Dogs and their humans

8 November 2011 | By Natalie

It’s said that people come over time to resemble their pets. Bulldog men expand around the jaw and midriff; Bassett Hound enthusiasts grow glum-eyed and jowly; poodle owners cultivate elaborate perms and firm, taut buttocks. Semiotically speaking, though, there is more to the dog/owner symbiosis than appearance alone. As owned objects, living extensions of human keepers, dogs can and do signify their owners’ status, character and aspiration – how their owners live, and how they conceive of themselves in the world.

Just as small, pure-breed dogs like Chihuahuas and miniature pugs suggest wealth and manicured femininity, so pit bulls and Rottweilers indicate aggressive masculinity – animals refashioned as weapons, to intimidate or pre-empt attack. Context of course is everything – toy dogs signal party-girl affluence more keenly when peeking from the clasp of Paris Hilton’s handbag, fighting dogs hostility when tethered to a teenage boy by a metal leash. A beagle or a lurcher codes fox hunting more strongly when walked by a ruddy-faced white man in Barbour jacket and tweeds than by a black African grandmother; a Golden Retriever beside a young woman in dark glasses codes guide dog, where in the company of a family with young children it may not. Meaning derives not from an intrinsic quality of the animal, but from relationship and association – from the dog in relation to its handler in a specific environment, not from the dog alone.

These canine semiotics can be witnessed in – for example – recent campaigns by pet food brand Cesar, the emblematic West Highland White Terrier of which communicates many of the values of the brand. Small, neat, clean and cute, the Terrier codes lifestyle accessory and non-threatening companion – not (say) a weapon or a hunting tool. Cesar, the Terrier suggests, is a brand for those (women) for whom a dog is a friend, to be cherished and so fed accordingly. Correspondingly, Cesar’s advertising communications explicitly target (through the use of suitable actors and expensively decorated but unshared living spaces) a market of affluent, professional single women in their 20s and 30s – women for whom a dog is not only a pet but a friend, and (perhaps) a partner-substitute, too.


  1. Lissa
    Posted 14 September 2012 at 2.18 am | Permalink

    If there was any real truth in the idea that humans eventually mutate into strange-dog like versions of themselves upon entering into a pet companionship, I suppose I may have put more thought into which four legged friend I chose to adopt. On the other hand, if this does come true, my little Pit bull/American Fox Hound/Mostly just Mutt has me getting off pretty easy. I swear, rain or shine, no matter how late Rye’s stayed up binge eating away at a bone, her “doggy eye liner” does not smudge (this is a trick she really must teach me). I suppose in any case, it would be her that suffered the brunt of this deal, I mean, what dog would want to be that far from the ground. They’d never be able to tell when tasty little morsels made their way to the floor if some how they found themselves forced to walk on (how barbaric!) two legs.

    On a more serious note, I found myself sure that this article was right, Rye does not have a chain link collar, instead it is purple velvet with her name stitched into the side, the idea that I alone am able to dictate how the public perceives her is an uncomfortable idea that I had not previously thought about. While I know Rye is sweet as can be, one quarter pit and not an ounce angry, rental companies would not be excited to see “pit bull” on an application for an apartment. To be honest, I’ve yet to meet one of these aggressive, angry, “bully” pit bulls, but have met more than my share of angry Chihuahuas at the dog park. I may be slightly biased though.

    I am aware dogs are not the only animal/item/human being/idea to fall under the cruel misjudgment of the categorizing, yet I can comfort Rye in explaining to her the very basics of structuralism, she is only a quarter pit bull because she isn’t a quarter West Highland White Terrier. Nor will she ever be fed Ceasar’s tiny, compact, cute little dishes (that wouldn’t even constitute a whole bite for her, much less a whole meal). While Rye may be a statement to the world that I have neither wealth nor status, I will happily walk beside her, two mutts, any resemblance is purely coincidental.

  2. Alissa
    Posted 14 September 2012 at 4.16 pm | Permalink

    This thought store interested me the most because as soon as I started reading I had an immediate reaction to the first line, “It’s said that people come over time to resemble their pets.” This reaction occurred to me, not only because I believe it is true, but it wasn’t until recently that I myself had come up with this idea. This is because I work at The Home Depot and our customers bring in their pets all the time, regardless of our NO PETS sign (semiotics fix that!). However, I think it is funny because we have this one guy who comes in with his dog, Peanut, and peanut and his owner could literally be human-dog twins. There is no other way to put it. However, for me what is key is that the canine semiotics not only represented through pet products, but what is briefly noted that canine semiotics represent their owners life style. In Peanut’s particular instance, it is not only clear that he is spoiled and can eat and do whatever he wants, because of his size and smug look as he rides around in the buggy, but his owner, also is observably over weight and tends to have a snobbish attitude. But, what interests me the most is the way you could separate the two in a line up and tell someone to match the dog with their owner and they would be able to based on canine semiotics.

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