By Elizabeth Peel
‘We are who we are as much because of our relationships with non-human animals as because of the human ones, and we do ourselves a great disservice – and probably great harm – by denying or ignoring this.’Podberscek et al., 2000, p. 2
In embarking on a new research adventure we often construct accounts (rationale / scientific justification) for the why, what, and how of the project. These accounts are recipient designed, tailored to the audience – whether that be a funding body, key stakeholder, or curious colleague. I’ve said before that it is important to have a ‘passion project’. The simply labelled Dog Talking and Walking project is currently mine, and I hope to convey the value of, and enthusiasm for, taking connections with canines seriously in this blog (see Haraway, 2003).
A new project does not ‘beam down’ unbidden and unrooted to other intellectual and biographical connections. In Critical Kinship Studies Damien Riggs and I were interested in examining both anthropocentrism – the speciesism of humans – and the corollary of this, namely how human-animal kinship and animal-animal kinship are routinely marginalized in western cultures. And I had a longer-standing interest in dogs specifically, catalysed through a project very much focused solely on humans and our experiences of adjusting to the self-management, and health services landscape, of type 2 diabetes (T2DM). The significance of canine companions in this context was an inductive ‘chance find’. The emergence of themes is often poo-pooed primarily for its implicit passivity of the researcher but in this instance dogs were topically emergent from a rich interview data-set repeatedly interrogated for human behavioural change processes on which we’d published 14 prior analyses. Dogs as a longitudinal ‘health intervention’ for people with T2DM leapt unbidden from the data-set in a process as close to ‘unmotivated looking’ as is ever practicable, or desirable.
While this is a partial account of an academic interest in dogs, there is also a more personal tale (e.g., Peel, Riggs & Taylor, 2023) multifariously prompted by the pandemic and loss. In some senses the Covid-related anthropause was both peculiarly human-centric while also bringing into sharp relief our more-than-human world: ‘as well as turning life as we know it upside down, the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic … has also put a fascinating spotlight on our relationships with dogs’ (Westgarth, 2021, p.269). The third of us humans in Britain who share our lives with dogs have become more biophilic; something reflected in my project:
- ‘I lost my husband from a pulmonary embolism after the jab so my dog has become my sole companion.’ (Woman, Heterosexual, White, Age 54)
- ‘I’m very close to him [dog], but over lockdown, especially in the beginning, I slept in his basket with him as I was so worried.’ (Man, Gay, White, Age 27)
- ‘She [dog] has been my mental health medicine – she gets me out every day keeps me healthy and gets me out into nature.’ (Woman, Bisexual, White, Age 45)
We had to euthanise our much-loved old canine family member, Bramble the Border Collier/Terrier cross, during the 2021 lockdown. Though profoundly sad and a loss – like many forms of disenfranchised grief – hard to articulate and garner social recognition, the experience could have been worse. Unlike a participant who ‘had to hand him over in a car park to a vet in full PPE’ and be ‘very distress[ed]’ that she ‘couldn’t be with him to say goodbye and comfort him’, we were hugely grateful to avoid this. Our longstanding vet who was fond of the “ancient geriatric” was prepared to bend the rules for us. This is one example of how the personal has informed the researchable – a complex set of contingent forms of relating between dogs and their people.
Dog Talking and Walking participants have referred to dogs as a ‘gateway’ to many realms including more human contact and physical activity; a ‘talking point’; a ‘saviour’. Reflecting on the recent British Psychological Society Qualitative Methods in Psychology conference Jon Sutton (2022) wrote of my talk: ‘[o]ur furry friends provided much needed thinking and reflecting time during the pandemic, Peel said, a period which “has made us as humans unhealthily self-obsessed… we do ourselves a great disservice if we ignore human-animal links”’. Perhaps I am a little grumpy with people, still it may be time to decentre humans in critical health psychology.
Psychological science has had a long, and chequered history, with dogs (see Howard, 2022, generally but particularly ‘Sacrificed for Science’ which discusses Pavlov’s horrific treatment of dogs). The field of anthrozoology was established in the 1980s and is an exciting, inter/multi/transdisciplinary space, where human connections to companions species are taken seriously (e.g., The Family Dog Project). Let’s paws to reflect on how critical psychology might intervene in that legacy and current conversation.
About the author
Elizabeth Peel (she/they) is a Professor of Communication and Social Interaction at Loughborough University, UK.
They specialize in communication and social interaction and have conducted social psychology research for over 20 years on diverse topics including sexualities, relationships, and chronic illnesses affecting older people like dementia.
You can read more about about their Dog Talking and Walking project at https://wellbeingdog.wordpress.com/
Haraway, D. (2003) The Companions Species Manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant others. Prickly Paradigm Press.
Howard, J. (2022) Wonderdog: How the science of dogs changed the science of life. Bloomsbury.
Peel, E., Douglas, M., Parry, O. & Lawton, J. (2010) Type 2 diabetes and dog walking: Patients’ longitudinal perspectives about implementing and sustaining physical activity. British Journal of General Practice, 60(577), 570-577.
Peel, E., Riggs, D.W. & Taylor, N. (2023) Love, loss and animals: A posthumanist account of dementia in multispecies kinship. In N. Jenkins, A. Jack-Waugh & L. Ritchie (Eds.) Multi-Species Dementia Studies: Towards an interdisciplinary approach. Bristol University Press.
Podberscek, A.L., Paul, E.S. & Serpell, J.A. (2000) Introduction. In A.L. Podberscek, E.S. Paul J.A. & Serpell (Eds.) Companion Animals and Us: Exploring the relationships between people and pets. (pp.1-4) Cambridge University Press.
Riggs, D.W. & Peel, E. (2016) Critical Kinship Studies: An introduction to the field. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sutton, J. (2022) Qualitative methods: A space for complexity. The Psychologist https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/space-complexity (27 July)
Westgarth, C. (2021) The Happy Dog Owner. London: Welbeck.