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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Thomas

Domesticated Dogs as Citizens

Updated: Mar 22

In this Animal Highlight I want to focus on the domestic dog and particularly the domestic dog as a citizen of human-animal societies.

Dogs were domesticated approximately 15000 years ago and became the first species we actively included in our emerging societies. Over millennia dogs and humans have developed incredible and complex relationships. Dogs have been workers, kept as pets, and eaten as food, and often these relations involved exploitation. But, following on from what Will Kymlicka has been talking about in this episode, what happens if we reconsider dogs in terms of how we include them in society? In his book Zoopolis, written with Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka discusses how domestic animals must be seen as full members of a human-animal community with the rights associated with that membership:

"Having brought [ … domesticated] animals into our society, and deprived them of other possible forms of existence [...] we have a duty to include them in our social and political arrangements on fair terms. As such, they have rights of membership—rights that go beyond the universal rights owed to all animals, and which are hence relational and differentiated" (2015:101).

So, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka, dogs, and other domestic animals, should be afforded relational rights as members of a multispecies society which extend beyond the universal rights which other (non-domesticated) animals have. Donaldson and Kymlicka go on to say that citizenship is "the appropriate conceptual framework for thinking about these relational membership rights." They highlight that domestic animals’ rights to citizenship were not automatically granted when they joined human society but are suggesting that they should be now. The very definition of domestication is that animals are adapted to and compatible with human society (or more accurately, multispecies societies) so although we might include them in society on what Donaldson and Kymlicka call ‘fair terms’, as well as giving them rights, we expect responsibilities from them.

There are schemes in countries such as the US, the UK and Aotearoa NZ which have what they call ‘canine good citizen schemes’ which are interesting in that they place stringent responsibilities on dogs but don’t afford them the rights of full citizenship, that Donaldson and Kymlicka suggest. The responsibilities might be more those of wards than citizens where good behaviour is expected but the agency of the subject isn’t fully recognised, therefore the responsibilities demanded of them don’t allow them to fulfil their role in society to their full potential.

While even some animal rights theorists might be reluctant to extend the concept of citizenship to domesticated animals because it requires capacities and capabilities which many animals don’t have, in the case of dogs, their intelligence, their adaptability and their social natures and structures make them eminently capable of functioning as full citizens of a human-dog society and of performing their duties as citizens. Donaldson and Kymlicka stress that we should recognise domestic animals’ competency in exerting their agency to cooperate and participate in human–animal communities. It was this ability which made them capable of domestication in the first place – in some cases even of self-domestication.

So let’s look at the kind of responsibilities which canine good citizen schemes are demanding of dogs and I’m going to use the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test as the example. The responsibilities expected of dogs are the ability to allow a friendly stranger to approach their human companion, the ability to allow a friendly stranger to approach and pet them, the ability to allow someone to groom them, the ability to walk on a lead in a controlled manner, including in crowds of people, the ability to respond to basic instructions and the ability to deal with common situations such as meeting another dog, distractions or disturbances, or being left with a stranger for a short period.

Comparing these responsibilities with the kind of responsibilities envisaged in Zoopolis highlights how far we are from recognizing dogs as full citizens of a multispecies society in the way that Donaldson and Kymlicka imagined. The kinds of responsibilities outlined in canine good citizen schemes focus on a dog’s conduct rather than enabling or allowing them to contribute to society in a way that fosters their own mental and physical wellbeing and human respect for them. They’re not the kind of roles that Donaldson and Kymlicka might have imagined but we might think of feats of strength and endurance like that of Togo and Balto who were lead sled dogs in the race to transport diphtheria antitoxin across Alaska after an outbreak in 1925. Or we might think of the acute senses of detection dogs, whose sense of smell is thought to be 40 times more acute than that of humans and are therefore invaluable in detecting all manner of things from disease to drugs. In a multi-species society there might be more scope for dogs to perform such roles, allowing them to flourish and to contribute to society, and enhancing human respect for them.

Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that "dogs display [… an excellent] capacity for negotiating the social rules of human–dog society [ … and that] one of the most striking differences between dogs and wild canids is that dogs are highly attuned to humans, and look to them for social clues and guidance. Tamed wolves and coyotes don’t do this. In other words, dogs’ repertoire of skills for social cooperation [...] has evolved in a dog–human community. Dogs are remarkably adept at reading human behaviour, and negotiating terms of cooperation" (2015: 119).

If we allowed dogs more agency in our shared society we might be better able to recognize them as full citizens and enable them to contribute in a way that avoids exploitation and encourages mutual flourishing.


Dogs on the Move: A Canine History in Kington, Ontario

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might like this walking tour stop written by Claudia Hirtenfelder about the history of dogs in Kingston, Ontario:



Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).

You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano). Learn more about our team here.


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