Free to Be Dogs: Freedom and Pet-hood

A paper to be presented at the Making Sense of the Animal – Human Bond Project: 3rd Global Meeting, international conference, Mansfield College, Oxford, England, September 2016

Abstract:

I am an artist who runs a sanctuary for dogs. When the sanctuary opened, I considered it separate from my studio practice. As it turns out, it is very much an extension of the investigations in my other visual work. This paper examines the thinking behind my dog sanctuary: dog-human collaboration, what it means for a dog to be free, eschewing assumptions of “human,” “dog,” and power relationships inherent in the word “pet.”

I named my sanctuary Free to Be Dog Haven. After working in dog rescue for some years, I developed an attachment for dogs who need extra help sharing their lives with humans. I gravitated toward the anxious, fearful, high-energy dogs, who were misunderstood. I continue to learn as much as possible about dog training and behavior, ethology, neuroscience, etc., all in the name of providing as high a quality of life as possible for my canine charges. I am sensitive to the label “behavioral issue” being applied to a dog who simply does not meet human expectations. The philosophy of the sanctuary is to acknowledge the individuality of each dog and offer them the freedom to be who they are.

The sanctuary owes to a broad range of ideas. From Donna Haraway’s notion of “companion species,” to biologist Ray Coppinger’s definition of a dog, to the work of animal behaviorists and trainers like Patricia McConnell, Karen Pryor, and many others. While we cannot truly “know” dogs—even those closest to us—we can embrace possibilities for re-inventing our relationships with them based on who are together, not who we are as species.

Ultimately, the sanctuary is the collaborative work of the dogs and me. While it is a model of collaborative creation, it is a meaningful experience of collaborative being.