Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Ambrose Bierce > Text of Dissertation On Dogs

An essay by Ambrose Bierce

A Dissertation On Dogs

Title:     A Dissertation On Dogs
Author: Ambrose Bierce [More Titles by Bierce]

OF ALL anachronisms and survivals, the love of the dog; is the most reasonless. Because, some thousands of years ago, when we wore other skins than our own and sat enthroned upon our haunches, tearing tangles of tendons from raw bones with our teeth, the dog ministered purveyorwise to our savage needs, we go on cherishing him to this day, when his only function is to lie sun-soaken on a door mat and insult us as we pass in and out, enamored of his fat superfluity. One dog in a thousand earns his bread--and takes beefsteak; the other nine hundred and ninety-nine we maintain, by cheating the poor, in the style suitable to their state.

The trouble with the modern dog is that he is the same old dog. Not an inch has the rascal advanced along the line of evolution. We have ceased to squat upon our naked haunches and gnaw raw bones, but this companion of the childhood of the race, this vestigial remnant of _juventus mundi_ this dismal anachronism, this veteran inharmony of the scheme of things, the dog, has abated no jot nor tittle of his unthinkable objection-ableness since the morning stars sang together and he had sat up all night to deflate a lung at the performance. Possibly he may some time be improved otherwise than by effacement, but at present he is still in that early stage of reform that is not incompatible with a mouthful of reformer.

The dog is a detestable quadruped. He knows more ways to be unmentionable than can be suppressed in seven languages.

The word "dog" is a term of contempt the world over. Poets have sung and prosaists have prosed of the virtues of individual dogs, but nobody has had the hardihood to eulogize the species. No man loves the Dog; he loves his own dog or dogs, and there he stops; the force of perverted affection can no further go. He loves his own dog partly because that thrifty creature, ever cadging when not maurauding, tickles his vanity by fawning upon him as the visible source of steaks and bones; and partly because the graceless beast insults everybody else, harming as many as he dares. The dog is an encampment of fleas, and a reservoir of sinful smells. He is prone to bad manners as the sparks fly upward. He has no discrimination; his loyalty is given to the person that feeds him, be the same a blackguard or a murderer's mother. He fights for his master without regard to the justice of the quarrel--wherein he is no better than a patriot or a paid soldier. There are men who are proud of a dog's love--and dogs love that kind of men. There are men who, having the privilege of loving women, insult them by loving dogs; and there are women who forgive and respect their canine rivals. Women, I am told, are true cynolaters; they adore not only dogs, but Dog--not only their own horrible little beasts, but those of others. But women will love anything; they love men who love dogs. I sometimes wonder how it is that of all our women among whom the dog fad is prevalent none have incurred the husband fad, or the child fad. Possibly there are exceptions, but it seems to be a rule that the female heart which has a dog in it is without other lodgers. There is not, I suppose, a very wild and importunate demand for accommodation. For my part, I do not know which is the less desirable, the tenant or the tenement There are dogs that submit to be kissed by women base enough to kiss them; but they have a secret, coarse revenge. For the dog is a joker, withal, gifted with as much humor as is consistent with biting.

Miss Louise Imogen Guiney has replied to Mrs. Meynell's proposal to abolish the dog--a proposal which Miss Guiney has the originality to call "original." Divested of its "literature," Miss Guiney's plea for the defendant consists, essentially, of the following assertions: (1) Dogs are whatever their masters are. (2) They bite only those who fear them. (3) Really vicious dogs are not found nearer than Constantinople. (4) Only wronged dogs go mad, and hydrophobia is retaliation. (5) In actions for damages for dog-bites judicial prejudice is against the dog. (6) "Dogs are continually saving children from death." (7) Association with dogs begets piety, tenderness, mercy, loyalty, and so forth; in brief, the dog is an elevating influence: "to walk modestly at a dog's heels is a certificate of merit!" As to that last, if Miss Guiney had ever observed the dog himself walking modestly at the heels of another dog she would perhaps have wished that it was not the custom of her sex to seal the certificate of merit with a kiss.

In all this absurd woman's statements, thus fairly epitomized, there is not one that is true--not one of which the essential falsity is not evident, obvious, conspicuous to even the most delinquent observation. Yet with the smartness and smirk of a graduating seminary girl refuting Epicurus she marshals them against the awful truth that every year in Europe and the United States alone more than five thousand human beings the of hydrophobia--a fact which her controversial conscience does not permit her to mention. The names on this needless death-roll are mostly those of children, the sins of whose parents in cherishing their own hereditary love of dogs is visited upon their children because they have not the intelligence and agility to get out of the way. Or perhaps they lack that tranquil courage upon which Miss Guiney relies to avert the canine tooth from her own inedible shank.

Finally this amusing illogician, this type and example of the female controversialist, has the hardihood to hope that there may be fathers who can see their children the the horrible death of hydrophobia without wishing "to exile man's best ideal of fidelity from the hearthstones of civilization." If we must have an "ideal of fidelity" why not find it, not in the dog that kills the child, but in the father that kills the dog. The profit of maintaining a standard and pattern of the virtues (at considerable expense in the case of this insatiable canine consumer) may be great, but are we so hard pushed that we must go to the animals for it? In life and letters are there no men and women whose names kindle enthusiasm and emulation? Is fidelity, is devotion, is self-sacrifice unknown among ourselves? As a model of the higher virtues why will not one's mother serve at a pinch? And what is the matter with Miss Guiney herself? She is faithful, at least to dogs, whatever she may be to the hundreds of American children inevitably foredoomed to a death of unthinkable agony.

There is perhaps a hope that when the sun's returning flame shall gild the hither end of the thirtieth century this savage and filthy brute, the dog, will have ceased to "banquet on through a whole year" of human fat and lean; that he will have been gathered to his variously unworthy fathers to give an account of the deeds done in body of man. In the meantime, those of us who have not the enlightened understanding to be enamored of him may endure with such fortitude as we can command his feats of tooth among the shins and throats of those who have; we ourselves are so few that there is a strong numerical presumption of personal immunity.

It is well to have a clear understanding of such inconveniences as may be expected to ensue from dog-bites. That inconveniences and even discomforts do sometimes flow from, or at least follow, the mischance of being bitten by dogs, even the sturdiest champion of "man's best friend" will admit when not heated fay controversy. True, he is disposed to sympathy for those incurring the inconveniences and discomforts, but against apparent incompassion may be offset his indubitable sympathy with the dog. No one is altogether heartless.

Amongst the several disadvantages of a close personal connection with the canine tooth, the disorder known as hydrophobia has long held an undisputed primacy. The existence of dus ailment is attested by so many witnesses, many of whom, belonging to the profession of medicine, speak with a certain authority, that even the breeders and lovers of snap-dogs are compelled reluctantly to concede it, though as a rule they stoutly deny that it is imparted by the dog. In their view, hydrophobia is a theory, not a condition. The patient imagines himself to have it, and acting upon that unsupported assumption or hypothesis, suffers and dies in the attempt to square his conduct with his opinions.

It seems there is firmer ground for their view of the matter than the rest of us have been willing to admit There is such a thing, doubtless, as hydrophobia proper, but also there is such another thing as pseudo-hydrophobia, or hydrophobia improper.

Pseudo-hydrophobia, the physicians explain, is caused by fear of hydrophobia. The patient, having been chewed by a healthy and harmless dog, broods upon his imaginary peril, solicitously watches his imaginary symptoms, and, finally, persuading himself of their reality, puts them on exhibition, as he understands them. He runs about (when permitted) on his hands and knees, growls, barks, howls, and in default of a tail wags the part of him where it would be if he had one. In a few days he is gone before, a victim to his lack of confidence in man's best friend.

The number of cases of pseudo-hydrophobia, relatively, to those of true hydrophobia, is not definitely known, the medical records having been imperfectly made, and never collated; champions of the snap-dog, as intimated, believe it is many to nothing. That being so (they argue), the animal is entirely exonerated, and leaves the discussion without a stain upon his reputation.

But that is feeble reasoning. Even if we grant their premises we can not embrace their conclusion. In the first place, it hurts to be bitten by a dog, as the dog himself audibly confesses when bitten by another dog. Furthermore, pseudo-hydrophobia is quite as fatal as if it were a legitimate product of the bite, not a result of the terror which that mischance inspires.

Human nature being what it is, and well known to the dog to be what it is, we have a right to expect that the creature will take our weaknesses into consideration--that he will respect our addiction to reasonless panic, even as we respect his when, as we commonly do, we refrain from attaching tinware to his tail. A dog that runs himself to death to evade a kitchen utensil which could not possibly harm him, and which if he did not flee would not pursue, is the author of his own undoing in precisely the same sense as is the victim of pseudo-hydrophobia. He is slain by a theory, not a condition. Yet the wicked boy that set him going is not blameless, and no one would be so zealous and strenuous in his prosecution as the cynolater, the adorer of dogs, the person who holds them guileless of pseudo-hydrophobia.

Mr. Nicholas Smith, while United States Consul at Liege, wrote, or caused to be written, an official report, wickedly, willfully and maliciously designed to abridge the privileges, augment the ills and impair the honorable status of the domestic dog. In the very beginning of this report Mr. Smith manifests his animus by stigmatizing the domestic dog as an "hereditary loafer;" and having hurled the allegation, affirms "the dawn of a [Belgian] new era" wherein the pampered menial will loaf no more. There is to be no more sun-soaking on door mats having a southern exposure, no more usurpation of the warmest segment of the family circle, no more successful personal solicitation of cheer at the domestic board. The dog's place in the social scale is no longer to be determined by consideration of sentiment, but will be the result of cold commercial calculation, and so fixed as best to serve the ends of industrial expediency. All this in Belgium, where the dog is already in active service as a beast of burden and draught; doubtless the transition to that humble condition from his present and immemorial social elevation in less advanced countries will be slow and characterized by bitter factional strife. America, especially, though ever accessible to the infection of new and profitable ideas, will be angularly slow to accept so radical a subversion of a social superstructure that almost may be said to rest upon the domestic dog as a basic verity.

The dogs are our only true "leisure class" (for even the tramps are sometimes compelled to engage in such simple industries as are possible within the "precincts" of the county jail) and we are justly proud of them. They toil not, neither spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not a dog. Instead of making them hewers of wood and drawers of water, it would be more consonant with the Anglomaniacal and general Old World spirit, now so dominant in the councils of the nation, to make them "hereditary legislators." And Mr. Smith must permit me to add, with a special significance, that history records an instance of even a horse making a fairly good Consul.

Mr. Smith avers with obvious and impudent satisfaction that in Liege twice as many draught dogs as horses are seen in the streets, attached to vehicles. He regards "a gaily painted cart" drawn by "a well fed dog" and driven by a well fed (and gaily painted) woman as a "pleasing vision." I do not; I should prefer to see the dog sitting at the receipt of steaks and chops and the lady devoting herself to the amelioration of the condition of the universe, and the manufacture of poetry and stories that are not true. A more pleasing vision, too, one endeared to eye and heart by immemorial use and wont, is that of stranger and dog indulging in the pleasures of the chase--stranger a little ahead--while the woman in the case manifests a characteristically compassionate solicitude lest the gentleman's trousers do not match Fido's mustache. It is, indeed, impossible to regard with any degree of approval the degradation to commercial utility of two so noble animals as Dog and Woman; and if Man had joined them together by driving-reins I should hope that God would put them asunder, even if the reins were held by Dog. There would no doubt be a distinct gain as well as a certain artistic fitness in unyoking the strong-minded female of our species from the Chariot of Progress and yoking her to the apple-cart or fish-wagon, and--but that is another story; the imminence of the draughtwoman is not foreshadowed in the report of our Consul at Liege.

Mr. Smith's estimate of the number of dogs in this country at 7,000,000 is a "conservative" one, it must be confessed, and can hardly have been based on observations by moonlight in a suburban village; his estimate of the effective strength of the average dog at 500 pounds is probably about right, as will be attested by any intelligent boy who in campaigns against orchards has experienced detention by the Cerberi of the places. Taking his own figures Mr. Smith calculates that we have in this country 3,500,000,000 pounds of "idle dog power." But this statement is more ingenious than ingenuous; it gives, as doubtless it was intended to give, the impression that we have only idle dogs, whereas of all mundane forces the domestic dog is most easily stirred to action. His expense of energy in pursuit of the harmless, necessary flea, for example, is prodigious; and he is not infrequently seen in chase of his own tail, with an activity scarcely inferior. If there is anything worth while in accepted theories of the conversion and conservation of force these gigantic energies are by no means wasted; they appear as heat, light and electricity, modifying climate, reducing gas bills and assisting in propulsion of street cars. Even in baying the moon and insulting visitors and bypassers the dog releases a certain amount of vibratory force which through various mutations of its wave-length, may do its part in cooking a steak or gratifying the olfactory nerve by throwing fresh perfume on the violet. Evidently the commercial advantages of deposing the dog from the position of Exalted Personage and subduing him to that of Motor would not be all clear gain. He would no longer have the spirit to send, Whitmanwise, his barbarous but beneficent yawp over the housetops, nor the leisure to throw off vast quantities of energy by centrifugal efforts at the conquest of his tail. As to the fleas, he would accept them with apathetic satisfaction as preventives of thought upon his fallen fortunes.

Having observed with attention and considered with seriousness the London _Daily News_ declares its conviction that the dog, as we have the happiness to know him, is dreadfully bored by civilization. This is one of the gravest accusations that the friends of progress and light have been called out to meet--a challenge that it is impossible to ignore and unprofitable to evade; for the dog as we have the happiness to know him is the only dog that we have the happiness really to know. The wolf is hardly a dog within the meaning of the law, nor is the scalp-yielding coyote, whether he howls or merely sings and plays the piano; moreover, these are beyond the pale of civilization and outside the scope of our sympathies.

With the dog it is different His place is among us; he is with us and of us--a part of our life and love. If we are maintaining and promoting a condition of things that gives him "that tired feeling" it is befitting that we mend our ways lest, shaking the carpet dust from his feet and the tenderloin steaks from his teeth, he depart from our midst and connect himself with the enchanted life of the thrilling barbarian. We can not afford to lose him. The cynophobes may call him a "survival" and sneer at his exhausted mandate--albeit, as Darwin points out, they are indebted for their sneer to his own habit of uncovering his teeth to bite; they may seek to cast opprobrium upon the nature of our affection for him by pronouncing it hereditary--a bequest from our primitive ancestors, for whom he performed important service in other ways than depriving visitors of their tendons; but quite the same we should miss him at his meal time and in the (but for him) silent watches of the night. We should miss his bark and his bite, the feel of his forefeet upon our shirt-fronts, the frou-frou of his dusty sides against our nether habiliments. More than all, we should miss and mourn that visible yearning for chops and steaks, which he has persuaded us to accept as the lovelight of his eye and a tribute to our personal worth. We must keep the dog, and to that end find means to abate his weariness of us and our ways.

Doubtless much might be done to reclaim our dogs from their uncheerful state of mind by abstention from debate on imperialism; by excluding them from the churches, at least during the sermons; by keeping them off the streets and out of hearing when rites of prostration are in performance before visiting notables; by forbidding anyone to read aloud in their hearing the sensational articles in the newspapers, and by educating them to the belief that Labor and Capital are illusions. A limitation of the annual output of popular novels would undoubtedly reduce the dejection, which could be still further mitigated by abolition of the more successful magazines. If the dialect story or poem could be prohibited, under severe penalties, the sum of night-howling (erroneously attributed to lunar influence) would experience an audible decrement, which, also, would enable the fire department to augment its own uproar without reproach. There is, indeed, a considerable number of ways in which we might effect a double reform--promoting the advantage of Man, as well as medicating the mental fatigue of Dog. For another example, it would be "a boon and a blessing to man" if Society would put to death, or at least banish, the mill-man or manufacturer who persists in apprising the entire community many times a day by means of a steam whistle that it is time for his oppressed employees (every one of whom has a gold watch) to go to work or to leave off. Such things not only make a dog tired, they make a man mad. They answer with an accented affirmative Truthful James' plaintive inquiry,

"Is civilization a failure,
Or is the Caucasian played out?"

Unquestionably, from his advantageous point of view as a looker-on at the game, the dog is justified in the conviction that they are.

[The end]
Ambrose Bierce's essay: A Dissertation On Dogs