The Coddling of the American Dog

A new newsletter from Katie Herzog

My friend and podcast host, Katie Herzog, has started a new free newsletter about whether or not she should neuter her beloved dog, Moose. You might not think this is an interesting subject, but it very much is!

As she explains in her introductory post:

Over the course of the next couple of months, I’ll talk to veterinarians, animal behaviorists, animal activists, dog lovers, and maybe a pet psychic or two, all in the service of answering one simple question: Should I neuter this good boy or what?

Katie’s newsletter, appropriately titled Moose Nuggets, is excellent so far, so I’m devoting my own newsletter to a sizable chunk of its first real post. But first…

If You’re Not A Paid Subscriber, Here’s What You’ve Missed Since My Last Free Newsletter

The Way America Learns About Presidential Election Results Is So Crazy And BrokenThere is no reason we should have to endure this every four years.

Sympathy For The Forecaster, And For Other Complexity-Mongers — Finally, someone brave enough to defend Nate Silver from the people who are mean to him on Twitter!

Substack Exists To Make Money, Not To Save Journalism — A response to a very silly and ideologically motivated article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

On Donald Trump, George W. Bush, And Moral Luck — To me, it’s obvious which one was a worse president. But things get a lot more complicated when you introduce the very useful philosophical concept of “moral luck” into the mix.

Moose Nuggets, Chapter 1: The Coddling of the American Dog

by Katie Herzog

I’ve never been exactly what you’d call a “dog person” (or a cat person, or a people person, for that matter). My family had dogs when I was growing up—a lazy Golden Retriever, an even lazier yellow Lab, and then a mutt I picked out in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter—but I treated them with a sort of benign neglect. I liked our dogs, maybe even loved them, but this was the ‘80s and ‘90s in the rural Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. No one I knew put their dogs in costumes and posted photos of them on Facebook (of course, Facebook didn’t exist). We didn’t call them our “fur babies” or worry about them getting lonely when we left the house. For the most part, we didn’t even take them for walks: We just let them outside and if they wanted to walk, they were welcome to it. If you’d told me to pick up their poop and carry it around in little plastic bags, I’d have thought you were nuts. 

In this respect, I was not unusual. Most of the dogs in my neighborhood were free-range to some degree. The dog next door, a block-shaped mutt named Peaches, would frequently walk herself to the university campus a half-mile down the road and wander into offices and classrooms. This, I thought, was normal. What would not have been normal was, say, taking your dogs on vacation. No one I knew did that. 

Those days are over. According to a 2019 survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners, 78 percent said they consider their pets to be members of their family; 67 percent said their pet was their best friend; and 34 percent said they prefer their pets to their children—which makes sense when you consider that you don’t have to sit through your pets’ school plays or pay for their education. (And while you might have to pick up their poop, at least you don’t have to change their diapers.)

That poll was conducted on behalf of a pet food company called “I and Love and You,” which has good reason to encourage pet adoration. Their tagline is “Pet Food By Pet Parents,” and the company is part of a massive and expanding industry that caters to people who baby their pets. Today, there are doggie daycares, doggie spas, doggie photographers, even doggie Bar Mitzvahs (called, of course, Bark Mitzvahs). There’s a new bar catering to dog lovers not far from my parents’ house, with a 25,000-square -foot off-leash dog park and an array of craft beers for the humans.

And there are products. You can get video cameras to watch your dogs while you’re away, including some that allow you to speak to your pet, and treadmills that will exercise your dogs when you don’t feel like going for a walk. You can pay $149 to to get your pet classified as an “emotional support animal” if you’d like to take him or her on a plane, and although airlines have been cracking down on ESAs after a rash of high profile incidents (including an emotional support dog who bit a child on a flight, and another who shit all over the seat), the last time I flew, there was a Yorkie on the seat beside me and a Golden Retriever a few rows up. The pet industry is worth an estimated $100 billion annually, and that number continues to go up. This is a country that loves its pets… maybe even more than its people. 

The elevation of dogs in society has been gradual. Dogs have long been an aristocratic status symbol in Europe and beyond (both hunting dogs and lapdogs were staples in Renaissance art), but they really began to enter middle-class American society in the late 19th century, in part to domesticate not dogs but children. In the 1880s, the “domestication arts”—a move towards more attentive housekeeping and child-rearing—were all the rage, and an idea spread that dogs were good for children, specifically boys, who, it was thought, would benefit from the positive influence of pets. (This was around the same time as the first meeting of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the birth of the American Kennel Club.)

And then there was another aspect of popular culture. 

“I think it was partially the result of TV and movies,” says Hal Herzog, an expert in the study of human-animal relations and, as it happens, the source of half of my DNA. Herzog (or Dad, as I like to call him) is the author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and he told me that the first Lassie show in the 1950s changed the way millions of people think of their dogs. It made them think that dogs could be not just smart but heroic. And there were economic forces too. “The history of pet-keeping is often trickle-down from the rich to the wanna-be-rich,” he said. “And after World War II, families were buying houses with yards on GI Bill home loans. That led to the expansion of the middle class.”

And then, of course, there’s a more recent advent: social media. Dogs, like celebrities, are now influencers. There’s Jiffpom, a well-coiffed Pomeranian with 10.2 million followers and no idea that he’s worth an estimated $45,000 per post; Doug the Pug, who has 4 million followers and whose owners regularly humiliate him by dressing him in seasonal costumes; and Bodhi the Menswear Dog, with 400,000 followers and a closet full of clothes more appropriate for a GQ model than a Shiba Inu. It would be impossible to know exactly how many people have decided to get dogs specifically due to the influence of social media, but I would suspect the number isn’t marginal. Who wouldn’t be touched by skateboarding dogs going viral

I’d observed this trend for years, but none of it made any sense to me. I was about as likely to follow a dog account on Instagram as I was to follow a stranger into a van. And I complained about it. Until Covid hit, I was a staff writer at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, and on slow news days I would use my column to rail against the coddling of the American dog, especially in Seattle, a city where dogs are welcome in shops and bars and even restaurants. It seemed like every time I went out to buy coffee, there would be some sighing, farting, shedding animal in line before me. “Why are these people treating their dogs like human beings?,” I’d think. I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I wanted it to stop. 

And then I met Janna, the woman who would become my wife, and not only did I change my mind about dog fanatics, I’m ashamed to say I even became one myself.  

To read the rest of this post, head on over to Moose Nuggets.