Peacegal's Reviews > One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food

One Nation Under Dog by Michael Schaffer
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May 21, 13

Read from May 14 to 18, 2013

What does it mean to be a dog owner in the new millennium? Author Michael Schaffer examines the brave new canine world in a book that is at turns humorous, scholarly, and thought-provoking.

Schaffer has not set out to mock “pet parents”—the preferred new term—in fact, he has a “furbaby” of his own—a rescued St. Bernard named Murphy. While the author is not scheduling blueberry facials for his pooch at high-end urban spas—one of the many pet services he profiles—he does consider him a member of the family and enjoys spoiling him with trendy chew toys and other supplies to make Murphy’s life a comfortable one.

It’s fun to take good care of one’s companion animal, the author explains, and we feel as if our pets deserve it return for their love. Supplying the family pet with top-of-the-line food, toys, sitting services, and medical care isn’t something we plan on doing; it just happens as we develop a relationship with our companion, the author explains. Soon, nothing is too good for our furbaby, just as many parents feel that their child deserves only the best. You adopt a puppy, and before you know it, you're test-driving SUVs and having boxes of free-range bull dicks delivered monthly.

Schaffer starts his tour by looking at a rather bizarre argument that has reached its boiling point in California. The leashing of dogs has become a huge political fight in San Francisco. People who are justifiably concerned about aggressive dogs and dogs being hurt as well as wildlife being harassed and killed are attacked as haters and spoilsports by those who want to allow their dogs to run off-leash just about everywhere—going against sensible advice proffered by humane societies nationwide. The fact that this is even a debate, I think, confirms something about San Francisco’s stereotypes. I would ask these folks if they also allow their children to run wild in the streets—but I think we already know that answer. SF already has numerous dog parks where dogs are permitted to run-off leash in a safely confined area, similar to playgrounds for children.

While dogs may be furbabies in some sectors of the economy, in others, they remain as rights-less property to manipulate as we see fit. Many dog owners strive to purchase what they see as the perfect purebred specimen. Others, including owners of mutts who will never make the show ring, enjoy AKC dog shows and breed contests such as the famous yearly Westminster. However, the dogs competing in the ring have more in common with racehorses than the Fido at our feet. Like racehorses, they are bred to win, the costs to their bodies and health often coming in a distant second. Like racehorses, Westminster dogs often have multiple owners invested in the animal’s success. Speaking of the much-ballyhooed Uno, a beagle who took the top prize at 2008’s Westminster, the author writes

By most definitions, Uno is hardly a pet. Instead of being an animal kept with a family for its own wonderful sake, he’s a lucrative economic unit.

Kudos to Schaffer for looking critically at an industry that is often given the fluff treatment by mainstream dog writers, and is mostly only criticized by the lesser-heard voices in animal advocacy.

When you think about it, the enduring appeal of purebreds is a strange thing. Dog shows rose to popularity in the late nineteenth century, with all of the creepily eugenicist principles of an era obsessed with race and petrified of miscegenation. Fanciers obsessed about genetic purity and quality bloodlines, verifiable lineage and breed standards. Mongrels were most definitely not welcome…

And they still aren’t. To its enduring discredit, the Westminster show ousted Pedigree dog food as a sponsor because their commercials—gasp!—had the gumption to show mixed-breed shelter dogs and encourage their adoption.

To many shelter adoption advocates, if you’re looking for the bad guys of the canine world, look no further than the venerable organization that bills itself as “the dog’s champion.” Essentially, if legislation is meant to restrict in any way what dog owners can do with their “property”—chaining, leaving in cars, lifelong caging in a puppy mill—the AKC can be counted on to lead the charge against it.

Schaffer doesn’t shy away from the places where so many of those “AKC papered” purebreds and trendy hybrids originate if they’re bought at a pet shop or ordered over the internet. The author looks at the grim world of puppy mills, mass breeding facilities that “help the retail market cater to that desire.” Even the elite shop Pets of Bel Air, which sold $2,400 puppies from baby cribs, sourced their dogs from squalid puppy mills in the South and Midwest.

(Of course, if genetic manipulation the old-fashioned way isn’t right for you, you can always order one from Lifestyle Pets, which genetically engineers hypoallergenic cats and exotic/domestic hybrids that can cost more than a house.)

While many people insist upon owning purebreds, not all consider the reasons these animals were originally created and how it affects their behavior as a result. The author uncritically quotes a SF judge on a pit bull named Jaws who gashed another dog’s flesh: “Something’s happened; something is triggering this behavior with your dog, so we’re going to have the behaviorists at the shelter look at him. She’s going to give a report, tell you what’s happened, are recommended some things for you so you don’t have these problems again.” (Would this judge also scratch his head and recommend a pet psychologist if a Labrador had jumped into a pond or a beagle chased a rabbit?)

Elsewhere, we read about Norman, a pit bull adopted from a shelter in dogfighting-plagued Philadelphia; the shelter had advertised him as calm and agreeable, but in his new home, he couldn’t go on a walk without attempting to attack every dog in sight. The author documents the process by which a celebrity dog trainer “desensitizes” Norman with a stuffed model dog until he can pass the toy without attacking it. Is this really a success, or does Norman simply recognize the toy is not a proper sparring partner, and is waiting until he finds a canine who can engage properly? If you can’t accept that your dog of choice has been bred for hundreds of years to do a job and do it well—and in the case of pit bulls, that means battling other dogs to the death—you should not purchase or adopt that animal.

No discussion about the role of dogs in society would be complete without a survey of the ways in which that society treats the rest of its animal citizens. Schaffer hits on this early on when he mentions a couture company that will custom-make real fur coats for dogs. Later on, we get more irony from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. In explaining his motivations to place some restrictions on puppy mill practices, Rendell explained: “A lot of the major kennel owners view puppies as products, just like pigs or chickens.” Are pigs and chickens living beings, or are they products?

Much have been said from the animal rights side about the dog who barrels down the highway in his pet parents’ climate-controlled SUV while slaughter-bound pigs swelter in a semi in the opposite lane. A pig, as most of us know, is as an intelligent as a dog. I’m not going to harp on this subject because the point of this book is to examine the fact that dogs are raised above all other animals in the United States; by virtue of their species most of us don’t treat them as we do other animals. However, even if we elevate (pet) dogs above all other species, does that mean we must absolutely torture the non-chosen ones, as is what currently goes on in the nation’s food industry?

Or, as the author points out:

Even if comparing domestic veterinary medicine to overseas human health care is a case of comparing apples to oranges, it remains deeply troubling to know that the hospital that pioneered the life-extending surgical miracle of the feline kidney transplant is located in a city where more than twenty thousand unwanted animals are euthanized each year.

And of course, even dogs don’t warrant much concern if they happen to be born into the wrong industry. Over 80,000 dogs, mostly beagles, are experimented upon in the United States alone each year. Around 1,300 experience unrelieved pain and distress as part of the experiments. While the campaigns on behalf of shelter dogs slated for euthanasia are well known and far outstrip those on behalf of cats, very few mainstream dog lovers have anything to say about dogs being irradiated or poisoned in chemical toxicity tests.

Despite the multi-billion dollar marketing catering to pets, Americans should keep in mind this hasn’t changed the legal status of animals: your furbaby isn’t a legal person but rather a piece of property, much like a mailbox or a refrigerator. Occasionally, we hear of owners recovering emotional damages after their pet has been killed in a particularly heinous way; while media pundits like to make a big deal of such cases, such payouts remain extremely rare.

Despite the headlines, defense lawyers still aren’t losing sleep over animal cases. Only five states now formally allow emotional-distress damages to be considered in pet-loss cases, but those states also cap damages at a low level…Elsewhere, most claims still get tossed out. Courts, even within the same state, are all over the map—embracing Max as a family member one day, relegating him to an economic unit the next.

Schaffer neglects to look at what is perhaps the oddest and most troubling facet of the modern canine culture: the fetishization of, and intense campaigning on behalf of, provably dangerous dogs. This tiny subset of the dog movement seeks to spare all dogs from euthanasia, including those who have killed people and other dogs. The type of person who may have once written marriage proposals to convicted murderers with an “I can fix him” mentality, now use social media to crusade on behalf of individual dogs who seriously maul and kill. To peruse these Facebook pages and online petitions is to enter a world in which victims are blamed in jaw-dropping shows of insensitivity. When Schaffer visits a pet bereavement support group, he encounters a woman whose beloved companion had been mauled to death by another dog. Her pain is real, but in the world of dangerous dog fetishists, no dog matters but the one who did the killing.

Since the vicious dog boosters remain relatively underground, negative comments dog guardians are likely to receive still are likely to focus upon our love of our pets and the money we are willing to spend to keep them healthy and happy. Simply put, non-pet parents just don’t understand. If you are a pet lover, chances are you can’t throw a Kong toy without hitting a colleague or family member who sneers “it’s just a dog” or that by treating your pet well, you are somehow putting down the entire human race. (Never mind that these kinds of people never do anything for the human race themselves besides take up space.) It is in response to these stupid and common arguments that Schaffer really shines:

At the end of the day, the things I do for Murphy, the things you might do for your pet, are consumer choices. No one starts talking about third-world starvation when someone spends $3,000 on a flat-screen TV. Spend the same on a year’s worth of high-end organic pet food and you’re liable to get accused of taking food from the mouths of malnourished humans. … It’s not Murphy’s meds versus pharmaceuticals for needy Sri Lankans; it’s Murphy’s meds versus a new video camera for, um, me. If we’re going to start enumerating immoral consumer choices, I’d argue that spending money to care for a pet would rank near the bottom of the list.

I believe I will keep hold of the author’s quotes on this subject for future debates with people who attack the general idea of caring for animals or having a sense of charity toward them.

[P]eople donate to all sorts of causes. Some preserve art; others beautify roadways; others subsidize public television. If we weighed every act of generosity against a utilitarian standard of life and death, a great many worthy recipients—many of them far better funded than animal charities—would also have to be cut off.
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