Two recent essays discuss important topics about our canine companions and us.
“For by our widespread policies of desexing dogs, we are not just removing their gonads: we are changing their bodies, their health and their behavior—not always for the better. We are tacitly implying that dogs should be asexual, in body and mind. We are altering the future of the species, to their peril … But we are the ones who need fixing.” (Dr. Alexandra Horowitz)
Where’s the dogs’ well-being in dog breeding and neutering?
It seems like almost daily I receive something in my email inbox about some aspect of dog behavior or domestication—how dogs became dogs, or dog-human relationships. Yesterday was no exception. I woke up to messages about two essays, both available online for free, that raise interesting questions about these and other related topics. The first, by dog researcher Alexandra Horowitz, is “Dogs Are Not Here for Our Convenience: Spaying and neutering puppies shouldn’t be standard policy—and it isn’t automatically the ‘responsible’ choice, either.’ The second is by science writer Jason Bittel — “As humans shaped dogs’ bodies, we also altered their brains.” Below, I focus on Horowitz’s essay, but I strongly recommend Bittel’s piece as well, because it discusses new research that shows there are differences in the brains of dogs of different breeds.
It’s likely that Horowitz’s fact-filled piece will raise the hackles of people who think that spaying and neutering—making dogs “asexual,” as she puts it—should be standard operation procedure and that it’s irresponsible not to do so. However, this view isn’t supported by research on the topic. (Also see “Fixing Male Dogs Isn’t a Proven Quick Cure-All, Say Vets,” “Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water: Could Widespread Neutering of Companion Dogs Cause Problems at a Population Level?“, and “Should We Still Make Future Dogs in a Crowded Canine World?)
Horowitz also notes that castrating dogs isn’t standard operating procedure in Europe. She writes, “Until recently, it was illegal to desex a dog in Norway. Only seven percent of Swedish dogs are desexed (compared with more than 80 percent in the United States). Switzerland has a clause in its Animal Protection Act honoring the ‘dignity of the animal,’ and forbidding any pain, suffering or harm, such as would be incurred by desexing. Yet none of these countries has a problem with excessive stray dogs.” I’ve conducted many workshops on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs throughout Europe and always have been impressed by how many intact dogs, male and female, can easily get along with one another even when they first meet. On two occasions I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told by my hosts that most, if not all of the dogs I would meet weren’t fixed, and frankly, I was shocked and pleased by how well they all got along. On one occasion there were more than 50 dogs, and aside from a very few brief minor scuffles, none of which were especially assertive or aggressive, everything was pretty calm. My narrow views based on what I’d been told on this side of the Atlantic weren’t supported, and I was thrilled to experience this lesson up-close-and-personal. Horowitz also shows how fixing dogs not only changes their anatomy, but also their behavior and susceptibility to contracting various diseases.
We must take into account dogs’ well-being rather than selfish human convenience and desires.
Among the significant points raised in Horowitz’s essay is that we need to take responsibility for our dogs’ behavior. She writes, “I see our policies in the United States as revealing a lot about us—and what it reveals isn’t pretty. For one thing, we value convenience, and desexing a dog is convenient for us.” How true. Horowitz also notes that while commercial breeders who are guilty of a good deal of inbreeding can make as many dogs as they like, it’s shelter dogs who get the knife. This works against the healthy evolution of our canine companions.
All in all, if someone isn’t ready to accept the huge responsibility of taking a dog into their homes and hearts, they shouldn’t do so. It’s okay to say, “No, I’m not ready or simply can’t handle it.” Often, it’s because people don’t take the time to assess if they’re really ready to bring another animal into their home and accept the huge responsibility this decision entails that their companion suffers in many different ways, including getting fixed. (See “Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?“) We must become fluent in dog and learn what they want and need from us, and surely this doesn’t mean being castrated. (See “Calling All Dogs to a ‘Talkout’ Summit to Speak Their Hearts.”) We need to honor the strong emotional connection that exists between dogs and their humans and that they depend on our goodwill for their well-being. (See “Emotional Contagion From the Heart Between Humans and Dogs.”)
Swapping mantras: Putting dog-centrism and ethics into practice on behalf of dogs
Horowitz concludes, “As a society, we are endorsing the idea that dogs come without complicated needs and messy bodily functions—because after all, that was ‘fixed.'” She’s also right on the mark when she writes, “But we are the ones who need fixing,” and, “Spay-neuter has become the automatic mantra of those concerned with the lives of dogs.”
We must take responsibility for the dogs for whose existence we are responsible and we need to come to terms with the fact that neutering them far too often is more for us than for them. What if the tables were turned? In her book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, Jessica Pierce offers more discussion about these and other similar ethical issues. She likewise writes, “Spay/neuter is the mantra of veterinarians, the nation’s humane organizations, and the majority of animal activists.”article continues after advertisement
Stay tuned for further discussions of these and other difficult and touchy issues centering on the human control of dog breeding and neutering. It’s high time to give close and meaningful attention to alternatives to continuing to make future dogs who will live less than optimal lives in various human environs. And it’s also high time to stop desexing them because it’s convenient for us to do so while they have no say about what’s happening to their gonads, behavior, brains, and bodies.
A good dog-centric rule-of-thumb and mantra for the future is to let dogs be dogs, allow them to remain intact, and stop forcing them to be who we want them to be because it makes life easy for us.