George’s Bulldog: What Mead’s Canine Companion Could Have Told Him about the Self

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2003


The point of this brief essay has been to show that there is more to animal selfhood than Mead thought there was. Our attributions of animals’ selves are not merely anthropomorphic projection. In human-animal interaction, the features of agency, coherence, self-history, and affectivity coalesce, with memory helping to integrate them. Combined, these give the animal a subjective perspective, or a core Self, and concurrently, make core Others available. Expanding our image of the self and our means of studying it has implications far beyond the arena of humananimal interaction. As I have mentioned, it opens up possibilities for research among humans who cannot use language. In addition, the relationship betweenselfhood and personhood has significant implications. I will illustrate with an example from my friend and colleague, biologist Marc Bekoff (2002). Marc is widely known for his work on animal consciousness, emotions, and selfhood. His elderly mother has lost most of her cognitive, physiological, and locomotor capacities. She needs round-the-clock care. She does not recognize Marc and has little if any awareness of her surroundings or her physical body. In sum, she meets few of the criteria that commonly designate personhood. However, few among us would deny that Marc’s mother has the right to be considered a person. In contrast, Marc’s now-deceased companion dog, Jethro, manifested more of the qualities of personhood than did Marc’s mother. Jethro responded to his name, recognized Marc, communicated when he was hungry or needed to relieve himself, and demonstrated the aspects of core selfhood. Many people would nevertheless refuse to call Jethro a person, in any meaningful sense of the word. To be sure, Jethro’s human friends granted him personhood, as did the dog owners in Sanders’s (1999) study (and cat owners, too. See Alger and Alger 1997, 2003). Apart from this circle of friends, however, the objections to calling Jethro a person, with all the rights and protections that accompany that status, would be strong.