Pets or Meat: Confronting the Origin Myth of 'Man's Best Friend'

There is a persistent myth that portrays the domestication of dogs as a mutually beneficial development between humans and the fabled "man's best friend." Those who believe and promote some version of this creation myth claim that dogs have always occupied their token status among nonhuman animals as a source of companionship, as opposed to a source of flesh.

The belief in this special "co-evolution" of humans and dogs affects how nonhuman animal activists think about the oppression of dogs. To recall one succinct version of the myth as told by pattrice jones, an ecofeminist-vegetarian activist:

Humans and dogs co-evolved. Canis lupus and Homo erectus were in close relationship with one another, and that has helped determine the details of our evolution. Thus the association of people and dogs is written into our bodies. That being the case, dogs might prefer not to be left to their own devices but, rather, to return to the harmonious inter-species relationship that prevailed before people subjected their former friends to captivity, forced labor, and reproductive control.

However, The New York Times reports findings that challenge such romantic beliefs about a "harmonious inter-species relationship":

A new study of dogs worldwide, the largest of its kind, suggests a different answer, one that any dog owner is bound to find repulsive: wolves may have first been domesticated for their meat. That is the proposal of a team of geneticists led by Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

The study, which traces the origins of the domestication of dogs back to China about 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, does not support the myth of dogs voluntarily joining human communities, but describes dogs as forced captives subjected to muzzles and cages as the tools of domestication. In direct contradiction to jones' assumption, dogs have always been subjected "to captivity, forced labor, and reproductive control." Friendship had nothing to do with it – the purpose of this captive breeding was to reproduce dogs for their flesh.

Of course, there is little truth to the popular fiction that humans and dogs "co-evolved." To believe this we must ignore all evidence concerning the origin times and places of both species. Our origin stories about the other animals that share this planet with us have been created by and for a speciesist society interested in maintaining human supremacy. The stories we tell ourselves about our pets being our "best friends" serves to hide the oppressive reality of our true relationship as one of power and dominance over other animals.

Furthermore, the popular myths about dogs are intertwined with Whiteness, affluence and Western imperialism. The preconception held by those of us raised in Western culture, particularly White middle-class culture, that envisions dogs as "man's best friend" gives rise to the Orientalism targeting Asian and Pacific Islanders associated with a cultural tradition of dog-eating. (It also informs the classist and racist focus on criminalizing dog-fighting.) That is, the call to "return to the harmonious inter-species relationship that prevailed before people subjected their former friends" is a specifically Western concept that makes Asian and Pacific Islanders the most obvious targets of contempt.

Unfortunately, the new study challenging the assumed friendship as the origins of domestication is not much of a remedy to the existing Orientalist framework for Western supremacy. Instead of seeing Asian and Pacific Islanders as deviants who violated the preordained friendship between humans and dogs, the study can all too easily perpetuate the view of Westerners that Asian and Pacific Islanders are "barbaric," "primitive," "uncivilized," "savages" who need to adopt the particular standards and cultural practices set by the West.