Monday, July 4, 2011

Wild Women and Bad Dogs: Some Random Thoughts

At the recommendation of a good friend, the last couple of days I've been listening to the unabridged audio version of anthrozoologist  John Bradshaw's compelling book, DOG SENSE (I highly recommend it) which begins with this startling premise: contemporary dogs, asked to adjust to a rapidly-changing human world, are in a state of crisis.  The book is  smart and  wise, and reminds us that after all the fuss and muss about how train, feed, groom, and raise a dog, dogs mostly just want to be our friends.

Tightly packed with tons of fascinating information, Bradshaw's book challenges commonly-held thinking that dogs are  wolves or furry little versions of ourselves (the anthropocentric view). He (thankfully) pretty much debunks all the "alpha dog" and "dominance" and "packleader" theories that have held such sway  in various forms up until recently.

Ultimately, he addresses, the loneliness of hundreds of thousands  of dogs whose human companions don't understand that the main thing dogs want is to be with their people, and who leave them alone for long periods of time and then don't allow them to be dogs, expecting them to deny the very behaviors we bred them for---herding, retrieving, etc. 

Despite sharing the same DNA, domestic dogs  are very different from their wolfy ancestors, and  comparative zoology has served as a danger to dogs, according to Bradshaw. Even what we thought we knew about wolves apparently has stemmed from observations of captive wolves who were adapting to unnatural conditions. (According to Bradshaw, wolves in the wilds do not live in packs that require an alpha, and that wolves who live together develop a familial system of harmonious cooperation.)

Put simply, in his book, Bradshaw explores the complicated stew of what we expect of our dogs that we bring into our homes,  and how our unrealistic (even if well-intentioned) expectations may be ruining them, particularly in the way we train them.  For example, Bradshaw comes out of the positive training tradition, and never sees any reason to punish a dog, particularly since it is unlikely a dog will ever connect the punishment with the unwanted behavior. In fact, all the dog knows is that someone is causing him pain and being cruel, and eventually such treatment is likely to lead to anxiety and withdrawal, and maybe even aggression. 

While Bradshaw is not at all anti-training (and I'm guessing that even though he's a critic of Cesar,  he might even concede to Millans' triad of exercise, discipline, and affection), he  does dispute the fundamental premise of many dog trainers and training manuals that claim that dogs, if not controlled and restrained, will attempt to control us and become turn into the  dominating monster known as Alpha Dog. He worries about the psyche of the contemporary dog, and the emotional and pyschological health of our "best friends."  Referencing the advent of the "strict and even punitive training" philosophy spelled out in Colonel Konrad Most's classic book Training Dogs: A Manual, from 1910, Bradhsaw traces the lineage of the "tough love" movement for handling dogs.

What we call misbehavior, Bradshaw reminds us, may often be actions that are hard-wired into the dog (cattle dog bred to herd, the retriever bred to fetch, etc.).  And all the advice that tells us not to let the potentially-dominating dog cross the threshold before we do,  or ever play tug of war, or  get up on the sofa or sleep in our beds  should really be a matter of personal preference.  If you want to sleep with your dog, fine, Bradshaw  says, and if you don't, fine.  As we know now, dogs watch us humans closely. They pay attention. They follow our every move as no other animal does. They want to please us. They want to do what will get the best result.

Encountering people out walking dogs (and these are the lucky dogs), I'm amazed by how many have their dogs on the tightest of leashes, either wearing  prong collars or gentle leaders, insisting their dogs heel the entire walk and refusing to allow their dogs to interact naturally with other people and dogs. (I'm not necessarily anti-prong or gentle leader, but whenever anything becomes the rage, I'm suspicious and, in fact, if used incorrectly both these training aids can do severe physical damage to a dog.)

 In the park, where my dog and I often go, part of the pleasure for Grover, in addition to all the sniffing and marking he can get in, is the chance to meet up with other dogs for some casual butt-sniffing and general back end assessment before moving around to the front for a little nose to nose action.  Some owners are really eager for such exchanges and understand that dogs start their greeting from the back end and work their way up.  It's a nice time to stop for a moment and talk to other doggy folks while the dogs enjoy their own communion---a play bow, a shared treat of Johnson grass, some intense, mutual  inspection, etc. There are other owners, though, who I suspect have read either too many dog manuals, or the wrong ones, and sternly  maintain what I call "the leash death grip,"  force the dogs to come face-to-face (which is considered aggressive in a first dog meeting), command the dog the entire time during the introduction, and chide the dog for straining against the leash to butt-sniff. When I often say, "Oh, no, that's good, that's what dogs do," the owners may relent sheepishly and with some embarrassment.  I've come up with jokes to ease their minds. "It's an ID check," I explain.

Though I try to reassure them that their dog is being entirely appropriate, they seem displeased that their dog is being---well, a dog. "Good thing people don't do that," one owner said testily, dragging  her friendly, tail-wagging, butt-sniffing dog off in a huff.  In some cases, these overly-regimented dogs, deprived of the chance for exploration, begin, over time, to deteriorate psychologically. They become anxious and, in some cases, even aggressive.  There are several in my neighborhood I've watched who fit this description. Unless a dog is somehow naturally dog-aggressive, and there's a serious chance for injury, I'm  a complete believer in "give them lots of leash and they'll work it out."  In my experience, it's rare, if owners are relaxed and dogs aren't Cujo, they'll get along or, at the very worst, show a lack of interest, or have a minor kerfuffle involving a growl and a snap.  No biggee. This happens in my department at I.U.  all the time.

While I'm all for well-behaved and well-socialized dogs who follow simple commands when necessary, "controlling" a dog generally should never require force and constant correction, and such behavior strikes me as more about the owner's own anxiety (not unlike parents in public  who   carry on loud, instructive conversations with their human smallfry, clearly for the benefit of everyone around to see that they are "performing parent" as in, "Now, Max, that is not a cookie, it's a croissant, can you say croissant?").

This idea of controlling an animal, beyond the basics of general "good manners" and canine socialization, strikes me as connected to the deep-seated disgust we are encouraged to exercise over our own animal natures, evidence of which seeps out constantly, but which we try to keep a tight cap on. We are just as animal as every other living creature on the earth, but we do everything we can to deny it. And even though we know our dogs are animals, we really don't want them to behave that way.  Their very "dogginess"--the licking, the scratching, the butt-sniffing, the pleasure in offal, the lack of modesty while defecating--can sometimes be an affront to our own self-image.

Hence, perhaps, the popularity of training books designed to have us believe that dogs are in a power play with us, that they are complicated creatures, barely removed from the wild,  who need to be managed and controlled, or things will go very bad for everyone involved.  There's a huge difference between demonstrating predictable and clear expectations, and "controlling" a dog's every move. 

So, while pondering these insights in relation to  my own little  canid companion Grover, last  night I happened to watch  Liz Canner's  documentary Orgasm, Inc: the Strange Sciene of Female Pleasure, a terrific critique of the way in which medicine and pharmaceutical companies have joined together to  pathologize and medicalize women's sexuality  and sexual pleasure, and, in specific cases, endanger our health with highly questionable "cures"  like   "female viagra"  and testosterone patches in search of the perfect, predictable orgasm. Then if that's not enough, there are the procedural grostequeries of  cosmetic vaginoplasty or "rejuvenation," to enlarge and tighten and smooth out our very privates,   and/or aesthetic labiaplasty in case a woman is self-conscious that  her labia are not sufficiently enticing.   (Upon seeing photos of post-construction surgeries, the documentarist Canner extemporanousely exclaimed in astute horror, "Oh, they all want to look like little girls!")  Yes, the pre-pubescent female anatomy seems to be the gold standard these days, even for middle-aged women.  (But that's a whole other topic in itself.)   I will also point out that a quick google search indicates that the "plastys" can run $3500-$4500" apiece or, if you want the double dip, you get a break on the price for $7500. Most of these procedures aren't covered by insurance, and doctors offer special payment plans. (Please note: I distinguish between these and sexual reassignment surgeries, which are an entirely different and necessary medical procedure.)

The documentary takes a brief glance at the history of women's sexuality (in the West), in order to shore up Canner's  claim that in the 21st century, we are seeing in the diagnosis of "female sexual dysfunction" (allegedly 40% of American women  are suffering from this)  a continuing variation on old diagnoses of "hysteria" and a Western  version of "female genital mutilation," that women's sexuality, about which the medical world still knows very little, is prime territory for profit and speculation-----as well as control.

So I started thinking about bad dogs and wild women---about animality and chaos,  about behaviors and desires that bump up against an artificially constructed social order that slowly becomes naturalized, whether for profit or for power,  and, as our academic friends like to say, "destabilize" it.  I'm not sure where I'm going with this yet, but it seems like an interesting parallel--the cultural suppression of "animality," as evidenced in both women and dogs. Fear of unbridled sexuality, confusion over the sensual and the sexual, our terror of bodies in general.

What I should mention about those women  interviewed in Canner's documentary  is that several women who stated they were  unable to achieve orgasm were at home all day doing  housework, and were raising children, and/or  else working full-time and then coming home to do housework, etc., often found the idea of sexual intercourse at the end of a long, hard day  unappealing.  Can't imagine why.  Canner wisely observes through interviews with a couple of psychologists that some of these women may not be, as the medical world has deemed them, "dysfunctional" and "frigid," but simply worn out. Amen.

Additionally, the fact that some women  could derive sexual pleasure outside of intercourse with a partner  strikes me as an avenue that the film could have explored more and leads me to this question:

Is "dysfunction" a term perhaps too easily applied to women who do not achieve satisfaction with male partners in acts of  intercourse?  If that's the case, then who might most be  benefitting from the label "female sexual dysfunction" and the various attempted "cures"? If the woman is pathologized, then is the male less likely to view this as a mutual issue?

While it might be easy to think that such medical exploration of women's sex lives is a step in the right direction, since women's sexual pleasure has always been a tricky and wonderfully mysterious and individualistic  business, given all the centuries spent trying to suppress and contain it (perhaps historically, as Stephanie Coontz reminds us, because of a man's fear that a child might not be his and also because a sexually promiscuous woman would reflect badly on his reputation) , it became readily apparent, as I watched the documentary, that women  are still  being asked to conform to a kind of sexual perfection and norm that would best serve male partners.  The male partner of a woman who doesn't enjoy sex with him  or whose expression of sexuality doesn't conform neatly to his own needs is going to suffer, even if she finds sexual pleasure in other outlets (masturbation, sex with women, etc.).

So, I wondered, in addition to being a highly profitable exercise of disease mongering which launches well-funded research and "cures" for drug companies and lots of business for doctors, is it also another way of realigning female sexuality with the expectations of  heterosexual men? Is taking a perfectly healthy woman and deeming her sexual preferences or her genitalia in need of reconstruction simply for aesthetics a way of enhancing  her sexual pleasure, or  is it  to increase the pleasure of her male partner? 

So I'm interested in thinking more about these connections----- wild women and bad dogs and animality---and how dominance over and control  of  both women and dogs continue to manifest themselves, even under the rubric of "improving lives" and the rhetoric of "enlightenment." 

More anon . . . . .

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