With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Colin Dayan. Columbia University Press, 2016. 188 pages. $30.00.

By Benjamin Franklin Martin

For Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities and professor of law at Vanderbilt University, dogs—big dogs—matter: “no man could be as close, no eyes as vivid, no flesh as necessary.”  She disdains “teacup dogs” as the pets of a “cushioned elite who live in the world of sentimental entrapment.” For Dayan wants nothing less than “the admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage.” Why such a “reciprocal engagement”? “Closeness, or a rightness in standing next to or close to my dogs, became a way of thinking through the terror and sentimentality of this, our twenty-first century. Where is there to go, except into the eyes of dogs?”

Humans disappoint Dayan. She had a father “who cornered me with his camera when he wasn’t chasing me out the back door with his belt.” She had a mother “who told me to leave her alone and act nicely for company.” She had a husband who yelled at and threatened her dog, Stella. She had colleagues at the University of Arizona who told her friend to go outside when “she dared take out a cigarette” at a cocktail party. The dogs had a certain revenge: Stella urinated on the husband’s Oriental rug; another dog, Mehti, “went for the balls of particularly pompous men.”

Dayan raises disturbing questions about human dominion over dogs. She insists that the invocation of “animal rights” reduces dogs to “objects of charity” incapable of defending themselves. She claims that training a dog through the use of treats turns it into “nothing more than a creature with an insatiable appetite.” Worst of all is the assertion, often written into law, that certain breeds, especially the American Staffordshire terrier, the so-called pit bull, have an inherent vicious propensity and thus can be readily euthanized. When recounting egregious misuse of police and judicial powers, she is eloquent in her righteous indignation. The demonizing of the owner frequently accompanies the demonizing of the animal: “Certain kinds of humans and dogs, once labeled as expendable, can be sacrificed to the realities of lawful control.”

Early in this book, Dayan admits that her first writings for it were “something of a jeremiad.” To her credit, this accusation can rightly be made of the final version.

Benjamin Franklin Martin (ΦΒΚ, Davidson College, 1969) is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University and a resident member of the Beta of Louisiana Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.