Dignity is a word with many shades and contexts. When using the moral sense of the word, the definition I hold most true is that dignity is a living beings inalienable right to respect and ethical treatment. If you believe as I do, then it follows that our understanding of any living thing influences our treatment of it.
Within our own species, not understanding the culture and customs of people different from us has led to war and even genocide. True empathy for any living creature makes it very hard to casually treat it without dignity, something that early Native Americans took to heart. Our understanding of a living thing’s nature shapes our actions toward it.
When we credit an animal with emotions reflective of our own, it’s easy to assume the reason for those emotions is similar. When that happens, our view of proper responses for those emotions tend to align themselves with what is proper for our species, not theirs. In a sense, we are now holding that animal to an ethical standard it can never meet.
When I was little I was taught that training a puppy involved a rolled up newspaper and the words “bad dog!” I was told that once you disciplined a puppy three or four times, if it continued to “misbehave” it was being willful because it knew that what it did was wrong but did it anyways.
So the newspapers swats would become harder and the voice louder and angrier. The sad part about this is that it often it worked simply because the dog was so focused on the crazy person with the newspaper, other thoughts fell away. My dogs did learn, but the process was often long and drawn out and depended more on luck than any skill in training. My ignorance in understanding why the dog did what it did decreased their dignity and my own.
To be sure I loved my dogs, but my relationship to them and our enjoyment of each other suffered because I held them to a standard they couldn’t meet. I was lucky that I never had a serious incident with any of my dogs and that one day I ran into someone that understood animal behavior and pointed me in the right direction.
My new understanding of animal behavior has allowed me to treat them with the dignity they deserve. As a result, I am able to live with and treat my dogs as dogs, but still appreciate the human like qualities that endear them to me. I now have the tools to show them what I consider to be acceptable without holding them accountable for something they don’t understand. They have their dignity, and I have mine.
If your journey has been similar to mine, then share your story with someone who still believes as we once did. Your story may fall on deaf ears or it may start someone on a similar path to ours. But either way you will add to the dignity in the world.
Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha, Elbee, and Dog Lovers Everywhere