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It's a dog's life

And it's not half bad. Even in a recession, Americans bow to the slobbering, shedding, fiercely loyal king of pets.

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IT'S NOT AS IF THE EMOTIONAL connection between pet and human is new. Just think Old Yeller. Or Lassie. Grier found portraits of American families – with trusted hound – from the 1800s. Go back further, Mr. Serpell writes in his book "In the Company of Animals," and the ancient Greeks were debating whether their countrymen should be giving so much affection to their pets. At a Paleolithic site in northern Israel, a 12,000-year-old human skeleton was found buried with an arm around the skeleton of a 5-month-old puppy.

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Today, though, there's something extra about our bond with pets, many sociologists and historians say. And the change is in the animals' role.

Dogs and cats have always had jobs. Although a combination of evolutionary traits helped them earn our affection – big eyes that trigger our baby-loving "cute" response, expressions that we easily anthropomorphize, an instinct to relieve themselves away from the living space – they also served a function. They were herders and guarders, mousers and protectors.

But now their job has turned social; an emotional bond is the goal.

"In the past, these animals had practical tasks to perform," Serpell says. "Now they have social tasks. And they're very good at it. The quality of a relationship with an animal is clearly less multidimensional than with another person ... but there's also less negativity than with other people. The animals don't criticize."

There are various theories behind the canine career shift. The US is now a less rural country, so most Americans don't need help on the farm. We're more likely to live alone, in cities, far from family, and have children later in life – all factors that create a need for extra social support and connection with other species.

At the same time, there's growing scientific justification for treating animals as social partners. Primatologist Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees gave "official" support to those inclined to view animals as individuals; more recent studies have offered proof that animals have emotions, sophisticated intelligence systems, and even moral codes, says biologist and author Marc Bekoff.

"Good science is opening the door and showing what we knew all the time was right – this deep appreciation that dogs feel joy and grief," he says. "People don't feel sappy anymore ... like they're being overly sentimental because they're attributing emotions to their animals."

As people increasingly rely on their pets for support, the anthropomorphizing snowballs.

"If the benefit you're deriving from them is a social benefit, then it pays to think of them like people," Serpell says. In other words, if I'm relying on my dog for social support – a term Serpell would say includes my chance to give care as well as receive affection – then I'll be inclined to believe that my dog's exuberant wag means that he truly loves me. That validates our relationship more, in my human eyes, than if he was simply associating me with the pleasant experience of nightly kibble.

Once I believe my dog and I share a deep, humanlike bond, Serpell says, I will embrace other responsibilities that come with this sort of relationship – whether providing healthy food, day care, or the latest medical care. (Veterinary procedures have become far more sophisticated and expensive – and so has the pet insurance that increasingly accompanies it.)

And now, with more self-described parents in relationships like this – relationships with the same loves, fears, and dilemmas of the human world – there is a growing push for society to respond accordingly.

This has created some less-than-puppy-love situations, with neighborhoods splitting between dog people and nondog people, and local battles erupting over everything from poop laws to off-leash dog areas in parks.