Like a car, a gun, or livestock, dogs are considered property under the law. And very much like in the case of a car, a gun, or livestock, there are special terms and obligations that must be fulfilled by the owner of the dog. Even the law recognizes that a dog is not a piece of furniture.
Because a dog is a living animal, the most obvious correspondence of dog ownership is with livestock ownership. In both cases the owner is obligated to provide a minimum of care, food, water, and shelter in order to maintain his rights of possession. In cases of neglect or cruelty the owner can lose his or her rights to the property and faces penalties respective with the extent of such negligence and failure to provide.
A further responsibility of a dog owner (as with livestock) is the issue of containment. Most states have abolished the ‘free range’ status that allowed cattle owners to graze their animals without fencing them in. The dog owner may relinquish rights to the animal, if he or she fails to keep the dog leashed, housed, or fenced. As with livestock, the concern here is less for the welfare of the animal that must be contained and more with the damage that a free-roaming animal may cause. Still, these legal provisions do benefit the dog and provide minimum maintenance standards for animal husbandry.
Along with the right to keep animals owners can decide on breeding their possession, and selling the offspring thus derived. Responsible breeders that want to stay in business for a long time will breed the best animals only, select dam and stud carefully and strive to improve on the breed. In such a case the dog is certainly not disadvantaged. Unfortunately, in cases where a puppy mill or a ruthless or careless backyard breeder is involved, the dogs suffer.
Dog ownership resembles that of gun ownership, since a dog can inflict harm on the general populace, and maim or even kill humans or livestock. While gun ownership is a protected right under the US constitution, this privilege can be lost by a convicted felon and is restricted by other laws that determine how to store a lethal weapon and where to use such force. (Don’t bring your shotgun to cash a check in the local bank…). Few people object to responsible gun ownership, and the same goes for responsible dog ownership. As long as access to a potentially lethal weapon is restricted, controlled, and supervised, the right individual can own even a trained protection dog. Unfortunately, any injury or casualty inflicted by a dog will result in punitive action against the owner and ultimately the dog, even when the dog was defending said owner from an assault. In general one is better off shooting a burglar than having the burglar bitten by one’s dog (keep the gun, but put down the dog).
A gun can be made harmless by unloading, installing a trigger lock, or removing the firing pin. Disarming a dog is generally impractical or cruel (muzzling, tooth removal). Luckily proper socialization of a dog and conscientious training will prevent the majority of injuries, although constant vigilance is required.
Finally, dog ownership resembles that of car ownership, since the law in many municipalities requires registration, and the equivalent of annual ‘inspection’ by calling for rabies vaccination. Cars must be insured before they can be driven on public roads. Dogs require pet deposits and will increase the price of a homeowner’s insurance policy. Some cars are difficult or extremely expensive to insure, as are some breeds of dog.
While the car owner is free to inflict damage onto his or her property, say by taking a sledgehammer to the car, a dog owner may not do so without penalty. However a dog owner is free to choose (properly administrated) euthanasia for their animal. This is no different from car ownership, where proper disposal is mandated as well; after all one cannot abandon a vehicle at the side of the road without repercussion.
Would a dog be better off if endowed with ‘inalienable rights’?
Since dogs cannot communicate their requirements unambiguously, they resemble minor children in that respect and would require an advocate, or representation by a legal guardian. That would have to be applied for all dogs. Immediately the cost of such a program can be estimated as astronomical. Who would pay for these inalienable rights, such as food, shelter, basic health care and education? Even the ‘richest country in the world’ would face bankruptcy. The US cannot provide health care for all its citizenry, and the argument can be made that it falls short when it comes to providing adequate education for its human citizens.
But surely right or wrong should not be decided based on financial assets.
So would dogs be better off under such a system? Decisions about spay/neuter, breeding, or euthanasia would become problematic and would have to be mandated by law, and could be challenged in court.
Do dogs have reproductive rights? Who provides for the litter? What are the legal repercussions of a bitch that eats one of her pups? Is there the equivalent of child support to be paid by the sire, or can the dog claim that he was seduced under the influence of a pheromone? Can dogs object to mandatory vaccinations on religious grounds? What would a revamped canine education system based on ‘no dog left behind’ cost? Should it be positive behavior modification or correction based? What about dog labor, working dogs, minimum wage, earning potential, and unemployment provisions? What exactly is covered under the term ‘dog’? Surely we cannot limit such legal protection to purebreds, but are feral dogs, coy-dogs, wolf hybrids, coyotes, or wolves covered? Why or why not?
Even if we dismiss these points as ridiculous, and they surely are, would a dog be better off under such a system? Possibly dogs could no longer be abandoned by the side of the road without severe penalty for their former guardian humans, but since it happens to children, it would not prevent canine abandonment. Dogs cannot fulfill legal obligations and we have no way of communicating what we perceive as their duties with them.
On the whole a dog is better off when owned by a caring responsible proprietor, who provides the dog with all the necessities, from health care to shelter. While some people try to equate this with slavery, they miss the point. Dogs have entered in a symbiotic mutually beneficial relationship with humans eons ago, without coercion. They have changed and adapted when their human owners changed, and as a species are no longer capable of surviving without human intervention.
So be the proud owner of your pooch. He would not want it any other way.