Book Review: 'One Nation Under Dog' by Michael Schaffer

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 12, 2009


Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies . . .

By Michael Schaffer

Henry Holt. 288 pp. $24

Six of ten U.S. households own pets, up 12 percent between 2000 and 2006. Spending by Americans on their pets more than doubled from $17 billion in 1994 to $41 billion in 2007 and is expected to rise at an 11 percent clip over the next two years. No doubt most of that spending is for routine stuff, but as Michael Shaffer recounts in this informative, entertaining and sobering book, our most privileged pets "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."

That is the world into which Schaffer plunged while writing "One Nation Under Dog." The title was dreamed up by his wife, he says, but he seems to have failed to consult the Googlesphere, which would have alerted him that it's also the name of a company that sells dog-themed plaques, bracelets and T-shirts "inspired by our love of animals." This coincidence merely underscores the point of Schaffer's book: that doggiemania constitutes very big business, and often very strange business as well. Much of it "can be explained," Schaffer writes, "by a popular term I first heard at a Global Pet Expo: fur baby." For millions of Americans, dogs are members of the family, frequently as substitutes for children they never had or who grew up and moved away.

This marks a singular change in American attitudes. In the past, parents frequently acquired pets as companions, rewards or palliatives for their children, and of course some still do, as the Obamas have reminded us. They also acquired pets -- dogs, mainly -- as guards and often left them to sleep outdoors in doghouses or less inviting chambers. By 2001, in rather alarming contrast, "83 percent of American pet owners referred to themselves as their animal's 'mommy' or 'daddy,' " a reflection of "the centrality of dogs in the lives of ordinary people." A recurrent theme in "One Nation Under Dog" is that all of this isn't actually about the animals, but "about the humans." To quote Schaffer:

"A historian from the future, with no surviving evidence to go on save the inventory of a Petco superstore, would have a relatively easy time figuring out the tastes, needs, and neuroses of our human society, from contemporary takes on health and nutrition (all those novel 'all-natural' vitamins and supplements suggest our wallet-emptying passion for wellness is tempered with a certain suspicion of traditional medicine) to modern concern with home aesthetics (you'll never go broke selling products that hide litter boxes in sleek-looking side tables, purport to reduce kitten fecal odor, or promise to keep your dog permanently off that nice new sofa)."

Doubters are referred to the page after page of advertisements for pet-related products in Sky Mall, the magazine for bored (and generally affluent) airplane passengers. The sky, literally and figuratively, is the limit. People who see their pets as extensions and reflections of themselves apparently have no hesitation about laying out significant sums to give those pets the best (i.e., the most expensive) food, accoutrements and veterinary care.

With regard to the latter, veterinary medicine is undergoing numerous and far-reaching changes. What was previously a profession that in great measure served farm and working animals has become "suburbanized, pet-focused," almost unbelievably specialized and increasingly dominated by women. "Instead of dealing with clients who view each animal as an economic unit -- and thus might treat the vet like a tractor repairman," today's vets often deal "with clients who loved their animals for their own sakes and proved increasingly willing to act on that love by ordering up previously unimaginable medical interventions."

That's only part of the story, though a significant one, considering that pet owners in the United States spend about $10 billion a year on veterinary bills. Schaffer writes about a woman in New York City who has become "the key interpersonal connector for a burgeoning canine social scene" that involves, among other things, regular monthly meetings of the Manhattan Chihuahua group. The human members of the group, it goes without saying, are a lot more interested in socializing and networking than the dogs are, so they have Christmas parties and Circle Line cruises and other events at which the dogs serve as excuses for the people to get together.

Apart from products, services and social events, the meteoric rise in the popularity of dogs has brought less amusing, more vexing matters into the arena. Schaffer describes the vitriolic controversies in San Francisco over dog parks and other issues that "have convulsed the city's politics, leading to several federal lawsuits, a 1,500-person march on city hall, and an array of allegations that one or both sides of the conflict are guilty of racism, pollution, homophobia, environmental extremism, child endangerment, Big Brotherism, and puppy hatred. Not to mention the failure to pick up poop."

In light of that, it is no surprise that "the world of animal-focused attorneys has seen a population explosion, with lawyers hashing out tricky questions involving public ethics (anticruelty legislation, dogfighting prosecutions), public safety (dog-muzzling laws, bans on allegedly antisocial breeds), and the needs and neuroses of the pet-owning public (liability lawsuits, animal estate law, and custody rulings on pets in divorce)." In the past two decades, animal-law classes have been established in 89 law schools, and no doubt more have been added since Schaffer wrapped up this book.

On and on it goes: puppy mills, pet shops, shelters, euthanasia, tainted pet-food ingredients from China. Our fur babies may be loveable and cuddly, but they've also confirmed us in many of our worst human instincts: to confront and litigate, to climb the social ladder and flaunt our high position once we've reached it, to become wholly absorbed in our own precious selves, to flatter ourselves with luxury and excess. As the man says in this terrific book, it's not about the dogs, it's about the people.

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