classified as “therapy pets” were excluded from on-board airline travel and most public places. In the United States and in universities abroad, the ways that dogs are being defined and their rights as individual creatures are under review. While it requires motivated citizens to affect local, national and global policy, it often takes university studies to support their goals. As Teresa Mangum found in her own animal seminar, the time is now particularly ripe to “examine how disciplinary definitions, associations, assumptions, distinctions, uses, fears, and fantasies about animals produce elaborate systems of meaning.”

Similarly, Haraway’s work has been influential in the Tokyo-based Companion Animal Information and Research Center begun by Dr. Yoichi Shoda, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Shoda’s group is interested in how pets are allowed in, and interact with, the human social world. The shift in thinking from “pet owner and pet” to co-equal “companions” has been key to adjusting animal protection and management laws to allow dogs and cats in collective housing in Japan. Shoda is also exploring the conflict between the humans over their conduct or that of their pet; this was a focus at the 11th Annual International Conference on Human-Animal Interaction, which convened this fall in Tokyo.

At Colorado State University, Jerry Vaske and Maureen Donnelly, professors in CSU’s Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, are also looking at how dog interaction in shared open spaces is dependent on owner interaction. Negative traits in dogs—which, roughly translated, is “what bugs other humans about our dogs”—came down to owners not picking up after their dogs, dogs chasing wildlife, dogs jumping on and pawing visitors, and dogs flushing birds. The researchers then tailored a program, known as the Voice and Sight Tag Program, for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) department. Willing dog owners participated by watching a video about voice- and sight-control commands, essential training for dogs in off-leash areas. Vaske and Donnelly’s research is part of widespread owner education about the sort of “social manners” necessary for shared turf; some public dog parks also now offer courses and certificates in “canine citizenship.”

A variety of researchers are pursuing the value of pets and animals in our lives. Dr. Gail F. Melson, professor emereta of psychology at Purdue University, studies pets in child development and is the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (2001). Dr. Andrea Beetz, an independent researcher from Germany, has researched the way empathy develops into attachment and the “emotional intelligence” within human–animal interactions. Richang Zheng, in the Department of Social Psychology at Beijing Normal University, is likewise doing research on companion animals in the context of the psychological health of the elderly, while in Australia, at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Dr. Bruce Headey, in a case study in China, is looking at how pets improve the health of their human companions.

Dog Thought/Dog Language
The complexities of our relationships, the dependence that develops between dog and owner, have never before been so fully explored in serious scholarly ways as in the work being done on how dogs and humans are able to comprehend one another.

Budapest’s Eötvös University has a world-renowned program in which dog behavior is researched using methodology that is more anthropological than zoological in its approach. In this discipline, which has been dubbed ethology—the study of animal behavior—researchers treat their dogs as thinking individuals, and visit them on the dogs’ preferred turf—either at home with their human companions or out in nature. At the Eötvös campus lab, as Colin Woodard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Research and Books (April 2005), “Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.” Researchers led by Dr. Vilmos Csányi and Dr. Adam Miklosi have made significant breakthroughs in how dogs are perceived and in the subtleties of communication between dogs and their owners. Some of the Eötvös research focuses on the nonverbal ways we communicate right and wrong, and gesture approval and disapproval—how a slight movement of our eye or hand may give a dog clues in problem-solving.

The ways in which dogs have been “domesticated” have been also been rethought and reexamined at Eötvös through experiments raising dogs and wolves in equal controlled environments. Similar research is also being done at Harvard by Dr. Brian Hare, whose work with the “singing” dogs of New Guinea provides “direct evidence that that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes.” (Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, News and Notices)

Dr. Friederike Range and Dr. Ludwig Huber of the University of Vienna and Dr. Zsófia Viranyi of Eötvös University are focusing on the similarities between humans and dogs in the ways they copy one another’s actions, particularly when their respective physiques are so patently different. “Selective imitation” is a phrase that may seem foreign to us now, but then, so did “natural selection” a century and a half ago. As reported in Current Biology (May 15, 2007), these scientists have found that dogs not only imitate actions they see, but also, like human babies, “adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action.” They employ a basic reasoning in choosing which of our actions to mimic (not “ape”), with reference to the separate and somewhat abstract goal of the action.

Game Theory
Dogs’ capacity to do a variety of tasks requiring surprising levels of cognitive ability and associative reasoning has also attracted the notice those working in related fields. For example, Bruce Blumberg, an adjunct professor at Harvard, recently offered a psychology course called “The Cognitive Dog: Savant or Slacker?” and 87 students signed up. Blumberg’s research began in an unusual way. As senior scientist at Blue Fang Games (his “day job”), he was interested in building a cyber creature that would have the common sense and learning ability of dogs; to do this, he decided to study dogs’ learning style. Blumberg, whose PhD is in media arts and sciences, has also offered the course at the MIT Media Lab, with similar enthusiastic enrollment and response.

Barbara Smuts, a world-renowned behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, was a keynote speaker at that seminal conference in Milwaukee a few years ago. Smuts began her research on primate societies, but in recent years, has devoted most of her attention to dog interaction and socialization. Her particular interest is in how dogs play, their signals and rules invented on the spot. With the assistance of her fellow researchers, she has developed an “ethogram,” or written description of each body movement and vocalization dogs use to initiate play with one another. In this complex version of game theory, the way the rules are drawn and how they change are based on complexities of canine dominance. Smuts has also found parallels between dogs and primates, which she explored in “Gestural Communication in Olive Baboons and Domestic Dogs,” published earlier this year in The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press).

Thus, the dialogue about dogs going on in academic circles is making its way into the mainstream in all sorts of ways, from courses attended and books written to extensive discussions, policy changes, traveling exhibitions and international conferences. We are abandoning old cultural prejudices and coming to a new understanding of dogs on their own terms, drawing on abstract literary stars in the sky and the waggy ones barking nearby. It is a welcome blend of theory and reality.

More to come! See Part Two, “Literary Dogs,” in the January/February 2008 issue.

Seeing Is Believing
Pets in America: Exploring the Connection Between People and Their Pets
November 19, 2007—January 21, 2008
Winterthur Museum and Gardens
Winterthur, Del.

June 16, 2008—August 18, 2008
Museum of Florida History
Tallahassee, Fla.

The Animals Among Us
Online photo exhibits and portable exhibition for loan to museums and exhibition spaces from University of Iowa

© 2007 D.L. Pughe

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 45: Nov/Dec 2007

Illustration by Jen Renninger

D. L. Pughe divides her time between IowaCity, Iowa, and Berkeley, Calif., in the company of her husband, Jon Winet, and Mr. E. Dog. Her essays have appeared in books by MIT Press, University of Minnesota Press and Thames and Hudson, as well as in Nest and Five Fingers Review. She is also the author of "Being in Dog Time," which appeared in Bark Fall 2005.