Thursday, 19 June 2014

Why Aren't Dog Licences Like Drivers' Licenses?

What if we couldn�t just go out and buy a puppy whenever we wanted one?  Is it really okay to pick up a Chihuahua with your cheeseburger, or a Groenendael with the groceries?  

In this article, I�ll be arguing the case for making it more difficult to own a dog.  Dog licenses should be like drivers� licences - granted subject to passing a test to demonstrate that you know enough about basic animal welfare to give a dog a good life, and that you don�t intend to engage in any dangerous practices.

The question of whether dog ownership should be denied to some people is often put in terms of whether dogs are rightly seen as property.  Legally, all animals are property, and so people argue that if we have a right to own property, we must therefore have a right to own a dog.  On the other hand, some people claim that animals are living beings and are therefore better seen as something closer to a family member than an object.  

I�m going to nearly sidestep this particular thorny issue by offering one argument for each side.  I�ll argue that if dogs are fairly seen as property, this still doesn�t mean that people have a simple right to own one - the legal system distinguishes between different kinds of things we can own, and puts restrictions on some of them.  And, I�ll argue that if dogs are better seen as family members rather than property, this doesn�t give us an automatic right to own them like we have a right to family life, because the basis for the right to have our own children doesn�t apply to dogs.  

After I�ve given these arguments, I�ll then discuss what I see as the major obstacle to introducing a dog license, which is the question of how to avoid prejudice. 

Dogs Are Property

Earlier this year I read a blog post that claimed that the reason we all have a right to go out and buy a dog whenever we want to, is simply that dogs are property, and we all have the unconditional right to own property without government interference.  Unfortunately, the author of this article overlooked a class of rights that are conditional, which are rights to own dangerous articles.  

The most common example of this is a car.  Of course, everyone has the right to buy and own a car, but only people with drivers� licenses have the right to drive.  We can only legally do what the car is designed to do when we�ve proven to the government that we understand the rules of the road in theory and in practice.  Or, think about a gun license - in many countries a person can only own a gun when they can prove that they�ve undertaken some training, otherwise they are committing a crime.  

In both cases, the danger of letting someone have an unconditional right to own or operate an object merits interference.  Dogs can also be dangerous, the frequency of attacks on children show this.  The danger an untrained, poorly cared-for dog can pose also merits putting up a bar for people to clear before they can legally own one.  This doesn�t mean that people don�t have the right to own a dog, only that dogs ought to be classified as a different kind of property for the protection of others.  If we make getting a dog license contingent on proving you have a basic knowledge of dog welfare and skillset for handing a dog, we could potentially reduce the number of attacks.  

Dogs Are Not Property

This last argument is unlikely to convince people who just reject the idea that a living being can fairly be seen as someone else�s property, subject to the same rights as couches or minivans.  

So let�s say that any right we have to adopt or purchase a dog doesn�t stem from property-rights.  Where else might it come from?  One common paradigm is that dogs are family members.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights accords all humans the right to found a family, so therefore we all ought to have the right to take a dog into our homes.  

The key point in an argument against this is that the right to found a family was originally intended as a right to have children of one�s own.  This right to reproduce - to have a part in the creation of a life that carries some of your genes forward into the future - is not quite the same as a right to take a child into your home.  This becomes clear when we look at adoption agencies.  Most agencies from governments and charities have criteria that any potential adopters have to meet before they can be allowed to even meet a child in their system.  In fact, the stringency of these guidelines has been a hot topic in the UK in recent years, because it has been argued that they prevent children finding permanent placements in families.   

My point is, the reason it is okay for adoption agencies to lay out rules and make prospective adopters go through an often arduous process, whereas there is almost no restriction on who can conceive and raise children that are biologically their own, is because having a child of one�s own is seen as a fundamental part of human life.  To deny people that would be to remove their genes from the species in the future, something that veers dangerously close to eugenics.*

It�s clear that buying or adopting a dog has no such biological distinction attached - requiring stricter testing for people who want to buy a dog rather than rescue one seems more like levelling the playing field than denying a fundamental part of human life.  There�s no relevant difference between acquiring a dog from a rescue or from a breeder, so there should be no issue in being required to pass the same tests no matter where you get your dog.

A Problem with Prejudice

So far I�ve argued that making it more difficult to own a dog through requiring that potential owners demonstrate basic knowledge and skills is compatible with seeing dogs as property and seeing them as family members.  Now I will raise a worry about how such a system could be used to reinforce socioeconomic bias.  I�ll make the general case by giving a specific example.  

When my dog was experiencing gastrointestinal issues as a puppy, I signed up to a lot of dog food forums and groups. I was surprised by how heated some of the debates got - whether raw food was better than cooked, whether vegetables and carbohydrates were necessary, anything that mentioned bones - but the one thing everyone seemed to tacitly agree on was that if you didn�t feed your dog expensive food, you were a Bad Person.  If it wasn�t grain-free, artisan-made, air-dried, or fresh from the local organic farm, you might as well be feeding Rex shredded cardboard.  This made the price of admission so high that basically only middle-class people were thought of as good dog owners.  

Dog food is a vital part of dog welfare, so any kind of dog license testing would probably involve a question about feeding.  And, the armchair nutrition experts are a vociferous group, so if there was any consultation about the substance of the test, you can guarantee they�d try to weight it in favour of their own views.

The same goes for dog training.  Some shelters mandate that adopters sign their new pups up for obedience classes, which aren�t cheap.  Nor are they convenient if you don�t own a car - when I got my puppy, the nearest obedience class was a half-hour bus ride away, so by the time we arrived she was already over threshold.  Should all dogs have to go to (expensive) training as a condition for ownership?  What if the family doesn�t speak English, but the trainer doesn�t speak any other language?  Should all dogs have an (expensive) yard rather than an apartment, and an (expensive) insurance policy?  The list goes on.  

The point is, I believe that it�s possible for people from any background to give a dog a good life, and I worry that although introducing a dog license system like we have for drivers� licenses could be beneficial, there is also the risk of making dog ownership an elite activity that people from tougher neighborhoods, with less money and less education, are automatically precluded from.  

So, although there is a case to be made for tougher restrictions on owning a dog, we have to be careful that these restrictions are really doing what we want - weeding out potential abusers and minimizing the risk to dog and human welfare.  

This being said, if the proper care were taken to only include the most important parts of dog welfare and safety on the test, I believe that a dog license system could do a lot of good.  It would eliminate impulse buying of puppies, which in turn would impact puppy mills, and go a long way to identifying potential abusers.  There is no rights-based argument against taking such action, although I highly doubt there will ever be a public base of support for it. 

*Note here that I�m not saying adoption �doesn�t count� as having a child of one�s own, merely that there is a genetic basis for the right to reproduce that can account for the reason we don�t need to pass any tests to conceive and bear children, whereas denying inappropriate families the chance to adopt a child seems like the right thing to do.  

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Dogs Are Not People, But That's Okay

In the last few months, there has been a slew of fascinating new data about the emotional capacities of dogs.  The first comes from scientists� new-found ability to image canine brains whilst they are conscious and alert. We can now be more sure that dogs share many of the same emotions humans do, including love. This new data was summarized in an article in the New York Times, entitled �Dogs are people, too�, a sentiment that has been picked up by animal rights activists, dog lovers and dog trainers.

The second stream of data comes from Alexandra Horowitz and her team of canine behavioral researchers at Barnard.  Horowitz designed an experiment that showed the �guilty look� people see when they come home to find their dog in the middle of a pile of shredded couch cushions, for example, only happens when the dog is being scolded.  It is not correlated with whether the dog actually did anything �wrong�, only with the owner�s reaction to the dog.

Trainers have taken this to show two things.  First, that Horowitz has proven that dogs do not feel guilt at all.  Second, that because dogs cannot link actions to consequences over more than a few seconds and because the �guilty look� isn�t an indicator that the dog know it has done something wrong, we shouldn�t punish dogs when we get home to find a roomful of cushion stuffing.

Furthermore, trainers have taken this to indicate that we shouldn�t punish dogs at all, since it�s not true that they �know what they ought to do�.  Dogs shouldn�t be held responsible for their actions like humans are, even though dogs can behave as if they feel guilt, which is a moral emotion.

The way these two streams of new data about what dogs are have been interpreted has lead to a tension.  On the one hand, there is the desire to show that dogs have so many similar emotions to humans that they ought to be seen as people too. On the other, we want to show that dogs ought not be blamed or punished for their actions like we blame and punish people, because doing so is unjust. 

If dogs are people, but we don�t hold them responsible, then it�s meaningless to claim that dogs are people in the first place.  To say that a dog is a person diminishes what personhood is, and ultimately threatens to undermine both the welfare of dogs and the unique responsibilities of humans.  

What is a person? 

How do we define a person?  The core of my preferred definition is that only a person can be held morally responsible for their actions. Only a person can make promises and be expected to keep them.  Without persons, there would be no good and evil, no right and wrong, just nature.  Being able to be held accountable for failing to live up to moral standards of behavior is what separates persons from the rest of life on Earth, and what gives persons a unique responsibility to do the right thing. 

On this definition, most animals are not persons and not all humans are persons.*  We can use promise-making and accountability to draw a bright line between normal adult humans and everything else.

But wait, doesn�t this collapse into �speciesism�, the unfair privileging of one species above others?  Any assertion that persons and non-persons belong in different categories - that they are different in kind as well as in degree - is now confidently waved away as a simple error in reasoning.

My definition of a person does not amount to speciesism for two reasons.  First, because it is an irrelevance that many people claim only humans can be persons - persons could be aliens, angels or apes and still have this unique place in the world.  Second, because there is a difference between being expected to act a certain way, and being entitled to a certain kind of treatment.  We don't have to claim that only persons deserve to be treated fairly and without cruelty, but we can claim that only actions that persons do ought to be appraised as good or evil, fair or cruel.  

To say that persons are unique is not fundamentally unfair.  Persons are expected to act morally, and they are also entitled to be treated well by other persons.  Non-persons are not expected to be able to make promises, uphold the rights of others or do their duty, but they are still entitled to good treatment because of other features they have.  

Dogs aren�t people because dogs can�t make promises or be held morally responsible for their actions.   This doesn�t mean that dogs aren�t entitled to be treated well; far from it.  Most dogs deserve better than their lot in life.  To say that they dogs are people threatens to have the opposite effect to the one intended by dog trainers.  Instead of increasing understanding and empathy for dogs, we are in danger of forcing them into a human scheme of values.

An insidious speciesism 

When I adopted my first dog as a child, I spent the journey home in the car telling her all the things I promised to do for her.  I promised to feed her, walk her, be her friend, and make her happy.  I didn�t expect her to promise anything in return; how could she?  Dogs don�t choose who rescues or buys them, and they don�t have a say in the rules of their new home.   Dogs make no promises about their own behavior - they don�t promise not to guard the food bowl, or growl at the baby, or come with you everywhere without fuss.  Seeing dogs as people is an insidious harm because it threatens to see dogs as parties to a covenant, and therefore subject to blame and the loss of entitlements if they break that covenant.  

Seeing dogs as people also gives them little room for those behaviors that we can�t fit into the human-like rhetoric of victimhood, past abuse, or mental illness - the kinds of aggression that don�t come from fear, the prey drive, in short, the �animality� of the dog.  When a dog deviates from the human-like mould we�ve force him into, when he chases and kills the family cat, does he deserve less good treatment?  Is he a �bad dog� because he no longer appears to be the simple little person, full of love, that the �dogs are people too� message would characterise him as?  This is closer to dangerous speciesism than the claim that there is something unique about humans that gives us special responsibilities to other creatures.

We humans have a responsibility not to see animals as worth bothering with only to the extent that they provide us with good feelings or resemble the parts of ourselves we like. Animals are an Other that we have to learn to relate to on their terms as well as on ours.  The way a dog, pig, rabbit, or snail perceives and processes the world is radically different from our own worldview, and we should never lose sight of this difference in our dealings with them.  We have a duty to treat living things well because we as persons have the capacity to be good that is unrivalled anywhere else in nature, not because they are people.  

*Great apes and cetaceans are candidates for personhood; although their lack of language makes it difficult to know whether they can keep promises, their cognitive abilities are such that there is an argument to extend personhood to them.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Case for Genetically Modifying Dogs

Since the creation of the first transgenic mouse in the early 1980s, there has been a great debate over whether it is ethical to deliberately alter animals at the genetic level.  In the current climate, just mentioning the term �GMO� is enough to send many people into a slavering frenzy.  Pictures like this are met with repugnance as well as with wonder at human scientific ability:

The first glow in the dark rabbits were produced at the University of Hawai'i - Manoa in 2013. 

These initial research projects sparked discussion over what the limits of our interference in animal genetics ought to be; there are arguments about the wrongness of �playing God� as well as the threat of a �slippery slope� into Huxley�s Brave New World for humans. 

Although the ability to create new animals �from the ground up� is still a long way off (further still for humans, and there are immense legal roadblocks), the first steps have already been taken towards genetically modifying living animals for purposes beyond research.  The AquAdvantage salmon, for example, has a gene from a different species of fish in its genome, so that the salmon can grow all year round instead of seasonally.  This is, at least, proof of concept that genetic modification is possible on a large scale.  If we can do it in salmon, we could do it in dogs.  

But why would we want to?  In the case of the AquAdvantage salmon, the reason is profit: farmers want bigger fish that are ready for the table faster.  For dogs, the reasons are more diffuse, and so are the potential modifications we could make.

Why modify?

Dogs have a number of roles in human society; they are beloved pets, service animals, sports competitors, livestock guarders, herders, and law enforcement operatives. Historically, dog breeding has been for the purpose of developing animals that fit the roles humans have set out for them.  More recently, dogs have been bred for even more fine-grained purposes, for example, �labradoodles� were originally bred as guide dogs for visually impaired persons with dog allergies.

We are already modifying the genes of dogs though careful breeding, but the ability to modify individuals and breeds of dog at the genetic level has the potential to give us unprecedented power in this project of tailoring dogs for roles in human society. Biotechnology could let us �zoom in� and isolate the genes that play the greatest role in the expression of behavioral and physical traits in the dog, and then decide whether to switch off these genes, switch them out for new ones, or boost their function.*  The technology could allow us to create new and better dog breeds, even more able to do the jobs we ask of them.

More importantly, genetic modification has the potential to increase the welfare of dogs, at both the individual and the species level.  It is this set of reasons that I will be focusing on, rather than on how we humans could benefit - although, the two are not cleanly divisible since dogs do better when they are able to perform better.

In this article, I will make the case for genetically modifying dogs from the standpoint of the welfare of dogs.  I believe that because of the way we have bred dogs for our own purposes, with little regard for their wellbeing, we have an obligation to explore genetic modification as a tool to restore dogs to health.

Classifying Genetic Modification

Genetic modification can mean anything from removing the possibility of passing on a gene for a serious disease, to the creation of human-animal chimeras.  These are two ends of the spectrum, however, and raise very different moral issues.  We need to be clear what we are talking about before we can see the problems with them.  According to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, genetic manipulation can be divided into �therapeutic� and �enhancement�:
�The way to distinguish between those interventions which count as �therapies� and those which count as �enhancements� is by reference to the condition that is to be altered: therapies aim to treat, cure or prevent diseases and to alleviate pathological conditions which place someone outside the normal range, whereas enhancements aim to improve already healthy systems and to advance capacities which already fall within the normal range.� 
This is a good baseline, although there are some potential interventions we could make in dogs specifically, which would count both as therapy and as enhancement.  I will divide up the interventions we could make into three classes; purely therapeutic; therapeutic enhancements and purely enhancement.

1. Purely therapeutic interventions

Creating different dog breeds has lead to �genetic bottlenecks� within the dog species, which have lead to some breeds being at an elevated risk for certain genetic diseases.  Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, for example, are at risk of syringomyelia, a terrible condition that leads to persistent headaches, seizure and death.  Chihuahuas are particularly vulnerable to luxating patella, a progressive condition of the knees that can lead to episodes of severe lameness.

Almost every breed has a particular set of genetic diseases associated with it.  Our ancestors, in creating today's breeds of dog by strict artificial selection, did dogs a great harm.  A harm that we ought to try to put right, however we can.  Genetic modification gives us the chance to eliminate the diseases we put dogs at risk of, both from individuals and from the species as a whole.

Responsible dog breeders are already working hard to rid dogs of these diseases, but the tools they have to use mean that there is still a long way to go, meaning that many more animals will be born blighted with genetic disease in the meantime.  If there is a duty to remove genetic diseases from the dog's gene pool, there must be a duty to do so as efficiently as possible.  With genetic modification there is the possibility to abbreviate the process with minimal loss of life.  Therefore, when the technology becomes available, breeders have a responsibility to use it.

2. Semi-therapeutic interventions 

On my definition, an intervention is semi-therapeutic when it takes an individual outside the range of normal functioning for a species in order to treat a pathological condition.  This is important because it takes the dog's capacities away from what is "natural" by introducing genes from other animals, which marks a critical moral boundary for some people.

For example, the squashed nose of the pug makes it more difficult for them to breathe properly, which leads to an increased risk of various medical conditions that come from a lack of oxygen.  We could counterbalance this by modifying the pug�s hemoglobin so it can carry more oxygen; making every breath it takes more efficient.

We know, to give another example, that giant breeds of dog such as the English Mastiff can suffer from a variety of health problems that come simply from being bred to be so big.  If we could make the bones of giant dogs stronger than they naturally are, we could prevent many of these problems.

Adding genes from other animals, or even creating genes from scratch*,  could be the key to preserving the health of these breeds without changing their appearance or behavior.  Given that we humans have created these problems though more primitive breeding technologies, and given that any attempt to remove these breeds would probably be met with huge resistance, we have a duty to do the best we can to make the lives of these dogs comfortable so that they can flourish rather than being, as Alexandra Horowitz puts it, �captive in their own bodies�.

Or, to take behavior rather than physiology, we could create a pet dog that is adaptable and calm enough to tolerate the constant imposition of city life; kids, other dogs, being left alone for long periods without developing the kinds of problems that can lead to being surrendered to a shelter.

Doing so would improve the lives of dogs without demanding that humans make the kinds of changes in lifestyle that history has shown many are unwilling or unable to make.  Many people get a dog and then have children, or get a full-time job, or expect their dog to be as comfortable at a sidewalk cafe as on a hiking trail no matter what breed it is.  Although it is possible to teach pet owners to manage their expectations, education is a slow process.  Creating dogs that can do these things without stress is a way to increase their welfare in the intervening time.

3. Purely enhancing interventions

The final class of interventions are the most morally problematic.  Enhancing a dog would mean giving it abilities that are outside the normal range of functioning for the entire species without aiming to treat any medical condition.

With pure enhancement, we could give guide dogs new senses like magnetoception, heightened intelligence, and full color vision so they can understand more street signs.  We could give detection dogs even better scenting abilities, or pre-program them to recognise certain odors.  We could make dogs that live as long as humans.  The question, as the biologist Lee Silver puts it, is, �Why not seize that power�?

Despite the public's association of genetic enhancement with Frankenstein or Superman, there are some morally sound, welfare-based reasons for undertaking such a project.

The needs humans have for dogs often put them under stress and at risk of harm. Dogs that do demanding physical jobs are at risk of injuries; dogs that work in combat and disaster zones are at risk of extreme stress.

If we could engineer dogs so that they were more tolerant to stress, less likely to get injured, faster, stronger, smarter, more long-lived than any dog could possibly be right now, perhaps we could increase the welfare of dogs even further.  We could give them new, enjoyable experiences that today's dogs could never have, or allow them to develop new skills to cope with their world. Enhanced dogs could be a part of society in ways that demand we recognize their rights and prevent their suffering - given that the science is still in its infancy, the only limit is imagination.

Pure enhancement raises the most moral questions about the limits of our creative power over another species, but it is easy to wall off from the other two classes.  We do have an obligation to use every available means to alleviate the harms we have done to dogs through breeding and through expectations, but this obligation does not simply translate to a duty, or even a permission, to enhance non-therapeutically.


I have made the case for genetically modifying dogs based on the claim that we have a unique set of duties towards them given our history of modification through artificial selection.  Genetic enhancement is still science fiction right now, but it is coming ever closer to science fact.  The practical and ethical implications of genetic modification for dogs must be taken seriously by the people who love them now, so we can get clear on what we believe is right before the technology catches up.


*Of course, the actual process will be a lot more complicated than this - I am simplifying because I�m not an expert in biotechnology and because many of the breakthroughs that would let this happen are yet to be made. 

*This is much further out than the classical method of modification by taking the genes from one animal and transplanting them into another. However, in the last few months a team at the Scripps Research Institute has successfully created the first artificial DNA base pair, suggesting that synthetic genes are a possibility for the future. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

"Dog Sense" and the Appeal to Experience

Just because you�ve had dogs for ten, twenty, even fifty years, doesn�t mean everything you say is automatically credible.   Of course, it�s true that there is some plausibility to the claim that more experience is better - nobody wants a novice dentist - but there�s also the possibility that being experienced just means �being set in your ways�.  There are some ethical pitfalls with the appeal to experience that we need to be careful not to fall into, whether we�re using it or listening to it. 

Confirmation bias

The first is that experience can be colored by confirmation bias.  Often there are arguments from experience on both sides of a debate, but experience only seems worth listening to if it lines up with what you already believe.  A trainer could claim that you should only name your dogs Harold, because in her fifty years of dog training all dogs named Harold were good dogs, but we wouldn't see this as a good argument just because it comes from experience. Experience only has weight when it's combined with our own beliefs about how good the argument is. 

Secondly, as an experienced trainer, if you�ve had dogs for many decades, you�re not likely to remember absolutely everything that�s ever happened with them. Confirmation bias also means it is a lot easier to remember facts that support the position you�re trying to argue for. Experience alone doesn't make you an authority. 

Experience is not a substitute for science

Relatedly, having experience and being sure that your approach works well can lead to a rejection of more systematic, scientific approaches, either because of confirmation bias or because of a feeling that science can�t test for the �natural dog-sense� that decades of experience gives a person.  This can be a problem.  Although most people would agree that an experienced doctor, for example, is better than a novice, we regard a doctor who hasn�t kept up to date with any developments in medicine since qualifying with some suspicion. Having a �feel for� how sick a patient probably is can be useful but not as a substitute for knowledge. This is especially important if the patient is presenting with symptoms that would have been written off as �malingering� or �hysteria� not too long ago.  

New discoveries are also being made in the science behind dog-human interactions; for example, most trainers now believe the majority of aggressive behaviors in dogs are grounded in fear, not anger or competitiveness. This has lead to a revolution in how these cases are treated.  In dog training, many different approaches can �work�, but not all of them are equally ethical or effective.  It could be that a very experienced trainer found an approach that worked and simply stuck with it, without seeing the need to try anything else. This doesn�t mean their approach is better, just that it meets a minimum subjective standard of �working� for that trainer.  We can let our dogs down by assuming that we already have all the answers or that there is nothing new left to learn. 

Subjectivity and specificity

Subjectivity and specificity are the final suite of problems with the appeal to experience. Just because a trainer has had decades of experience raising herding dogs on a smallholding, does not mean they are experts in how to raise a French Bulldog in a studio apartment. Breeds differ, living situations differ, individual dogs and owners differ, so simple experience may not be relevant. 

We need to take special care with picking out relevant from irrelevant experience when we�re talking about behavior modification rather than more day-to-day issues in training. Dogs with emotional and behavioral problems pose very specific additional challenges. Whilst finding someone with the right kind of experience can be invaluable, the wrong kind of experience can make the problems worse. 

If you, as a human, were having problems with a relationship, you might consider talking to a trusted older friend, or your parents - someone who has successfully navigated relationships and has probably dealt with most common issues.  If, however, you found yourself having fits of uncontrolled rage, OCD or panic attacks, you would probably want to go to a psychiatrist - someone who has been trained to deal with these specific problems.  People with depression, for example, are often told by loved ones just to think positive, or to try harder - well-meaning advice that may have helped non-depressed people get over a bad time, but can have detrimental effects by instilling a sense of guilt and failure in people with clinical problems. 

So, how do we know when an argument from experience is a good argument? The answer is in whether the person using their experience to persuade you that they are right, is also giving you enough information to justify their argument independently. The explanation an experienced trainer is offering should be acceptable even if it came from a novice. Experience comes in as extra weight in favor of accepting this explanation rather than another - as I have said, talking to someone who has been there before can be a great help, so long as we take the time evaluate their claims.