When Dogs Die Of Shame

A history professor talks about why we’re so eager to anthropomorphize animals.

When Dogs Die Of Shame

A piece in the new (and excellent) journal of narrative history, The Appendix, plumbs the depths of our relationships with pets through the lens of the “dog suicide.” According to author John Patrick Leary, the yellow press of the 19th century loved nothing more than a good story about a dog dying of embarrassment or heartbreak, a trope that allowed journalists to articulate their criticisms of humans.


For example, one story reports the death of J.P. Morgan’s prize bulldog, His Nibs, who allegedly committed suicide after losing a fight with a cat (the greatest shame of all). The piece allowed its author to gently jab Morgan in an era of austerity:

If His Nibs revealed something about his master’s vanity, this was because of the moral significance that Americans began to attach to their domestic animals at the turn of the century. Morgan’s squat, preening bulldog is a perfect example of what Thorsten Veblen, in his classic Theory of the Leisure Class, called the “canine monstrosities” of fancy-bred dogs, whose aesthetic value is in direct proportion to their practical uselessness and cultivated grotesqueness.

The convention of projecting class strife onto animals is alive and well in this century, too:

The gender dynamic from His Nibs’ humiliation by a cat–where a man’s moral and physical weakness run parallel–now finds expression in the public’s fascination and disgust with the toy dogs of wealthy, idle women, like Helmsley’s Trouble and Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, who, like His Nibs in 1898, live better than many of our fellow citizens. Like Morgan’s bulldog, Trouble has a staff on her master’s payroll: the general manager of one of Helmsley’s hotels looked after the dog, although the Times notes that he altered her diet of crab cakes and cream cheese to canned dog food once Helmsley passed away. When the dog died last year, the New York Times called her “the world’s most hated Maltese.” Unlike His Nibs, however, Helmsley’s dog died of old age. The 1890s are back–but Trouble, apparently, was never even ashamed.

Earlier this week, when a Westminster show dog named Cruz died suddenly, we got to see a contemporaneous example of the dog-as-human media spectacle. Gawker’s Caity Weaver jokingly parsed the (by all accounts accidental) death as a murder mystery involving spoiled owners and jealous competitors. Like so many writers of the 19th century, she framed Cruz’s death as an appeal to humanity in general. Unlike her predecessors, she did so by using an emoticon (“how could you kill a dog? :(“). The more things change, etc.

[H/t The Dish]

[Image: Dog via Shutterstock]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.