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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics

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The dog is also associated with human damage, people who are lonely, people with trust issues, misanthropes (Hitler was a dog lover), people with lots of money who think, possibly accurately, that that’s the only reason people could love them. Helmsley’s little dog Trouble, the richest dog in the world, in her Florida redoubt, with her bodyguards, is the obvious example here. The only charitable cause specifically mentioned in Helmsley’s will—her fortune has been estimated at $5 billion at the low end—was to “provide for the care of dogs.” The document is testament to a moral impoverishment of mythic dimensions—the last bird the queen flipped at the little people. She outsourced the work of distributing the money to her trustees, who have so far not seen fit to bestow very much of it on canine causes.

As in Helmsley’s case, a dog can be a last refuge for lost people. But everyone knows people for whom a dog is a chosen escape. In Caroline Knapp’s remarkably honest book Pack of Two, she writes about her dog as a salve to her damage, more satisfactory than any person in giving her the kind of unqualified love she craves. She’s open about her inner wounds—she’d written a previous, moving memoir about her alcoholism—and her dog, besides being a dog, is a tool for addressing such problems. There’s a kind of therapeutic solipsism at work in this type of relationship, needs met and unmet. The dog fits perfectly into this sort of calculus because its needs are so simple—and of course, it doesn’t know you’re a narcissist. Ultimately, Knapp breaks up with a boyfriend about whom she’d always been ambivalent partly over issues surrounding her dog, which of course she is permitted to do, and she’s a lovely writer, and no doubt the boy had many, many drawbacks, but … really? Are those really the right human priorities?

It can be hard to remember, when the dog is in the house, staring at you with those eyes, that the dog is the dog. The phenomenon has lately reached a critical mass, partly because of cultural changes and partly because—surprise—it makes people money. Nowadays, there’s a vast industry, trainers and books and TV shows, devoted to addressing this interspecial neurotic interchange. There’s a great deal of dispute, however, about what the dog is. A trainer like Cesar Millan, the self-mythologized Dog Whisperer, has created an elaborate fantasy of the dog as pack animal, a creature that wants to know who’s boss. His message is that the owner ought to act like the alpha dog of his imaginings: Be the pack leader. Though Millan is clearly a gifted communicator, in many mediums, ethologists like Patricia McConnell find this a simplistic view, and the dog is a very long way from the wolf pack.

And there’s an even bigger industry trying to confuse the issue, because a dog that’s partly a person gets a better—and more expensive—brand of dog food than one that isn’t. In New York, there are dog bakeries, and haberdashers, and luxury kennels, everything that the marketing mind can dream up, a vast and ever-growing junkyard full of kitsch, with names (“paw-tisserie,” etc.) that are more annoying than the products themselves, if that’s even possible. Again, there’s nothing wrong with buying your dog all this stuff—it’s nothing more dire than a game of dress-up—though it’s probably prudent to ask whom you’re buying it for. Your dog doesn’t care if it’s wearing a funny hat, or traveling in a sequined dog purse—no one loses anything but their dignity. Treating your dog as a person is nothing more or less than an aesthetic error—one that is becoming ever more common. Dressed up, doted on as much as any infant, the dog has never had it so good. And the personhood of the dog—this chemical confusion in the brain—is a large part of what is driving the politics of dog.

Stella is what is known now as a rescue dog—definitely the most fashionable breed in downtown Manhattan nowadays. She may well have been on death row in some fetid cage in Tennessee. But our moral heroism is not of the highest order, by a long shot. She’s not a middle-aged pit bull with a mean streak, or a retired greyhound, or a dog whose elderly owner had died, or any of the hard-luck stories that become SPCA statistics if not for the intervention of some saintly person. She was a beautiful 12-week-old puppy at the North Shore Animal League America, the largest no-kill animal shelter in the world and one of the only places around where you can reliably find a puppy that’s not a pit bull. In fact, our decision was hastened because another family was eyeing her. She’s a rescue dog that anyone—except maybe one of those anal compulsives—would have rescued.


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