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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics

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There is a long and fascinating thread of research about the health benefits of dogs. It turns out that the dog is a kind of wonder drug, an all-around stress reducer. Pet owners recover at a substantially faster rate from heart problems than do non–dog owners. There are other kinds of benefits, too. A child raised with a pet is more empathetic than one who isn’t. The dog—no secret here—is an excellent wingman. A 2008 study found that a man with a dog had a much better chance of getting a woman’s phone number than one without. And the dog can even tell you whether or not you’re a good person. A 1999 study found that people who strongly dislike dogs score significantly higher on the measure of anal character and lower on the empathy scale of the California Psychological Inventory, indicating “that people who liked dogs have less difficulty relating to people.”

Serpell is most excited about new studies on oxytocin and dog ownership. Oxytocin is the most important social-bonding hormone, present notably between mother and child but also in just about any interaction involving pair bonding, social affiliation, and trust. More specifically, it’s involved with the gaze between infants and mothers. Researchers at Azabu University in Japan found last year that the dog’s gaze at its owner increases the owner’s oxytocin level.

No one believes, in his conscious mind, that the dog is a person. But that may not matter. The oxytocin study, while providing the key to understanding the myriad health benefits of dog ownership—oxytocin is a serious stress reducer—also makes scientifically clear what’s obvious anecdotally: The dog is an honorary human, accorded many of the same considerations. It can be a surrogate child, brother in arms, solace of otherwise lonely urban lives. Serpell’s central insight is that these kinds of social functions are at the center of the relationship of dogs and people. “Selection of dogs for the performance of specific working tasks is certainly an important part of their evolution,” he says. “But the fundamental work of dogs that has been in the background throughout has been providing people with companionship or social support.”

As the relationship developed, specific canine qualities—the dog’s gaze, its unending adolescence, its uncanny responsiveness to human cues—evolved, a process that Serpell calls “anthropomorphic selection.” What was created was not, precisely, a human child, but it certainly was able to push some of the same buttons. According to one study, 84 percent of dog owners consider their animals akin to children—not a surprise, given all the baby talk. The British evolutionary psychologist John Archer has written, in critiquing Serpell’s work, that the dog’s ability to suck up human caregiving that could be going to human children while providing no evolutionary advantage makes them a social parasite. But possibly the stress-reduction effects, more than theoretical camp-guarding and hunting benefits, may have earned the dog’s keep. And anyway, are you calling my dog a parasite?

The social-bonding brain chemistry leads to special treatment of many different kinds. These obsessive canine diet and training regimens are precise analogs of the little dictatorships that parents enforce over their children. One of the dogs in our circle gets fed raw chicken, which is currently the most fashionable canine diet; uncooked, the bones don’t splinter. Another gets cooked chicken—often of a quality that would make a fine sandwich.

We are permissive parents. Stella gets dog food but also as many leftovers as she manages to beg. Strictly speaking, she’s not allowed to eat chicken bones off the street, but there’s a particularly good hunting ground on lower First Avenue where she often gets walked, and if she manages to snatch one, I’m much less inclined to stick my hand down her throat than I used to be. I know this is wrong.

These differences resemble nothing so much as the fierce little tempests over, say, Ferberizing, or co-sleeping, or bedtimes, though of course there’s another dimension. Along with the concern for the dog’s welfare, there also can be a kind of concern that maybe this relationship with the dog has gone a little far. It’s a minor vice, like watching too much television, the kind of not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that workaday weirdnesses that are part of the modern urban experience. In the big city, you can do whatever you want.

When the dog was in the yard, it was easier to give the dog any old thing, treat the dog any old way. The dog could find a dead animal, or bury a bone, or chase a squirrel, do its dog things. In the apartment, Stella will dig fiercely at the carpet, making no progress, though at some point we will have to get a new carpet. The apartment is a far from perfect place for the dog. Still, they’re camp followers of our microtribes, the only beings that fully understand the customs. And unlike children, they’ll never reject them.


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