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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But it has also forced some social readjustments that many consider overdue. Legislatures are now struggling to rework legal codes that consider animals property – a status that creates all sorts of difficulties in divorce cases, for instance, where the resolution to a disputed pet is to sell the animal and split the proceeds. Some courts have started to issue protection orders that cover pets; a number of domestic violence shelters allow battered women to bring their dogs.Skip to next paragraph
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It was hurricane Katrina, as much as anything, that drove home the importance of social institutions evolving with the animal-human bond, says Stephen Zawistowski, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. During the New Orleans evacuation, he notes, people of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds refused to leave if it meant abandoning pets. Later the government and organizations such as the Red Cross changed their pet policies.
"The emotions might have been here all along," he says. "But this showed the depth to which the sentiments have become part of our culture."
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DOG? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it's all well and good for pet owners to treat their animals as family and then ask society to respect that relationship. But what does it mean for Fido? Is it really beneficial to be dressed in Gucci rain jackets, popping antianxiety meds, and living in high-density cities? Could it be that the one suffering most from this pet revolution is the pet itself?
The dog is amazingly adaptable, Grier says. Take sleeping arrangements: When the dog slept outdoors, he was fine. As flea and tick collars were perfected in the 1960s, humans were more willing to bring him into the house, and he settled down in the kitchen. In the past 10 years, when new topical applications succeeded in keeping dogs nearly bug-free, he happily assumed his place in bed. (Thirty percent of dog owners polled by the Associated Press in June admitted sleeping with their pups.)
But this adaptability can lead to pitfalls. Humans these days want constant companions, so animals with strong attachment drives have prospered – as have pups with separation anxiety and other psychological handicaps, Serpell says.
And many dog owners seem to expect their dogs to adhere to the norms of the human world, says Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist at Barnard College studying dog cognition. They don't want dogs to sniff each other, for instance, though that's the polite dog way to introduce oneself.
Our tendency to anthropomorphize can also create communication barriers. Take the canine "guilty look," an expression most dog owners will swear reveals doggy knowledge of wrongdoing – a chewed shoe, for instance, or a stolen steak.
Ms. Horowitz studied this and found that the expression we describe as "guilty" is really anticipatory – made when the dog expects a scolding, regardless of whether it did something "wrong."
"If one really abided by what the dog wants and needs there could be a huge shift," she says. "I think it would be very difficult for us to maintain the level of pet ownership that we do as a society if we were really attendant to the dog's point of view."
I'M TAKING NOTE. My Lab has gotten up from his monogrammed bed and put his chin in my lap.
This is his language, anthropomorphized or not, for walk time. And I, devoted pet parent, will oblige.