The Matters addressed by this blog embrace the general idea that taste is one aspect of engagement in a social contract. Before this post, the idea of “contract” has been limited to humankind. Although they may not possess the aesthetic judgment required to claim that they have taste (although, as the best blogs will tell you, they can indeed be in good taste), it has to be said: animals may or may not exhibit the traits which are inherent in a tasteful behavior. One may argue this is exhibited by those animals that have been awarded the Dickin Medal. Instituted in 1943 by a UK veterinary charity to honor gallantry and devotion to duty in military or civil emergency service, the Dickin Medal has been awarded dozens of times starting in World War II and most recently to a black Lab who served in the 104 Military Working Dog Support Unit in Afghanistan. Eight-year-old Treo received his medal in a February 24, 2010 ceremony at the Imperial War Museum in London for twice locating bombs in the Helmand province. Well done, Treo!
No doubt that dog-people met this news with emotions spanning a spectrum from nodding, satisfied acknowledgement to giddy, hand-clapping glee. Not so much from other sectors, among which are those who believe a dog has no business being awarded anything. Even the now-retired Treo’s handler, Sgt. David Heyhoe, told the BBC that Treo may not have “merited” an award in the way that a person does, while he acknowledges the important and useful role played by service dogs in military and rescue efforts.
However, the more interesting, and telling, response to Treo’s medal came from anther source in the same BBC interview. Clinical psychologist, author and general media maven Oliver James denounced the entire proceedings as a “fairly blatant publicity stunt” staged by the Ministry of Defense to deflect attention from the unpopular war effort by giving it an undeniably adorable and furry face. He went on to say that Treo was probably more interested in a steak than a medal.
Although it’s not difficult to persuade the Matters of Taste editorial staff that the military would engage in bamboozlement, Mr. James himself is running a bit o’ bunco here as well. His suggestion that Treo’s alleged preference for a slice of beef rather than a chunk of bronze would be a no-brainer for an animal “who has no higher mental capacities” (per Mr. James) is not the point. As a particularly well-trained and highly-disciplined member of the dog world, Treo would wait for the cue from his person as to which is the right choice if there was one, which there was not, which makes the comparison irrelevant. What is relevant is Treo’s gung-ho participation in the medal ceremony (no different than his enthusiasm for sniffing out those Taliban bombs), pleased as a pooch could be to be with his person. And here is where dogs exhibit such tasteful behavior: the dog recognizes that he is not in the world for his own pleasure, but he is here to interact with others and to do what he can to make their lives a little happier. If Treo was a person, he would be the neighbor who shovels your walk as well as his own after the snowfall. Treo is the guy who lets you cut in front of him in line at the grocery store when you only have a gallon of milk and he has a whole cartload of stuff. Treo is the colleague who brings donuts to the meeting—and lets someone else have the last raspberry-filled one.
The reason for Mr. James’ misunderstanding of the dog is given away completely in the latter part of the BBC interview, in which, after dashing the doggie, he unsuccessfully attempts to contextualize himself as an animal-loving Everyman who understands wee creatures. He explained that, in general, “humans are tremendously drawn toward small furry mammals;” furthermore, in his own family “we feel passionately about our cat, and our two rabbits.”
Wait, stop. Penalty on the field! Blow the whistle, throw the yellow flag, hoist up the red card.
There is no reasonable comparison being drawn here. Ignoring the rabbits (which are just barely more sentient than the lettuce they chomp), cats are highly cognizant creatures, but they exist in a different emotional universe than that which is inhabited by the dog. Only a rare kitty, like Simon (at left) exhibits the kind of behaviors under discussion here. Simon was noted for raising morale while killing off a rat infestation during the Yangtze Incident in 1949, and was awarded the Dickin Medal. So, good for you, Simon—but still, gorging on rat buffet is not quite the same thing as sniffing out bombs and saving soldiers’ lives. And it is worth noting that Simon is the one cat to received this honor in the Dickin Medal’s sixty-seven years. That’s one.
A more common representative of cat-world is Princess Gingerpuss shown here, who is nothing like a dog; her whole life is all about herself, which is inherently tasteless behavior. Ginger is the neighbor who uses a 400 hp leaf-blower (at 7 AM on a Saturday) to scatter refuse from her lawn to yours. Ginger is the woman who will yak on her cell phone all the way through the grocery line without stopping to do more than snap the receipt out of the clerk’s hand. Ginger comes to the staff meeting with a tuna-and-camembert sandwich with a side of extra-garlic potato salad. Mr. James may have degrees from Eton and Cambridge, but his “passionate” devotion to a cat calls deeply into question his credentials in understanding the psyche—human or otherwise.
The regularity with which the Dickin Medal has been awarded to dogs confirms what logic, history and experience reveal: dogs are the best. (Even the very best blogs say so.) But to be fair, it is worth a note that, although dogs have been the only animal honored by the Dickin Medal in recent history (since 2000 the award has been given out eight times: always to dogs), and although they were a favorite in its earlier history as well, it is a different animal that was celebrated as the most “gallant” animal during the War. Almost sixty percent of the awards prior to 1949 went to one kind of creature (many of them with excellent names like Winkie, Commando, Paddy, William of Orange, GI Joe, Flying Dutchman and Duke of Normandy): homing pigeons.
This may make us take pause, but does not persuade us to give up the paws. Huzzah, Treo!
For the BBC interview with Sgt. Heyhoe and Mr. James, click here for the BBC World Service article