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Loving dogs doesn’t make you lovable

If you love dogs it doesn’t make you a better person than someone who’s never owned one, says Laura Marcus.

Why do dog owners think they’re better people than those who don’t own a dog? As if owning an animal somehow makes you superior?

Much self-righteous indignation was spent on outgoing US President Donald Trump because he was the first president since William McKinley in 1897 not to take a dog into the White House. Never mind that Trump tried to destroy democracy in America. Never mind he brought the country to the very edge of Fascism. No. The crime that makes Donald Trump The Worst Person On Earth is that he doesn’t like dogs.

Who made this rule that to be a person of regard you have to be a dog owner? Owning a pet doesn’t make you a better human being or even a particularly more interesting one. It just makes you a person who likes to own an animal. Those of us who eschew animal ownership are not worse people. We’re just people who don’t believe in owning animals.

According to the Washington Post though over the last century the tradition of presidential dogs has became so formalised that when Scott Walker, then Republican governor of Wisconsin, ran for president in 2016, his allergy to dogs was seen as a liability!

“How does the president not have a dog? He’s the first president in 120 years that doesn’t have a dog in the White House.” Barbra Streisand asked in an interview with the LA Times in 2019. Of all the things she could find to criticise Trump for she chose that. Why? Would having a dog have made Trump a better president? Would his critics have eased up on him a bit if he had? “So okay he’s the worst president we’ve ever had but you gotta hand it to him. The man loves dogs!”

Boris Johnson scored himself a puppy when he entered Number Ten perhaps hoping it would make him seem a better person. I judge him on his performance as our prime minister. I don’t give a damn whether he’s an animal lover or not.

It’s actually very insulting to suggest that because President-Elect Joe Biden is taking a dog into the White House with him – and Obama and Clinton had dogs too – they’re better people and were better presidents. Nixon had several dogs too so that scotches the argument dog owners make better presidents.

We’ve seen a similar case made for parents making better prime ministers than those who are childless. Remember Andrea Leadsom saying she’d be a better leader of our country than Theresa May because May didn’t have children. So insulting was that remark that Leadsom had to stand down. I don’t think May had a pet either. Good for her! For all the reasons I thought May’s premiership was a disaster – and how shall we count the ways!? – not having children or a dog wasn’t even on the tail end of her report card.

When we judge people by these superficial measures we give them an easy way into our affections and regard. That’s why Johnson got himself a pooch. He’s an ace manipulator and because so many Brits are dotty about animals this gave him, he hoped, a short cut into high regard.

For mostly secular Brits, being an animal lover is like a religion. Dare to criticise pet ownership in any way and you’re inviting a whole heap of opprobrium onto your head. It’s easier to criticise people’s children! “Yeah you’re right! They are a bit of a handful aren’t they!” But say something mean about Rover and you’re worse than ten thousand Satans.

Particularly annoying as well as baffling are those who say the more they know people the better they like animals. Maybe try harder with people? Of course communicating with an animal is easier than humans. They don’t answer back. Dogs look lovingly at any owner that provides them with food, warmth and shelter. Cats of course don’t give a damn about you and it’s foolish to imagine they do. Like dogs they love the food and cosseted life you give them. But a creature that cannot communicate with you cannot tell you how it feels about you. It’s purely projection on your part.

I get how much people’s pets mean to them. Truly I do. I’ll always retweet shoutouts on Twitter for people’s beloved lost pets. And I hope they are reunited as I know some are. I understand the companionship they give. Nor do I hate animals. I just prefer the company of my own species, challenging, infuriating, deeply puzzling and bewildering as it so often is. A pet could never give me what human contact does. Enjoy your pets if you have them. Just don’t assume it makes you a better human being than those who don’t have pets.

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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