Dogs have a dirty little secret, as youâ€™ll soon find out, but Americansâ€™ love affair with them just keeps growing. In his 2009 book, â€śOne Nation Under Dog,â€ť author Michael Schaffer wrote about how ownersâ€™ devotion to their mutts had reached astounding heights. Many of the canines …
… live in a world of dog walkers and pet sitters and animal trainers and canine swim therapists and pet Reiki masseuses … [a] baroque and endlessly subspecialized array of service providers. … 83 percent of American pet owners referred to themselves as their animalâ€™s â€śmommyâ€ť or â€śdaddy,â€ť [reflecting] the centrality of dogs in the lives of ordinary people.
This crazy dog love keeps getting more and more costly. Spending by Americans on their pets more than quadrupled from 1994 to 2017, going from $17 billion to $69.5 billion.
A July 4th story in The New York Times detailed just how eager dog owners are to pamper their loyal, loving, obedient â€śfur babiesâ€ť â€” even if the dogs donâ€™t grasp that whatâ€™s being done to and for them is pampering. Writer Peter Haldeman described the millions of dollars that owners have spent on plastic surgery â€” plastic surgery! â€” for their dogs, in particular â€śtummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts.â€ť Haldeman also noted that owners who love spas and brand-name clothiers project their feelings onto dogs who are â€śwallowing in mud baths and detox wraps, hot oil treatments and blueberry facials.â€ť He wrote…
The Deep Sea mineral mud mask and oatmeal soak with â€śhydrosurgeâ€ť are popular treatments at the Barkley Pet Hotel and Day Spa in Westlake Village, California, a luxurious resort where four-legged guests can sprawl on wrought iron beds and watch DOGTV on flat screens. …
Pets now have their own Vogue (Unleash), Kate Moss (Jiff, a Pomeranian who has over 7.4 million Instagram followers and, like Ms. Moss, favors skimpy T-shirts) and Ralph Lauren (Ralph Lauren, whose Ralph Lauren Pets line features cashmere sweaters and polo shirts; donâ€™t forget to flip up the collar). Posh animals will find options like the timeless tuxedo and shirred dresses, while those who are normcore inclined are also covered (snoods and hoodies made of sustainable bamboo).
Haldeman also wrote about the growing phenomenon of chefs preparing meals for dogs.
Petco recently signed a deal with JustFoodForDogs, a Southern California purveyor of â€śhandcraftedâ€ť meals with â€śhuman quality ingredients,â€ť to install in its stores the answer to Whole Foodsâ€™ juice bars and sushi stations: exhibition kitchens and pantries where pets and pet parents will be able to watch chefs prepare the companyâ€™s signature dishes â€” venison and squash, say, or chicken stir fry.
Lavishing animals that donâ€™t appreciate luxury goods with luxury goods seems nutty. None other than famous dog trainer Cesar Millan has written that not only are dogs generally not picky eaters, many will gobble up â€śanything offered by a human.â€ť
Of course, people have reasons for showing their dogs such love. A 2015 story in Wired magazine detailed the considerable research showing that humans care more about their pets than other humans. It included a statistic about family life that seems more perverse and disheartening the more you think about it. According to a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association …
… 40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids.
As John Lennon sang in 1974, â€śwhatever gets you through the night.â€ť Instead of overthinking why people love their dogs, maybe we should just accept that they do. Thatâ€™s especially the case for those whose mental health is dependent on dogsâ€™ companionship. Thatâ€™s because the more the human-canine relationship is examined, the more its parasitic nature becomes obvious â€” and the more clingy and forlorn humans come to appear.
Consider that a spoiler alert. Donâ€™t read anymore if you want to preserve your canine illusions.
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, begins with extensive research into the evolution of dogs in the 1990s. One of Americaâ€™s best science journalists, Stephen Budiansky, wrote about this genomic research in a cover article for The Atlantic magazine in July 1999 entitled â€śThe Truth About Dogs,â€ť which he expanded into a book with the same title published in 2000. Budiansky laid out a powerful case that â€śthe conventional explanations of where dogs come from, how they ended up in our homes and why they do what they do for usâ€ť were all wrong.
Instead of the notion that over the past 40,000 years, mankind domesticated wolves into present-day dogs, Budiansky says evidence strongly suggests that â€śproto-dogsâ€ť cultivated mankind, intuitively grasping that â€śmooching off peopleâ€ť beat â€śfighting it out in the wild.â€ť Early humans, â€świth their campfires and garbage heaps and hunting practices, but above all with their social interactions, represented an ecological niche ripe for exploitation,â€ť Budiansky wrote. Dogs had a secret weapon in winning over humans: human nature, specifically our near-compulsive anthropomorphism â€” our habit of attributing human behaviors, emotions or intentions to nonhuman entities. He wrote…
Human beings do it so instinctively that they are forever ascribing malignant or benignant motives even to inanimate forces such as the weather, volcanoes and internal-combustion engines. Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when weâ€™re up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity. …
Even people who are very bad animal trainers can usually make themselves understood to dogs. If you shout at a dog, it cringes. Does this mean the dog feels sorry for peeing on your Oriental rug? The fact is that it doesnâ€™t matter, as far as the dog is concerned, whether he feels sorry or not. The cringe is a successful technique for deflecting aggression. Millions of years of wolf evolution have selected such behaviors because they are socially effective; thousands of years of dog evolution have fine-tuned such behaviors so that they are socially effective on people. Just as we are genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty, dogs are genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours.
I know the clinical coldness of these last two paragraphs is going to rub dog lovers the wrong way. But the case that Budiansky made in 1999 has only gotten stronger over the years â€” even if some authors try to soften the blow with semantics, such as The Vergeâ€™s 2015 description of dogs as â€śnatureâ€™s most adorable parasite.â€ť
As for dog defenders, at least they can always find reassurance on YouTube. I am among the millions who have watched the April 2017 video of the North Carolina man who lost 50 pounds during a lengthy stay in the hospital and whose dog initially didnâ€™t recognize him, only to be seemingly overcome with joy after recognizing his ownerâ€™s smell. It seems completely and believably spontaneous, not a â€śprogrammed behavior.â€ť
But was the dog â€” Willie â€” overjoyed to have his friendly master back? Or to have his primary meal ticket back? As Budiansky writes, â€śwhen it comes to dogs, almost nothing is what it seems.â€ť
So is that love in your dogâ€™s eyes â€” or is that the look of a con man sizing up his mark? Science says itâ€™s the latter. Sorry, world.
Reed, who apologizes to Yoshi, Murphy, Cosmo, Wanda and Lola, is deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @chrisreed99. Column archive: sdut.us/chrisreed.
Facebook: San Diego Union-Tribune Ideas & Opinion