Journal for Critical Animal Studies Editorial Executive Board



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A New Dog (for contrast see http://www.dierenhulporfa.nl; Photos by Eva Meijer)

Misunderstandings helped to create understanding (see also Pepperberg 1991, Despret 2006). I once accidently kicked Olli in his face with my foot because he tried to eat something from the street on our first walk of the day; I was still sleepy and responded too slowly when he walked in front of me. This scared him, but I immediately told him I was sorry and comforted him. In the beginning he was also afraid of me dropping plates and pans, but he learned that this was not directed to him and that I am a clumsy human who means well.

Although Pika and Olli got along immediately, he had some trouble communicating with other dogs. This was partly caused by walking on the leash, which made him uncomfortable and therefore defensive. He was not used to meeting so many new dogs all the time, many of whom had to be ignored or who did not act in accordance with their position in the hierarchy. When he was used to walking on the leash, and could play off leash in the park, there were still miscommunications. Olli uses his voice a lot as he plays (he growls loudly), and he likes to play rough, something that scares the smaller and shyer dogs. We usually go to a park where there are more rescue dogs, and Olli gets along with them fine. He is learning to play with the shyer dogs and they learn they do not have to be afraid of him. Some of them even invite him to play on their terms and he follows. There is, for example, one young female dog who likes to play slowly with a lot of touching. She was afraid of Olli’s rough manners at first, but when she got to know him better, she started inviting him to play in the way she likes. Olli understands this and is more careful with her than with the others.

First Day (Photo by Eva Meijer)

1.2 New languages

Language is not something extra or outside of this common world. Heidegger argues discourse32 is constitutive for Dasein’s existence. For Heidegger, “being-attuned” to others (172) is a fundamental characteristic of the structure of being in the world. This being-attuned is made explicit in discourse, of which hearing (listening33) and keeping silent are an important part. Discourse communicates, and this constitutes the articulation of Being with one another. The relation between language and world is for Heidegger twofold; language shapes our way of being in the world and we shape language. In discourse, humans and other animals bring forward their memories and histories and relate those to new experiences. Discourse is the “articulation of intelligibility” that underlies interpretation and is what creates meaning.

Iveson (2010, 2012) argues language in this sense also plays a role in the lives of nonhuman animals. For Heidegger, Dasein is constituted within “infinitely entangled structures of meaning” that Dasein can only see when it is thrown out of it in a state of Angst or boredom. In boredom and Angst, Dasein moves from concealment to an authentic existential experience. According to Heidegger, the animal cannot experience this because she lacks language. But, Iveson shows, nonhuman animals are also thrown into a world that exists of meaning-giving structures. They are constituted by and constitute these structures, and language is primordial with this.

“Language” is here understood not as one true language (see also Glendinning 1998) in which words have one objective meaning, but rather as a collection of constructed, artificial languages. In The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida (2011, 8) asks what beasts and men have in common. He gives three answers, which he admits are possibly incompatible. Beasts and man inhibit the same objective world, but they do not inhibit the same world, since the world of men is never completely the same as the world of beasts, and third, in spite of this identity and difference, individual humans and animals never inhibit the same world – “(t)here is no world, there are only islands.” He then states: “(T)he community of world is always constructed, simulated by a set of stabilizing apparatuses, more or less stable, then, and never natural, language in the broad sense, codes of traces being designed, among all living beings, to construct a unity of world that is always deconstructible, nowhere and never given in nature (2011, 8-9).”

Through creating a common language, Olli and I created a frame of reference. We expressed ourselves through language, understood in a broad sense (see Meijer 2013 for my view of language, following Wittgenstein 1958), and this functioned as a bridge to cross the distance between us. It created a common world and a way to express understanding of this world. We did so together; the content was not given beforehand. Both Olli and I brought our histories and ways of giving meaning; through interacting, we created something new that changed both of us. As Donna Haraway puts it: “Beings do not pre-exist their relatings” (2006, 6; see also Smuts 2006).
1.3 Habits

Our second tool in creating a common world was repetition. Doing the same thing at the same time of the day everyday gave us something to hold onto. Understanding the habits of the house and engaging in daily rituals made Olli feel more secure. It also gave us something to refer to: after he had learned the routine, we could change it. We always take our long walk in the morning, but because Olli know this, we can go in the afternoon; I can tell him we take the long walk later. We have many habits, concerning when and where to sleep, when and where to walk, when and what to eat. Pika and Olli both exercise agency in this. Before Olli came, Pika and I took the long walk in the afternoon. In the first months, Olli had much energy after sleeping through the night and he expressed a strong interest in walking (by growling and barking), so we moved the long afternoon walk to the morning. He is much calmer now, but by now we are all used to walking in the morning, so we keep the routine. Olli prefers to sleep a bit on a chair in the front room of the house after his breakfast, while Pika and I are in the living room. After the long walk, Olli chews his bone on the bed while Pika is on the couch; in the evening they are both on the couch until Pika goes to bed. If Olli gets bored in the morning he comes to the living room where he greets me before moving to the couch with Pika.

Merleau-Ponty (143; see also Weiss 2006) argues that not consciousness but the body acts in habitual projects. The body understands what happens and acts unintentionally. Instead of narrowing our scope of actions, habits expand the meaning and range of our experiences and widen our access to the world. They offer “a different way of inscribing ourselves in the world and of inscribing the world in our body” (Weiss 236).34 The body is seen as “an open system of dynamic exchanges with the world, exchanges that, in their habituality, ground the body ever more firmly within the world, and, in the process, offer us new ways of engaging and transforming it” (Weiss 2006:236). Each subject has a unique way of being in the world and negotiating experiences. Interaction with others adds a new meaning giving structure, which, if repeated, is added to the repertoire of the body. For both Olli and me, habits structured experiences, added new layers of meaning to our lives together.

After a few weeks, I taught Olli to walk next to the bicycle. Pika and I usually travel to our favorite park with a cargo bike because it is too far for her to walk; we have small parks nearby but we do not like them so much. Olli soon learned to run next to the cargo bike, while Pika sat in it. This bike is quite heavy, especially with Pika in it, and Olli was still learning to walk on the leash and afraid of the city, so going to the park like this was quite a challenge for Olli and me. Going to the same park every day, walking next to the bicycle and taking the same route soon became familiar, making life more familiar. Creating habits like these made Olli more at home in his new life. This particular habit gives us freedom to travel. Through moving with Olli and learning about his responses, I gained insight in his way of navigating the environment and his view on his surroundings. I learned to see through his eyes. I can reflect on my responses and switch between our perspectives, but when we bike to the park and encounter something that frightens Olli, my response is physical and immediate in the way Merleau-Ponty describes.35 I act because there is not just me now, there is us.


2. Learning to walk on the leash

2.1 The shape of freedom

In his first weeks, Olli was very eager to escape. One afternoon, he chewed on the leash when I spoke to a neighbor; it took him less than a minute to break it (luckily he wore a collar and a harness). Later that week he jumped over a 1.6m fence in the neighbor’s garden. There’s a high brick wall between my garden and the street so there was no real risk of him running away, but the message was clear. He was very eager to run away: the city made him nervous and he wanted to get out of it; he also had a strong desire to scavenge for food. Being with me made him nervous: he had to watch me all the time to make sure I would not hurt him. After a while he started to relax inside the house, but outside he was still nervous and did not make much contact with me, although he did watch Pika. When something frightened him, he did not turn to me for help or comfort (as Pika does), but he retreated even more in his own world. Walking on the leash made him extra insecure: he felt handicapped by it. Looking at his behavior, one could say Olli understood freedom in a negative sense; he wanted to be free from external restraints. He felt very passionate about enlarging this freedom.

Olli’s desire to escape was of course connected to past experiences. He had lived in a cage of about eight square meters, with one or two other dogs, for over a year. Someone came to feed the dogs once a day, and once or twice a week a volunteer visited the dogs, but most of their attention went to the dogs that had health problems. In the municipal shelter where he lived before, he shared one large space with many dogs who were not given enough food. Many dogs died, and escape was high on their list. Before that, Olli lived on the streets. He was free in the sense that he could decide where to go, what to eat and who to be with, but there are many dangers for stray dogs in Romania and he had to be on guard constantly. Olli has clearly had bad experiences with humans, and fear also restrains freedom.

And finally, Olli has a strong will. Making his own choices, concerning where to go, who to be with and what to eat, is important to him. I wanted to respect this and treat him as an equal, but I was tied to the circumstances; I had to make him walk on the leash. Dogs are legally obliged to walk on a leash, except in certain designated areas (such as parts of beaches and dog parks), and there is a lot of traffic in this part of the country.

For reasons of safety, in the first weeks I made Olli wear both a collar and harness outside. He slowly became used to the neighborhood and our routines, which enabled me to take off the collar. If we did something difficult, such as running next to the bicycle or taking the tram, I also made him wear his collar as well. After about a month, I felt secure enough to take him and Pika to our favorite (off-leash, unfenced) park. This park is large, relatively quiet and visited by friendly dogs. I bought a lunge line so that Olli could play with the other dogs and behave more naturally. Although he felt more and more at ease, he still really wanted to run and did not pay much attention to me outside the house – he came when I offered him food, but he did not make eye contact and his stress level was quite high. This was the most difficult period in terms of freedom. Olli was still nervous, yet eager to move and to play with the other dogs. I wanted to let him off the leash, but could not, because our relationship was too fragile and there was too much traffic nearby. It was physically difficult for both of us as well: Olli is a strong dog, and it hurt (his body and my hand) if he ran to the end of the leash and pulled it. It was hard for him to behave normally towards other dogs; he felt handicapped by the physical restraints. This made him more defensive and sometimes a bit agitated. Although he did not seem to hold it against me, I felt sorry for being the one who restrained his freedom. I wanted him to be as happy as possible – I knew running and playing with other dogs would make him happy – and I only made things more difficult for him.

In February he started to make eye contact with me in the park. We always go to the park around the same time, so Olli got to know the dogs and the humans that come there well and they know him, which makes him feel safe and connected. In that time, he always came to me when I called him, also when other dogs distracted him. I decided to take the next step and I sometimes let go off the long leash for a while, then picked it up again. After that, I left a short leash on the harness, and then I completely took the leash off. This process spiralled in the right direction: I could start it because he was more at ease, and it made him more at ease because he could use his body freely. This improved his relationships with the other dogs in the park and helped him relax, which also changed his attitude towards me.



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