Marcus Folch is an associate professor in the Classics department at Columbia University and the author of The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato’s Laws. His second book, Bondage, Incarceration, and the Prison in Greece and Rome: A Cultural History, is under contract with Oxford University Press. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Celeste Fine (partner at Park & Fine Literary and Media), three kids, and Emmelia, a German Shepherd who attended boarding school and might know some Greek.
Are you a dog person?
The experience of having lost dogs—many of them—is partially why I don’t call myself a “dog person,” because I know, in the best possible circumstances, I will outlive her, and that kind of changes how you think about pets. I know that this is a temporary, fleeting, and wonderful relationship, because it’s ephemeral, and it is valuable because of that temporality.
By the time I was 14, we had at least dozen dogs in the family. We lived in rural Texas, about an hour and a half east of Austin, by highway, in the middle of cattle pasture, and the animals there were semi-wild. Even our dogs were semi-wild. This was the ’80s. One did not spay or neuter a dog, and there were feral dogs around everywhere. Our first dog, she got knocked up rather quickly. From one, we went to 10. Of those, seven, not including the mom, made it past the first year.
We got another dog—Honey. He was awesome. Honey was my dear, dear pet. He got run over by a car while I was calling him across the street. He died in my arms when I was 10 years old. We called him Honey because he had a honey patch on his white fur. And then we moved to Florida and had a number of other dogs.
“I know that this is a temporary, fleeting, and wonderful relationship, because it’s ephemeral, and it is valuable because of that temporality.”
My family’s Latin American. My dad is Dominican, and my mom is Cuban. In different cultures, you have different kinds of attachments and relationships to pets. The American close emotional connection with a pet is not something that I was raised with. My personal philosophy is that dogs, and animals in general, are independent beings. They have their own existence. To put it in Kantian terms, they have their own ends. I think of my job, as an owner, in fact, to respect her own ends. I like to think of her as a separate being who is in my life temporarily, fortunately for me and hopefully for her.
So, if you’re not a dog person, how did Emmelia come into your life?
I’ve always wanted a dog in New York City, but I thought that living here made it impossible to have a dog—specifically with lifestyle of an academic who works on European things and is traveling over the summer. It just didn’t seem compatible with the kind of high-quality lifestyle that I wanted to give a dog.
Anyway, I was dating the woman who is now my wife, and I’m outdoorsy, so I took her camping for her first time ever. She hated it. She decided, at that point, that she needed to get me a dog, to have a hiking partner, so that she would never have to come with me again. These days, Emmelia and I hike 20 miles from sunrise to sunset through the Catskills.
I had a sister who was volunteering at an animal hospital, and she found out about a litter of unwanted German Shepherd puppies in Yonkers. I rented the car. My wife got the money out of the bank to pay for the dog. My sister found the address, and we drove to Yonkers and got Emmelia. She was nine weeks old. As we were driving back, I was thinking, “What did we do? Who decided that we were getting a dog? ” To want a dog, to want your boyfriend to have a dog, and to know that there’s a dog out there, is not a decision to get a dog. It’s what sociologists call “distributive cognition,” where a community is all thinking different parts of a coherent thought, and so the action happens without anybody actually making the decision.
Yeah, that’s how we got Emmelia. Distributive cognition. We had her for a week before we gave her a name, recommended by my mom. I liked it because, in Greek, Emmelia means having harmony or harmonious. That’s what it means metaphorically, but literally what it means is having limbs that are in order or parts that are in order, and I thought that, with a German Shepherd, in fear of hip dysplasia, I liked the idea of naming my dog after something that means having a good physical composition. Incidentally, I was writing a book on Ancient Greek music and philosophy at the time.
Emmelia is a very well trained German Shepherd. She has the best manners! How did you do that?
We got her in May. I had to finish the book by December because I was undergoing a review for a promotion from assistant professor to associate professor, so it was a big career change. She was taking up a lot of time, and my now-wife was traveling in California, where her clients are, for weeks at a stretch. I said to her, “I cannot finish this book if I’m constantly having to take a dog out every three hours, interrupting research.” She said, “Well, let’s find a good trainer, and have her trained.” The trainer is called Stonehill Kennel. They kept her for six weeks, and then she turned on the trainer on the day we went to pick her up.
She took one look at me, and she decided that this trainer was not her boss anymore, and she attacked him. It was really instructive to see a German Shepherd and a professional trainer going toe to toe. German Shepherds, the well-raised, -bred ones have bite inhibition, the way that shepherding dogs do. You actually have to train them to bite. She was on her hind legs, with her paws on his shoulder, growling at him—but not biting him, refusing to bite him. And then they refused to send her home, because he was like, “We can’t send home a dog that is so defiant at the end of training,” so they kept her for an additional week, and then she came back, and she was very docile.
You have three young children and two working parents in the household. What is Emmelia’s role in the family?
Emmelia thinks of her job as being one of the parents in the family. When the twins were born, she would lie between them and the front door. Whenever I would get up and walk between them and the front door, she would get up, and walk to another room, and lie between them and a window into the apartment. Wherever I was, she would be guarding what she thought was one of the entrance points to the apartment. Now, with kids, you have to get up at least every two and a half to three hours, to feed them, and she would get up with us, and then lie down next to us as we were feeding the kids, and then, when we went to bed, she would go and lie down in front of their door. She still sleeps in front of their bedroom door. We have a dog bed she uses sometimes. It’s an L.L.Bean—the biggest dog bed I could find.
What is your typical daily routine with Emmelia?
This is our recent morning routine: We all get up in the morning, and we take our kids to daycare, and the daycare’s about a mile away, so I push a twin stroller with two of the kids, and walk Emmelia to the daycare. Then, my wife takes a bus with the other kid, and we meet there, and we drop the kids off, and I walk Emmelia back to the park. Every day, every time I take her out for a walk, she finds a ball in the woods, and she will carry it for three or four miles. After work, I walk her briefly, and then we have a nighttime dog walker. I find it’s just easier to have a nighttime dog walker than a morning dog walker because that gives me time with the family.
“Emmelia thinks of her job as being one of the parents in the family.”
What do you feed her?
She actually doesn’t eat a lot. Two cups a day. Her metabolism changed after she got fixed. She has a restricted diet, because, as is not uncommon with German Shepherds, she has food allergies, and so she’s allergic to chicken if she eats too much of it, or lamb. Whoever thought of a shepherding dog that cannot eat lamb? Now, she eats Blue Buffalo Blue Basics Adult Salmon & Potato Recipe Dry Dog Food. Also, she eats any food that my kids drop on the floor.
What is a grooming routine like for a big dog like Emmelia?
We used to take her to the groomer, but she got a skin infection from one of them, and it cost us $2600 in medical bills, so I went and bought an antibiotic horse shampoo called Curaseb 4% Chlorhexidine Antiseptic Shampoo, and I give her the baths now. The 4% Chlorhexidine works on bacteria but not fungal infections. It’s great for rashes and minor skin infections, to which Emmelia is prone. And I have also used it as a diluted foot soak for when Emmelia has had minor infections on her paws and in the nail bed.
It is surprising how much pet medication is actually over-the-counter. Panacur, prescribed for Giardia and as a dewormer, is available directly from Merck on Amazon. It’s the same thing you get at the animal hospital. Every puddle in NYC is swarming with parasites, and Emmelia loves finding the dirtiest, wettest ball, sunk down in the filthiest, most stagnant puddle. The balls were essentially vectors for all sorts of stomach infections. She had Giardia every month for about a year before I found Panacur online. Now I can recognize the symptoms and I keep two courses of Panacur in the canine medicine drawer. Yes, we have a drawer for Emmelia’s medications.
Do you ever bring Emmelia to class?
No, not to teach. I used to bring her to the office, but she gets bored, and she chews these antlers, and it gets really noisy, so it interrupts my thought.
Do your students even bring their dogs to class?
My students bring their dogs to class sometimes. I don’t care as long as it’s not disruptive.
The relationship between humans and dogs has a long history in storytelling. Can you tell us some of your favorite dog stories from antiquity?
I’m fairly certain Plato had a dog, because he talks about them so much in the Republic. My favorite dog story is Plato’s claim that dogs are the most philosophical animals because they recognize and welcome and are gentle toward what is their own, and defensive and hostile to that which is not their own. He’s like, “How do you describe a philosopher? A philosopher is one who knows and is committed to truth, and hates and is protective against falseness, and so he knows what is his own and he hates that which is not his own.” Then he says, “Well, dogs are the most philosophic animals because they have this commitment to what’s theirs and this hostility to that which is not theirs.”
“I’m fairly certain Plato had a dog, because he talks about them so much in the Republic.”
In a separate passage in the Republic, Socrates argues that women should have the same lifestyles as men: they should participate in politics, hold office, join the military, and become philosophers. In Athens this would have been a deeply controversial claim. Athens practiced a strong separation between male and female social and political spheres. Women were never allowed to take a role in politics and the military, and they did not practice philosophy. And for Plato to use an analogy to dogs to make this claim would have been even more confusing. Dogs were not exactly admired in Classical Greece. The word for female dog in Greek, as in English, has negative connotations. Helen of Troy, for instance, calls herself a dog—a bitch—specifically with reference to her sexual promiscuity. The references to dogs make it hard to tell how much of these arguments are meant seriously. What I think may be safe to say is that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of references to dogs in the Republic, and at one point Socrates notes that Glaucon, his interlocutor, has many hunting dogs in his house. Glaucon was Plato’s brother, so all these references to dogs seem to be relevant to Plato’s own family, his own experiences. Hence, my suggestion that Plato himself either had a dog or grew up around them.
Since you’re talking to Argos & Artemis, can you tell us about Argos?
The connection between dogs, and hunting, and heroism, and a kind of willingness to venture beyond the boundaries of one’s society, where your only companion is a dog—that’s a very old Indo-European stratum of myth. For example, the Odyssey by Homer. The giveaway, when Odysseus is in disguise, is that he has a scar from a boar hunt. When he comes home, his dog, Argos, sees him and is the only one who recognizes him, and then dies. There’s a theory that this is Homer recognizing this other tradition of Odysseus as a kind of a dog-associated hunting hero. By the way, the word for “to hunt” in Greek is “to lead a dog.”
Photography by Tayler Smith