America -- Going To The Dogs
by Jonathan Field
Jan English-Lueck is a cultural anthropologist who teaches at San Jose University. The tribes she studies are close to home, namely the tech workers in Silicon Valley. Recently on a recruit for a project undertaken by the Institute for the Future, she found herself in a quandary. Looking for families to be part of a study, English-Lueck heard from a lot of couples and singles that thought they should be able to participate, even if they had no children.
“They didn’t have children but they had dogs,” English-Lueck told me recently. “For many couples, it was a first stage toward having a child. Or to be parents without having kids.”
While nobody has quantified it, looking around the country it seems there’s a dramatic jump in the number of people who think of their dogs less as “pets” and more as “children.” A report last year in American Demographics found that only one third of dog owners actually have children. Most dog owners are either young couples or “empty nesters.” As one trainer told me, “dogs are becoming the babies we love who never grow up and turn into ugly teenagers.”
According to social thinker and journalist Jon Katz, America’s population of dogs grew by almost 40 percent from 1991 to 2001, moving from approximately 50 million to 68 million within ten years. For Katz, the increase has generated consequences that are both intriguing and disturbing. Katz recently published The New Work of Dogs, Tending to Life, Love, and Family, a book that details a year of watching the interaction between people and dogs in Montclair, New Jersey, using it to identify what he sees as a subtle but growing dependence on dogs.
The idealized American household of two kids, a home, a backyard, and a dog in that backyard is nothing new. But as Katz and other animal experts will tell you, dogs have moved from the backyard into the bedroom. More, as Katz sees it, our dogs are increasingly not simply “man’s best friend,” but too often our only friends. Americans are increasingly close to their animals. Katz locates the sources of this in a fragmented social fabric.
“Dog owners… live in closer emotional proximity to dogs, I think, because we need them more than our grandfathers did. Because we are increasingly discontented, disaffected, isolated, needy. Because we are lonelier,” Katz writes. “Because we feel powerless and vulnerable, removed from the people who run our work and civic lives. Because many of us hate our work and resent the people who make it so insecure. Families scatter; friends can let us down. More and more, we’ve turned to dogs when we need love or despair of unfulfilling lives, or face death.”
Katz also points out that they have larger roles in society at large. Studies suggest a correlation between pet ownership and less depression among the elderly or infirm. Dogs are being trained to sniff out potential illness in human beings or help the handicapped function. As he sees it, dogs have an unacknowledged rise in social importance.
“The range of dogs’ work these days is breathtaking,” Katz writes. “[They] join search-and-rescue missions, help the blind, guard property, sniff for bombs and illegal drugs, and comfort the elderly, the traumatized, he bereaved, and the lonely. Therapists enthusiastically enlist dogs in treating drug and alcohol addiction and in a broad range of rehabilitation work. They increasingly use dogs to help emotionally disturbed children.”
The growing relationship has generated ever-growing amounts of dog-oriented media and a burgeoning pet product industry ($17 billion in 1994, $29 billion in 2002, estimated to rise to $34 billion in 2005), where Americans spend almost twice what they do on dog and cat food than on baby food and are more likely to devote resources to treat illness for pets than on themselves or destitute humans.
Katz has two fears. First, that people are withdrawing from the everyday struggle to navigate human interaction. As he sees it, by relying more on dogs than people for companionship, a small but important segment of human beings give up on creating adult community. Not the idealized type of community where everything is serene and happy, but the everyday hard-scrapple mix of negotiating needs and priorities via public forums that demand compromise as well as consensus. But Katz also has real concerns about the dogs.
“The relentless anthropomorphizing of dogs in ways that are sometimes wonderful, sometimes disturbing and exploitive, is driving many animals crazy,” Katz writes. “Apart from the rise in dog bites and other aggressive and neurotic behaviors, the millions of dogs abandoned annually are, in part, a testament to the harm done by humans’ misconceptions and misplaced expectations.”
By expecting too much from our dogs, they inevitably fail our expectations. It’s the dogs, not humans, who end up being penalized by those failures. Each year, 8-10 million dogs end up in shelters, approximately half of them killed. But equally disturbing to Katz is the less dramatic but subtle ways dog owners ignore what he and other experts define as canine “dogness.”
To put it simply, dogs aren’t people, and no matter how happy they are to see us when we come home; these beings have their own demands and limitations. Indeed, those limitations and needs are a result that those dogs are a creation of mankind; creatures human beings spent our entire civilization designing for non-human tasks. While canines may have the sweet innocence of babies, they’ve been genetically bred for specific behavior, little of which has to do with the confined world of modern urban and suburban life.
Huskies were bred to pull sleds. Jack Russells were created to kill rats. Shepard dogs were designed to herd sheep. Golden Retrievers were the creation of an English aristocrat named Lord Tweedmouth who mixed a few golden haired breeds of hunting dogs to be excelling at… retrieving things. Looking to dogs to become our closest companions within a modern context creates an inevitable challenge, given that their genes give them a powerful predilection for behavior that can be impossible for them to totally subdue.
Living in areas where relatively few people farm or hunt (outside for real estate space) and where the public’s terror of street violence makes any dog bite prime time news, conflicts are sure to arise. They may be delighted to see us when we come home everyday. They may cuddle with us or respond to commands on cue. And according to recent scientific studies, they give tangible emotional comfort to their owners, alleviating some of the isolation that seems endemic to modern life.
But can a terrier bred to nip the heels of sheep be taught not to nip, if not bite other animals, including humans? Yes, but it’s going to take much more than yelling “bad dog,” a phrase no breeding has apparently addressed. It will take an amount of commitment, time and education that existing and potential owners may want to consider.
Through profiles of several dog owners, (among them a group of women who form a club of dog-owning divorcees, a lonely teenager, a critically ill young single woman whose closest friend is her dog, a widower, and a woman who is obsessed with rescuing dogs) Katz explores the challenges dogs and their owners face. Leash laws that make it illegal in most states for dogs to run free on any piece of public property. Dogs left alone for most of the day in tiny rooms within small apartments. Well meaning but ignorant people who need friends, not dogs, and are confused when the dog can’t be “potty trained” simply by discussing the situation with them. Non-dog owners who are paranoid about the growing presence of dogs.
In fact, when Katz wanted to interview a law enforcement official about Montclair’s dog laws, he had to agree to do the interviews in towns outside the man’s jurisdiction, incognito. With 40 percent of American households dog-owners, and ownership reflecting both higher income and education, civil responsibility and control over these animals may be one of this country’s least acknowledged yet potentially contentious public issues.
“In my shoes,” the official told Katz, “there is no percentage in talking publicly about dogs. Every dog call is bad. Either there’s a nasty biter loose, or some dog ran away, or there’s a dogfight, or somebody’s dog is barking late at night. It’s nothing but trouble. Whatever you do, you lose. People will fight harder for their dogs than they do for themselves.”
How to give dogs public space to run free? How to protect members of the non-dog owning public from the specter of an undisciplined dog? How to assure non-dog owners that attacks are actually rare and usually the result of the dog owner rather than the dog? How to educate dog owners about their responsibility not just for its behavior but for the owner’s need to give it the social interaction and exercise their genes determine it needs to genuinely survive in confined and frequently isolated space? Just because a person spends a 20 minutes snuggling with their hyper-active pet, then takes it for a 15-minute walk twice a day, doesn’t mean the dog has actually lived out the psyche for which it is wired. It probably depend on the mix of breeds from which it came.
Ray Coppinger, a Hampshire College biologist who studies and writes about animal behavior, especially dogs, hasn’t read Jon Katz’ book but is well aware of the problems raised by the book.
“People always ask me what kind of dog I should get. I tell them if it’s going to live in an apartment, especially with children, they better get a small dog. But people don’t want to hear that,” Coppinger told me. “They want a dog that they think will make them look good. They think that having a certain dog will identify them with the dog. Or they think it’s all about getting a so-called pure breed.”
“There is no such thing as a pure breed,” Coppinger told me. “But in their minds, up in heaven there’s a Rotweiler next to God. And the Rotweiler is perfect. And they believe it’s man’s job to make a Rotweiler as perfect as God’s…. People who want pure breeds are always thinking of the original dog. But the original dog was a mongrel. Anyone who works with dogs works with crossbreds. The reason there are Jack Russell terriers is Jack Russell was a person who bred a bunch of different dogs to kill more rats faster than anyone else’s dog.”
Coppinger and other dog experts point out that pure-breeding can result in more medical problems than with mutts. The problem is inbreeding, where negative or recessive strains are reinforced. And while the so-called “puppy mills” responsible for this process seem to be receding according to most people interviewed, Coppinger thinks the country is not well prepared to deal with its pet dogs.
“America is schizophrenic about dogs,” Coppinger says. “We have all these laws protecting people from dogs and all these laws protecting dogs from people. We’re not sure what we want for our dogs…. The truth is the amount of information that the average person in the culture has about the raising and training of animals is rather poor.”
Dog trainers like Willie Baldwin see the problems first hand. Baldwin, who has worked as a trainer in Albuquerque since the early 1960s, characterizes the last two decades as a time when people “have less and less time for training.” She’s changed the way she works to be more flexible to busy schedules. But that doesn’t bother the seemingly unflappable Ms. Baldwin, a woman whose slight Western drawl and dry humor give the sense of someone who knows the limits of human breeding as well as canine. What bothers her echoes concerns of other trainers interviewed; namely an owner thinking something’s wrong with their dog when it’s the relationship out of whack.
“I get a lot of calls and damn near have to psychoanalyze the entire family to find out why the dog is acting the way it is. They think the dog is supposed to be like to be like the Jack Russell or Dalmatian on television. But those dogs on television are highly trained animals.”
“These people are gone from home ten hours a day. They come back and the dog has eaten the living room and they go to the vet wondering why the dog has problems. Then they call me and I tell them they need to spend some time with the dog and make some rules and follow them. People never think for a minute how a Dalmatian will fit into their life. They don’t think that Dalmatians were bred to run with horse drawn coaches and has a high exercise quotient. They just think black and white spotted dog, I have to have one.”
“The thing is dogs are not human. They have a whole other set of rules or built-in ways of being but they’re much easier to get along with than people. They don’t come home and said you forgot to get the milk for the baby. They just say oh, it’s you, I’m so excited. They’re always glad to see you. And it makes you feel good. Because someone is glad to see you.”
Lest this all seem a rant against dog ownership, none of the dog professionals interviewed, from Baldwin to Katz, had anything but raves for what dogs actually can bring a person, as well as a community.
Gregg Dubit is a good example. Dubit loves dogs. He better. He owns 34 of them. During the summer months, Gregg Dubit makes a living as a carpenter building houses, while the rest of the year he and his wife Gretchen run Durango Dog Ranch, which provides dog sled tours in the Colorado back country.
Raised back east in a Washington D.C. household, he was one of three siblings who all ended up swearing off their suburban roots for rural life (his older brother became a country doctor, his sister created a series of agriculturally based non-profits). But he was the only one in his family with a strong interest in dogs. He blames it all on reading Jack London’s Call of The Wild. Today, Dubit, an avid rock climber and backpacker, tends nearly three dozen huskies and mixed breeds that team his sleds.
It started off as a hobby, and then sprang into a living. Actually, Dubit’s dog ranch is reflective of the growing pet industry, much of which is fueled by mom-and-pop operations created by people like him and his wife, individuals who had no love for corporate America and turned their passion and entrepreneurial instincts into a related business.
He and Gretchen have not yet had children, but their lives are enormously busy tending to all their dogs. Even in the summer, they’re up before sunrise to feed, clean and tend their pups.
“We’ve chosen a life that doesn’t allow us to go out very much or travel very much. We’re basically farmers, we have to be here all the time,” Dubit says. “But at the same time, it’s very rewarding in other ways. Because I have a relationship with 34 dogs and I’m in the inner circle of their world.”
Asked what that being “in the circle means,” Dubit talks eloquently about the nuance of the dog community, from their playful and competitive navigation of dominance to their sensitivity to each other and the world.
“You learn to be observant. To really see the world. I can spot just the slight silhouette of one of my dogs and know which one it is,” Dubit says. “You learn how to read body language. To notice how fast someone is breathing when you meet them. How to read each other by their body language. We lose that sense at body language in today’s world where you don’t even pay an actual person for your gas. In our technological society, we just don’t have the opportunity for that sensory presence that being with dogs provides.”
Among some dog owners and well as non-dog owners, Dubit would be criticized for exploitation of his canine sled teams, but most experts would agree that his exercise of his 34 Huskies fits the breed perfectly. According to Dubit, they literally leap at the opportunity to be part of the sled-driving pack. And while it certainly suits him to make such claims, his pithy description of the pleasure of what riding the sleds brings visitors rings true.
“Time stops,” Dubit says. “People just suddenly find themselves transported and it’s into another world. The dogs are very much part of that world.”
Go to any park and you’ll probably find more than owners standing around amazed at the raw exuberance of any group of dogs at play. They interact and move with irrepressible excitement. It’s visceral and infectious. Just watch the smiles they inspire among their audience. In a remarkable essay written a few years ago, MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins deconstructed the allure of Lassie, identifying how grownups project their own unadulterated impulses upon dogs and children.
“Our culture generally constructs a myth of children as pure and clean. Same thing that’s going on with the dog,” Jenkins told me. “There are realities that are not so cool. In both cases it’s a mixed bag. The myth is not. It’s pure ideal.”
Reading Jenkins essay on Lassie, you get a sense of how adults use dogs and children to mirror our unspoken and unmasked animal longing, love, and fears. Today, though, kids grow up awfully fast. Indeed mass media praises them for their smarts much more than for their innocence. In the process of children becoming more sophisticated, and infantilizing adult culture, we may have eliminated adolescence as an idealized state of being. As a result, dogs may be the reigning symbol for something we have a difficult time expressing. Our own inherent psychic contradiction of unmediated tenderness and aggression.
Even Jenkins, who is ambivalent about dogs (“I had my own dog I loved but today I also hate the way they smell and shed and bark,” he told me), says such projection has its blessing.
“It’s utopian and allows us to dream a bit,” Jenkins told me. “Who is to say whether it’s good or bad?”
An example of this process could be seen in this summer’s movie sequel to Legally Blond, where Elle Wood’s pet Chihuahua, Bruiser, took center-stage as the movie roamed from the hallowed halls of Harvard to the raucous halls of Congress. There, in the innocence of a Washington D.C. dog park, Bruiser meets a huge tough looking Rotweiller owned by an equally tough looking Southern conservative Congressman, and the two dogs end up falling in love.
Witherspoon’s character, in Washington as a liberal out to fight corporate American exploitation of animals, finds a sudden ally in the Strom Thurmond-like Southerner, even when she and him realize both their dogs are gay. Perplexed by the revelation, it’s the old white conservative who breaks the silence, basically telling Woods “to hell with it, he’s still my dog and I love him, whether or not he’s a homosexual.”
In an era where kids know more than their parents about technology and have increasing power, where concerns about terrorism are not just paranoid but real, where ethnic and religious differences seem to simultaneously enrich and threaten collective public life, dogs may be a powerful symbol of reconciliation as well as an active participant in that process.
While some people may not be dog-advocates, all of the five sociologists I interviewed for this piece (from sociologists to animal behaviorists) feel that their public and private presence is a positive thing. As Jan English-Leuck put it, “anything that gets people less self-centered and focused on other beings” can be a source of positive community. The question dog ownership raises for the public are two fold. First, how to integrate the dogs?
“There are people out there who absolutely detest dogs. And their loathing for dogs increases the more irresponsible dog owners are. Every time when that person steps in dog poop getting out of their car only increases their rage at dog owners polluting their environment, “ James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interactions of Animals & Society said. “But there is a refusal to acknowledge that animals have a real role. So society, at some level views these relationships as counterfeit. Which is a shame because the scientific evidence says these animals play a very important roles.”
The second question is how to integrate what’s positive in our love of our dogs into the larger society. Reflecting on all the attention given to pets, Katz theorizes about a world where human beings were as genuinely energized by people rescue as dog rescue.
“Shouldn’t there be groups obsessed with helping abandoned people, helping to replace their mobile children or deceased spouses, repairing the damage left by their unhappy childhoods, making them whole and happy?” Katz writes.
Realists, never mind cynics, would say that’s impossible. But perhaps having a dog makes it more likely to remember that to be born into this world makes us a social animal, regardless of all our attempts at self-control and self-determination, we are all inevitably connected to others.
“I don’t begrudge the right of people to have nothing to do with companion animals. Just as I don’t begrudge people the right to live with children if that’s what they choose,” says Clint R. Sanders, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who has a professional interest in human and animal relationships, and co-authored the book Regarding Animals, (Animals, Culture & Society). “In an ideal level, the more experience we have with more perspectives, the better off we are. People who have no knowledge or experience with dogs, I think that’s sort of sad.”
“They’re missing out on a whole world of experience. People live with companion dogs because dogs are fun and are funny and loving. The relationship is not contingent on whether you look good or smell good or are happy or sad. They’ll pretty much treat you as the member of the pack that you are.”
Now the challenge is to know which pack has the power to lead. Spiritually it may be the dogs, but on a practical level, it’s one place where humans must step up to the task, taking responsibility for the life-long demands of disciplining and caring for their pets, knowing their failure will end up biting us all.