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Ch. 12 - The Character of Dogs

THE civilisation, the manners, and the morals of dog-kind are to a
great extent subordinated to those of his ancestral master, man.
This animal, in many ways so superior, has accepted a position of
inferiority, shares the domestic life, and humours the caprices of
the tyrant. But the potentate, like the British in India, pays
small regard to the character of his willing client, judges him
with listless glances, and condemns him in a byword. Listless have
been the looks of his admirers, who have exhausted idle terms of
praise, and buried the poor soul below exaggerations. And yet more
idle and, if possible, more unintelligent has been the attitude of
his express detractors; those who are very fond of dogs "but in
their proper place"; who say "poo' fellow, poo' fellow," and are
themselves far poorer; who whet the knife of the vivisectionist or
heat his oven; who are not ashamed to admire "the creature's
instinct"; and flying far beyond folly, have dared to resuscitate
the theory of animal machines. The "dog's instinct" and the
"automaton-dog," in this age of psychology and science, sound like
strange anachronisms. An automaton he certainly is; a machine
working independently of his control, the heart, like the mill-
wheel, keeping all in motion, and the consciousness, like a person
shut in the mill garret, enjoying the view out of the window and
shaken by the thunder of the stones; an automaton in one corner of
which a living spirit is confined: an automaton like man. Instinct
again he certainly possesses. Inherited aptitudes are his,
inherited frailties. Some things he at once views and understands,
as though he were awakened from a sleep, as though he came
"trailing clouds of glory." But with him, as with man, the field
of instinct is limited; its utterances are obscure and occasional;
and about the far larger part of life both the dog and his master
must conduct their steps by deduction and observation.

The leading distinction between dog and man, after and perhaps
before the different duration of their lives, is that the one can
speak and that the other cannot. The absence of the power of
speech confines the dog in the development of his intellect. It
hinders him from many speculations, for words are the beginning of
meta-physic. At the same blow it saves him from many
superstitions, and his silence has won for him a higher name for
virtue than his conduct justifies. The faults of the dog are many.
He is vainer than man, singularly greedy of notice, singularly
intolerant of ridicule, suspicious like the deaf, jealous to the
degree of frenzy, and radically devoid of truth. The day of an
intelligent small dog is passed in the manufacture and the
laborious communication of falsehood; he lies with his tail, he
lies with his eye, he lies with his protesting paw; and when he
rattles his dish or scratches at the door his purpose is other than
appears. But he has some apology to offer for the vice. Many of
the signs which form his dialect have come to bear an arbitrary
meaning, clearly understood both by his master and himself; yet
when a new want arises he must either invent a new vehicle of
meaning or wrest an old one to a different purpose; and this
necessity frequently recurring must tend to lessen his idea of the
sanctity of symbols. Meanwhile the dog is clear in his own
conscience, and draws, with a human nicety, the distinction between
formal and essential truth. Of his punning perversions, his
legitimate dexterity with symbols, he is even vain; but when he has
told and been detected in a lie, there is not a hair upon his body
but confesses guilt. To a dog of gentlemanly feeling theft and
falsehood are disgraceful vices. The canine, like the human,
gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne's "JE NE SAIS QUOI
DE GENEREUX." He is never more than half ashamed of having barked
or bitten; and for those faults into which he has been led by the
desire to shine before a lady of his race, he retains, even under
physical correction, a share of pride. But to be caught lying, if
he understands it, instantly uncurls his fleece.

Just as among dull observers he preserves a name for truth, the dog
has been credited with modesty. It is amazing how the use of
language blunts the faculties of man - that because vain glory
finds no vent in words, creatures supplied with eyes have been
unable to detect a fault so gross and obvious. If a small spoiled
dog were suddenly to be endowed with speech, he would prate
interminably, and still about himself; when we had friends, we
should be forced to lock him in a garret; and what with his whining
jealousies and his foible for falsehood, in a year's time he would
have gone far to weary out our love. I was about to compare him to
Sir Willoughby Patterne, but the Patternes have a manlier sense of
their own merits; and the parallel, besides, is ready. Hans
Christian Andersen, as we behold him in his startling memoirs,
thrilling from top to toe with an excruciating vanity, and scouting
even along the street for shadows of offence - here was the talking

It is just this rage for consideration that has betrayed the dog
into his satellite position as the friend of man. The cat, an
animal of franker appetites, preserves his independence. But the
dog, with one eye ever on the audience, has been wheedled into
slavery, and praised and patted into the renunciation of his
nature. Once he ceased hunting and became man's plate-licker, the
Rubicon was crossed. Thenceforth he was a gentleman of leisure;
and except the few whom we keep working, the whole race grew more
and more self-conscious, mannered and affected. The number of
things that a small dog does naturally is strangely small.
Enjoying better spirits and not crushed under material cares, he is
far more theatrical than average man. His whole life, if he be a
dog of any pretension to gallantry, is spent in a vain show, and in
the hot pursuit of admiration. Take out your puppy for a walk, and
you will find the little ball of fur clumsy, stupid, bewildered,
but natural. Let but a few months pass, and when you repeat the
process you will find nature buried in convention. He will do
nothing plainly; but the simplest processes of our material life
will all be bent into the forms of an elaborate and mysterious
etiquette. Instinct, says the fool, has awakened. But it is not
so. Some dogs - some, at the very least - if they be kept separate
from others, remain quite natural; and these, when at length they
meet with a companion of experience, and have the game explained to
them, distinguish themselves by the severity of their devotion to
its rules. I wish I were allowed to tell a story which would
radiantly illuminate the point; but men, like dogs, have an
elaborate and mysterious etiquette. It is their bond of sympathy
that both are the children of convention.

The person, man or dog, who has a conscience is eternally condemned
to some degree of humbug; the sense of the law in their members
fatally precipitates either towards a frozen and affected bearing.
And the converse is true; and in the elaborate and conscious
manners of the dog, moral opinions and the love of the ideal stand
confessed. To follow for ten minutes in the street some
swaggering, canine cavalier, is to receive a lesson in dramatic art
and the cultured conduct of the body; in every act and gesture you
see him true to a refined conception; and the dullest cur,
beholding him, pricks up his ear and proceeds to imitate and parody
that charming ease. For to be a high-mannered and high-minded
gentleman, careless, affable, and gay, is the inborn pretension of
the dog. The large dog, so much lazier, so much more weighed upon
with matter, so majestic in repose, so beautiful in effort, is born
with the dramatic means to wholly represent the part. And it is
more pathetic and perhaps more instructive to consider the small
dog in his conscientious and imperfect efforts to outdo Sir Philip
Sidney. For the ideal of the dog is feudal and religious; the
ever-present polytheism, the whip-bearing Olympus of mankind, rules
them on the one hand; on the other, their singular difference of
size and strength among themselves effectually prevents the
appearance of the democratic notion. Or we might more exactly
compare their society to the curious spectacle presented by a
school - ushers, monitors, and big and little boys - qualified by
one circumstance, the introduction of the other sex. In each, we
should observe a somewhat similar tension of manner, and somewhat
similar points of honour. In each the larger animal keeps a
contemptuous good humour; in each the smaller annoys him with wasp-
like impudence, certain of practical immunity; in each we shall
find a double life producing double characters, and an excursive
and noisy heroism combined with a fair amount of practical
timidity. I have known dogs, and I have known school heroes that,
set aside the fur, could hardly have been told apart; and if we
desire to understand the chivalry of old, we must turn to the
school playfields or the dungheap where the dogs are trooping.

Woman, with the dog, has been long enfranchised. Incessant
massacre of female innocents has changed the proportions of the
sexes and perverted their relations. Thus, when we regard the
manners of the dog, we see a romantic and monogamous animal, once
perhaps as delicate as the cat, at war with impossible conditions.
Man has much to answer for; and the part he plays is yet more
damnable and parlous than Corin's in the eyes of Touchstone. But
his intervention has at least created an imperial situation for the
rare surviving ladies. In that society they reign without a rival:
conscious queens; and in the only instance of a canine wife-beater
that has ever fallen under my notice, the criminal was somewhat
excused by the circumstances of his story. He is a little, very
alert, well-bred, intelligent Skye, as black as a hat, with a wet
bramble for a nose and two cairngorms for eyes. To the human
observer, he is decidedly well-looking; but to the ladies of his
race he seems abhorrent. A thorough elaborate gentleman, of the
plume and sword-knot order, he was born with a nice sense of
gallantry to women. He took at their hands the most outrageous
treatment; I have heard him bleating like a sheep, I have seen him
streaming blood, and his ear tattered like a regimental banner; and
yet he would scorn to make reprisals. Nay more, when a human lady
upraised the contumelious whip against the very dame who had been
so cruelly misusing him, my little great-heart gave but one hoarse
cry and fell upon the tyrant tooth and nail. This is the tale of a
soul's tragedy. After three years of unavailing chivalry, he
suddenly, in one hour, threw off the yoke of obligation; had he
been Shakespeare he would then have written TROILUS AND CRESSIDA to
brand the offending sex; but being only a little dog, he began to
bite them. The surprise of the ladies whom he attacked indicated
the monstrosity of his offence; but he had fairly beaten off his
better angel, fairly committed moral suicide; for almost in the
same hour, throwing aside the last rags of decency, he proceeded to
attack the aged also. The fact is worth remark, showing, as it
does, that ethical laws are common both to dogs and men; and that
with both a single deliberate violation of the conscience loosens
all. "But while the lamp holds on to burn," says the paraphrase,
"the greatest sinner may return." I have been cheered to see
symptoms of effectual penitence in my sweet ruffian; and by the
handling that he accepted uncomplainingly the other day from an
indignant fair one, I begin to hope the period of STURM UND DRANG
is closed.

All these little gentlemen are subtle casuists. The duty to the
female dog is plain; but where competing duties rise, down they
will sit and study them out, like Jesuit confessors. I knew
another little Skye, somewhat plain in manner and appearance, but a
creature compact of amiability and solid wisdom. His family going
abroad for a winter, he was received for that period by an uncle in
the same city. The winter over, his own family home again, and his
own house (of which he was very proud) reopened, he found himself
in a dilemma between two conflicting duties of loyalty and
gratitude. His old friends were not to be neglected, but it seemed
hardly decent to desert the new. This was how he solved the
problem. Every morning, as soon as the door was opened, of posted
Coolin to his uncle's, visited the children in the nursery, saluted
the whole family, and was back at home in time for breakfast and
his bit of fish. Nor was this done without a sacrifice on his
part, sharply felt; for he had to forego the particular honour and
jewel of his day - his morning's walk with my father. And, perhaps
from this cause, he gradually wearied of and relaxed the practice,
and at length returned entirely to his ancient habits. But the
same decision served him in another and more distressing case of
divided duty, which happened not long after. He was not at all a
kitchen dog, but the cook had nursed him with unusual kindness
during the distemper; and though he did not adore her as he adored
my father - although (born snob) he was critically conscious of her
position as "only a servant" - he still cherished for her a special
gratitude. Well, the cook left, and retired some streets away to
lodgings of her own; and there was Coolin in precisely the same
situation with any young gentleman who has had the inestimable
benefit of a faithful nurse. The canine conscience did not solve
the problem with a pound of tea at Christmas. No longer content to
pay a flying visit, it was the whole forenoon that he dedicated to
his solitary friend. And so, day by day, he continued to comfort
her solitude until (for some reason which I could never understand
and cannot approve) he was kept locked up to break him of the
graceful habit. Here, it is not the similarity, it is the
difference, that is worthy of remark; the clearly marked degrees of
gratitude and the proportional duration of his visits. Anything
further removed from instinct it were hard to fancy; and one is
even stirred to a certain impatience with a character so destitute
of spontaneity, so passionless in justice, and so priggishly
obedient to the voice of reason.

There are not many dogs like this good Coolin, and not many people.
But the type is one well marked, both in the human and the canine
family. Gallantry was not his aim, but a solid and somewhat
oppressive respectability. He was a sworn foe to the unusual and
the conspicuous, a praiser of the golden mean, a kind of city uncle
modified by Cheeryble. And as he was precise and conscientious in
all the steps of his own blameless course, he looked for the same
precision and an even greater gravity in the bearing of his deity,
my father. It was no sinecure to be Coolin's idol: he was exacting
like a rigid parent; and at every sign of levity in the man whom he
respected, he announced loudly the death of virtue and the
proximate fall of the pillars of the earth.

I have called him a snob; but all dogs are so, though in varying
degrees. It is hard to follow their snobbery among themselves; for
though I think we can perceive distinctions of rank, we cannot
grasp what is the criterion. Thus in Edinburgh, in a good part of
the town, there were several distinct societies or clubs that met
in the morning to - the phrase is technical - to "rake the backets"
in a troop. A friend of mine, the master of three dogs, was one
day surprised to observe that they had left one club and joined
another; but whether it was a rise or a fall, and the result of an
invitation or an expulsion, was more than he could guess. And this
illustrates pointedly our ignorance of the real life of dogs, their
social ambitions and their social hierarchies. At least, in their
dealings with men they are not only conscious of sex, but of the
difference of station. And that in the most snobbish manner; for
the poor man's dog is not offended by the notice of the rich, and
keeps all his ugly feeling for those poorer or more ragged than his
master. And again, for every station they have an ideal of
behaviour, to which the master, under pain of derogation, will do
wisely to conform. How often has not a cold glance of an eye
informed me that my dog was disappointed; and how much more gladly
would he not have taken a beating than to be thus wounded in the
seat of piety!

I knew one disrespectable dog. He was far liker a cat; cared
little or nothing for men, with whom he merely coexisted as we do
with cattle, and was entirely devoted to the art of poaching. A
house would not hold him, and to live in a town was what he

He led, I believe, a life of troubled but genuine pleasure, and
perished beyond all question in a trap. But this was an exception,
a marked reversion to the ancestral type; like the hairy human
infant. The true dog of the nineteenth century, to judge by the
remainder of my fairly large acquaintance, is in love with
respectability. A street-dog was once adopted by a lady. While
still an Arab, he had done as Arabs do, gambolling in the mud,
charging into butchers' stalls, a cat-hunter, a sturdy beggar, a
common rogue and vagabond; but with his rise into society he laid
aside these inconsistent pleasures. He stole no more, he hunted no
more cats; and conscious of his collar, he ignored his old
companions. Yet the canine upper class was never brought to
recognise the upstart, and from that hour, except for human
countenance, he was alone. Friendless, shorn of his sports and the
habits of a lifetime, he still lived in a glory of happiness,
content with his acquired respectability, and with no care but to
support it solemnly. Are we to condemn or praise this self-made
dog? We praise his human brother. And thus to conquer vicious
habits is as rare with dogs as with men. With the more part, for
all their scruple-mongering and moral thought, the vices that are
born with them remain invincible throughout; and they live all
their years, glorying in their virtues, but still the slaves of
their defects. Thus the sage Coolin was a thief to the last; among
a thousand peccadilloes, a whole goose and a whole cold leg of
mutton lay upon his conscience; but Woggs, (7) whose soul's
shipwreck in the matter of gallantry I have recounted above, has
only twice been known to steal, and has often nobly conquered the
temptation. The eighth is his favourite commandment. There is
something painfully human in these unequal virtues and mortal
frailties of the best. Still more painful is the bearing of those
"stammering professors" in the house of sickness and under the
terror of death. It is beyond a doubt to me that, somehow or
other, the dog connects together, or confounds, the uneasiness of
sickness and the consciousness of guilt. To the pains of the body
he often adds the tortures of the conscience; and at these times
his haggard protestations form, in regard to the human deathbed, a
dreadful parody or parallel.

I once supposed that I had found an inverse relation between the
double etiquette which dogs obey; and that those who were most
addicted to the showy street life among other dogs were less
careful in the practice of home virtues for the tyrant man. But
the female dog, that mass of carneying affectations, shines equally
in either sphere; rules her rough posse of attendant swains with
unwearying tact and gusto; and with her master and mistress pushes
the arts of insinuation to their crowning point. The attention of
man and the regard of other dogs flatter (it would thus appear) the
same sensibility; but perhaps, if we could read the canine heart,
they would be found to flatter it in very different degrees. Dogs
live with man as courtiers round a monarch, steeped in the flattery
of his notice and enriched with sinecures. To push their favour in
this world of pickings and caresses is, perhaps, the business of
their lives; and their joys may lie outside. I am in despair at
our persistent ignorance. I read in the lives of our companions
the same processes of reason, the same antique and fatal conflicts
of the right against the wrong, and of unbitted nature with too
rigid custom; I see them with our weaknesses, vain, false,
inconstant against appetite, and with our one stalk of virtue,
devoted to the dream of an ideal; and yet, as they hurry by me on
the street with tail in air, or come singly to solicit my regard, I
must own the secret purport of their lives is still inscrutable to
man. Is man the friend, or is he the patron only? Have they
indeed forgotten nature's voice? or are those moments snatched from
courtiership when they touch noses with the tinker's mongrel, the
brief reward and pleasure of their artificial lives? Doubtless,
when man shares with his dog the toils of a profession and the
pleasures of an art, as with the shepherd or the poacher, the
affection warms and strengthens till it fills the soul. But
doubtless, also, the masters are, in many cases, the object of a
merely interested cultus, sitting aloft like Louis Quatorze, giving
and receiving flattery and favour; and the dogs, like the majority
of men, have but foregone their true existence and become the dupes
of their ambition.

Robert Louis Stevenson