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A DOG’S LIFE: Why are so many people so cruel to their dogs?

If you think of an animal impersonally, as property, say as a sofa, they are something to be accumulated and guarded and abandoned at will, out there in the yard, among the rusty old cars, air conditioners, washing machines and toilets.

GENE WEINGARTEN: From the front, the one-story clapboard house looks dingy and dilapidated, and the lawn is cluttered with crap. The backyard makes the front look like Versailles… There are tangles of scrap metal, discarded car parts, a sodden mattress, corroded appliances, a deceased push mower, a toolshed boarded up with plywood. There are ripe piles of garbage and moldering pits of ashes where trash and food scraps have been burned… The house has been abandoned since January, when the owner, an elderly man, died of covid-19. We are here in late July. The squalor seems lifeless, but, terribly, it isn’t…

You hear the three dogs baying before you see them, and then you see them and recoil. Each is tethered to a metal cable, which is tethered to its own primitive wooden doghouse. Each animal has only a few dozen square feet within which to move. The dogs can see and hear the others, but it is a tantalizing cruelty — they are so far apart they cannot touch or play. Neighbors never stop by. These three females have been alone outside, imprisoned apart in the same spots in this rotting place, day and night, for six months. Today it is 85 in the shade. They are panting…

When the owner died, the house and animals were inherited by his daughter, who lives in another state… For reasons that defy common sense and decency, the daughter has chosen this heartless system rather than adopt the dogs herself or surrender them to someone who will care for them.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] knows about this place, and, with the grudging consent of the new owner, the animal rights organization sends a team of field workers to visit from time to time. They clean and refill the bowls and distribute flea meds and chew toys and straw for bedding and skritches under the neck, but they can’t alleviate the big problem, and they can’t come here often… Their headquarters are in Norfolk, 100 miles away, and they have hundreds of other mistreated animals to check in on, and new ones to find…

It occurs all over the country, the pitiless 24-hour-a-day chaining of dogs to lifelong sentences of misery and madness. The practice is not the province of any race or any age or any nationality or any region of the country, though it is most prevalent, by far, in areas of rural America where resources are limited and opportunities are slender.

Many states have enacted laws that attempt to limit how many hours a day it may be done and under what circumstances, but none bans it entirely. Most of these compromise laws are halfhearted half-measures that are difficult to enforce. In the majority of states, there are no laws at all. Some municipalities have banned dog-tethering on their own, but they represent less than 1 percent of all cities, towns and counties in the country.

It would be tempting to call this an epidemic, except epidemics usually have a clear starting point, and they eventually end. This particular cruelty has been going on as long as anyone can remember, and no one knows when it will stop, or if it ever will. If you’ve never heard of it, or had no idea of its ubiquity, that’s probably because humanity has ample tragedies of its own to report on, and because news organizations prefer to avoid these depressing, nonessential stories. They repel readers and listeners and viewers…

Anthropologists believe they understand the origins of the bond between humans and dogs. It is an ancient alliance, forged from mutual need in Paleolithic times… This bond came naturally: Humans and wolves are both pack animals. We are both built to team up with others to survive. How has this relationship gotten so corrupted, then, and so profoundly, and so often? Is it about promiscuous anger: lack of resources and social powerlessness, leading to impotent rage — the kick-the-dog phenomenon? Are the dogs an emotional tool — something people can control in a life otherwise almost empty of control?..

Why get a dog just to abuse it? If you talk to experts, and to the abusers, you get a constellation of answers, none entirely satisfying. To some people of limited means and meager possessions, dogs become a piece of property. If you think of an animal impersonally — as, say, a sofa — you are less likely to see it as being capable of physical suffering or having an emotional life. As property, they are something to be accumulated and guarded and abandoned at will, out there in the yard, among the rusty old cars, air conditioners, washing machines and toilets…

Some other owners see their dogs as protection, but when you point out to them that the animals, restrained by eight-foot tethers, are pretty useless as protection, they’ll tell you, without guilt or apparent self-awareness — or further explanation — that at least they can be a burglar alarm. Some tetherers breed dogs for status: Supposedly fierce breeds, like pit bulls, convey power. And finally, some people tether because their dads and granddads did, too. You tend not to question it. No malice is intended…

Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist who co-founded the Center for Canine Behavior Studies at Tufts University, doesn’t buy the Darwinian argument, or all the ancillary explanations, which he sees as excuses for the inexcusable. This sort of cruelty, he says, is, at its dark core, a heartless character flaw: Some people suck… “The fact is,” Dodman says, “there are people who have empathy and people who don’t”. SOURCE…

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