Becoming a fully autonomous dog

July 16, 2022

There is a dog across the street from the cafe I’m writing this in who is considering entering the 7-11. They decide to instead play with another dog, deftly avoiding the motorcycle traffic as they wander away, probably in search of a bite to eat.

Here on this tiny Thai island where I’m staying, there are a lot of street dogs and they are integrated and accepted by society. You’ll find them sleeping in side streets, wandering through restaurants and street fairs politely begging, sleeping by the counter in a 7-11, and riding on scooters (with the assistance of humans, or course).

Whenever I am visiting somewhere with street dogs I find myself easily charmed by them. Part of it must be the uncanny sight of a dog making their own decisions about where to go, and for society to simply accept this as the way it is. These are independent, autonomous dogs, sauntering over the land with the knowledge that they are in control of their destiny. They contrast sharply with dogs I know back in the states, who are used to going where their owners take them, and accept the rules they impose on them. But the life of a street dog, ah! That’s true freedom, I think to myself; that’s the rejection of simple obedience and the formation of one’s own relationship with society.


I recently read How to Win Friends and Influence People on a whim. I was surprised at the amount of it that felt useful, but one shortcoming of the book is that lots of good advice—like readily admitting mistakes, and being careful with criticism—is merely justified by getting people cooperative or obedient as the end goal.

One particularly noticeable example is when Carnegie suggests not giving direct orders, but suggestions, always giving people the opportunity to do things themselves and learn from their mistakes. I think this is good advice. But he says to do this because it makes the person feel important and “encourages cooperation.” How about the respect that is conferred to someone when they are given real autonomy and ownership of something? Is this what we want from our society? A hierarchy imposing order and obedience through charismatic encouraging of cooperation?

A relationship that involves the obedience of someone to another can be beneficial to both parties, for sure. Deciding to curtail our own autonomy is something we do all the time, be it for our jobs, significant others, or because we don’t want everyone we meet to run in terror from us. I certainly am not about to judge a dog for wanting a domesticated life; after all, it’s as likely as not that dogs domesticated themselves to humans rather than the other way around.

A brief aside for Mouse, who couldn’t make it

There’s a dog at the animal shelter where my friend volunteers here on the island. Mouse (or, sometimes, Coffee) knows how to shake, and how to sit, and how to ride a motorcycle. They understand English, so clearly they were kept as a pet by some farang while they were on the island. They weren’t the dog whose owner took them to a coffee shop, and when the coffee shop closed the dog was still there, patiently waiting for their owner to return—but they might as well have been, because tourists abandoning dogs is sadly not an uncommon occurance.

Now it’s too late for Mouse to learn how to be a street dog. They spent their formative months of life being taken care of by someone, being taught that there would be a central figure in their life that they could be dependent on. Their owner probably thought that their dog would be fine, given how many friendly and healthy dogs roam around this island. But Mouse missed that window and is fated to spend the rest of their days at the shelter (unless they can be adopted out, but people tend to want puppies). It’s far from the worst fate, certainly; luckily they have lots of kind humans they can depend on.

All my good street bois

There are plenty of street dogs that lead hard lives or don’t make it. Thailand is particularly friendly to free-roaming dogs, and the ones on this island are generally both friendly and not a hazard to your health. The dogs might be decidedly less charming depending on where in the world I was visiting. I’m not sure “full” autonomy is impossible anyway, though there are a number of ways to define it in philosophical terms. But regardless of how able we are to govern ourselves, we’re always interdependent with our environment. If that environment is vicious then that’ll undoubtedly have profound effects on us. If you change the environment, you’ll change the kinds of autonomy that are possible.

I will make sure to do my part of making this ecosystem a good one, at least, and greet all the excellent street pups that I meet here.

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real