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Our allegiance to dogs has never been higher

One Nation Under Dog, one of the latest contributions to the growing pile of American dog lit, is a highly readable volume that looks at our obsession with dogs, and the lengths (or are they extremes?) we go to on their (or is it our?) behalf.

As dog lit goes, this one’s worth scooping up, and not just for its accounting of excessive human behavior when it comes to dogs — from popping Prozac in our puppies, to luxury pet spas, to doggie social networking, to the dog food revolution, to spending our savings to prolong our dogs’ lives.

The book covers all that, and more, in an entertaining manner, but it’s at its best when it ventures into figuring out what’s behind the mania.

Written by Michael Schaffer, who like me — and like some guy named Grogan who once wrote a book about some dog named Marley — is a former writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, One Nation Under Dog, chronicles the rise of the pet industry, where sales have risen from $17 billion to $43 billion in the past decade.

I asked Shaffer in an email interview what he sees as the factors behind the fast rising status of the dog — the species’ transition from backyard to master bedroom.

“If you look at data on the pet population, you see it starting to grow faster than the human population only around the late-60s or early 1970s. Had people’s choice to get pets just been a function of postwar prosperity, it might have spiked sooner. But the rise coincides with a bunch of other things: More divorce, moves away from old tight-knit urban neighborhoods, decline of labor unions, more moving away from family.”

In other words, we’ve turned to dogs for the sense of community some of us often don’t find in our fellow humans.

“My hunch is that as the various human social-support networks declined, people leaned on their pets for more of that,” Schaffer added. “I write in my book that people have always loved pets, but the terms of the love change in ways that reflect the times. So as all this happened, the Man’s Best Friend in the backyard became the full-fledged family member who slept in our beds. They didn’t change; we did.”

There’s much truth to that — just as there was 40 years ago when Kathleen Szasz wrote Petishism, which portrayed the growing dependence on, and catering to, dogs as a nationwide neurosis in need of a cure. The fringe behaviors she wrote about then have become mainstream now, and Schaffer addresses them in a far less angry, far less hand-wringing manner.

Just because you dress your dog, doesn’t mean you need a shrink, at least in Schaffer’s book. Then again, keep in mind Schaffer has a dog of his own, a Saint Bernard, and he — the dog — is on anti-depressants.

It was the dog, Schaffer said, that led to the book — “a big, drooly Saint Bernard named Murphy who we found on Petfinder and adopted from a New Jersey shelter. I remember as we drove out there, my wife and I promising we’d never, never spend big dollars on food, vet care, toys. We weren’t going to become like all of those people in newspaper stories about kooky pet-owners. But, of course, in real life it’s a bit more complicated. I’d never had a pet before so I just followed the lead of everyone in the neighborhood who had dogs. That standard of care, though, had all of my family rolling their eyes at our alleged pampering of Murphy.

“My sense is that what happened was that the definition of normal, for petcare, had changed pretty radically in the relatively short time between when they got dogs and when I did. And as a journalist, I think that when the definition of normal changes so much so fast, it means something interesting is going on. I decided to go find out what it was.”

Schaffer says the evolution of the relationship can be seen in pet cemeteries, like Hartsdale, in Westchester County, New York, where the headstones tell the story.

“The oldest ones will often say “Here lies Fido, a loyal servant.” Into the 20th century, they’ll say “Here lies Fido, Man’s Best Friend.” And nowadays, in cemeteries and online pet tributes, you see a lot of “Mommy’s little boy,” or “Your mommy and daddy miss you,” that sort of thing. It really shows the promotion.

“Except nowadays he won’t be called Fido anymore. Data from VPI, the country’s biggest pet insurer–whose very existence is itself evidence of this trend, come to think of it–show that the most popular policyholder names include Max, Jake, Chloe, Bella, etc. That sounds more like my daughter’s preschool than the neighborhood dogs of yore. Anyway, once they get promoted into the family, our sense of family responsibility does the rest.”

You can learn more about Schaffer’s book (published by Henry Holt and Company) on his website, which also features a blog.

To order it from Amazon.com, click here.


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Time April 20, 2009 at 12:19 pm

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