John Homans’ essay, “A dog is not a human being, right?” in this week’s New York magazine got me reminiscing over the well-loved dogs in my life – especially the one that’s currently living in my mother-in-law’s backyard in Southern California. Homans explores our relationship with our furry friends and how it has evolved, especially when you compare a country dog to a well-pampered urban dog.
If learned helplessness sounds like an urban condition, it may be because the dog is more and more an urban species. Even in the suburbs, the dog’s unleashed, unfenced, carefree outdoor life is largely at an end. The dogs are in the house, even in the bed. (The doghouse is now mostly for husbands.) There are no rules to this evolving, increasingly intimate arrangement, and it can give rise to a kind of canine identity crisis. Outside of its country context, the dog plays an ever more human role. Which can make things very confusing. “We’ve seen a linear explosion in pet populations in Western countries over the past 40 years,” Serpell tells me, and notes a correlation with the depressing statistics in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. “People are living more isolated lives, are having fewer children, their marriages aren’t lasting. All these things sort of break down a social network and happen to exactly coincide with the growth in pet populations. I think that what’s happening is simply that we’re allowing animals to fill the gap in our lives.”
With more dogs standing in as child surrogates, you can guarantee there will be even more heated breeder vs. spay and neuter-er fight in the comments on the internet when a) someone demands pit bulls not be allowed near children, or b) someone demands their “fur baby” is just as loved as your real one.
As someone who owned dogs in the country and the city, and pushed my cocker spaniel around in my daughter’s stroller before she was born (just in the house, just for a photo op – I swear!) then promptly sent her on a cross-country flight last summer following the birth of my second child, I feel I have the experience to weigh in on the dogs vs. kids issue with authority. Dogs are dogs, people are people. It’s important to draw the line, healthy even. I’ve spent thousands on vet bills from the constant street eating and herpes on her feet (really) and I was a wee bit hysterical when a dog in our building that was let off-leash attacked her. But other than just recently when my son started dropping half of his meals on the floor; I haven’t missed her so much. Have my kids replaced my dog? Yes. Do I feel guilty? Ehh. Sometimes. Mostly, no. Sure it would be nice to someday reunite on a farm, (and not a metaphorical one) or at least a place with a nice backyard for her, but for now I’m feeling confident that my people over dog priorities are in the right order.
Now, who out there is going to make me feel like a bad mother for ditching the spaniel?