A witty, insightful, and affectionate examination of how and why we spend billions on our pets, and what this tells us about ourselves
In 2003, Michael Schaffer and his wife drove to a rural shelter and adopted an emaciated, dreadlocked Saint Bernard who they named Murphy. They vowed that they’d never become the kind of people who send dogs named Baxter and Sonoma out to get facials, or shell out for $12,000 hip replacements. But then they started to get weird looks from the in-laws: You hired a trainer? Your vet prescribed antidepressants? So Schaffer started poking around and before long happened on an astonishing statistic: the pet industry, estimated at $43 billion this year, was just $17 billion barely a decade earlier.
One Nation Under Dog is about America’s pet obsession—the explosion, over the past generation, of an industry full of pet masseuses, professional dog-walkers, organic kibble, leash-law militants, luxury pet spas, veterinary grief counselors, upscale dog shampoos, and the like: a booming economy that is evidence of tremendous and rapid change in the status of America’s pets. Schaffer provides a surprising and lively portrait of our country—as how we treat our pets reflects evolving ideas about domesticity, consumerism, politics, and family—through this fabulously reported and sympathetic look at both us and our dogs.
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Michael Schaffer has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The New Republic, and US News & World Report, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Keltie Hawkins, and their well-loved—but not freakishly pampered, they insist—pets, Murphy the Saint Bernard and Amelia the black cat.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From Doghouse to Our House
By the time we finally saw Murphy, we’d driven the two hours of highway from our house in Philadelphia to what felt like the last rural place in all of New Jersey. We’d nosed through the town—over a pair of railroad tracks, past a warehouse, down a short road. And we’d gingerly tiptoed past the chain-link fence that held Boss, the massive Saint Bernard at the shotgun-style home opposite the town’s small-scale animal shelter. My wife spotted him first, an oddly undersized example of the same breed running around the muddy melting snow in the kennel’s yard: "It’s Murphy!" she exclaimed.
We’d spotted the pup a few days earlier on Petfinder, the Web site that lets prospective adopters eye hundreds of thousands of potential adoptees from shelters all over the United States. For a long time, we’d visited the site as a diversion, a way to kill time at work staring at snapshots of wet noses and wagging tails and drooling jowls. We’d e-mail links back and forth, each of them attached to a heartbreaking story of how this particular dog was a sweetheart who really needed a place in some family’s happy home. Eventually, we got to thinking that it was about time we became that happy family.
And then we stumbled across the page that featured Murphy, his tongue drooping, his watery eyes staring cluelessly from inside a cage that turned out to be only two hours away. When we arrived that morning, we’d been talking about him long enough to feel like he was already part of our household. The woman who ran the shelter mashed a 100-length cigarette into an old tin of dog food as she led him over. As they got close enough for us to see the matted dreadlocks on Murphy’s back, Boss began growling. "Don’t mind him," the woman said, as the guard dog’s growls turned to angry barks. "Boss don’t like other dogs."
Murphy, though, was another story. He was sweet and cuddly and goofy, exactly as we’d wanted. Of course, we tried to stay skeptical. Knowing little about dogs when we started thinking about getting one, we’d searched for wisdom in a book on how to adopt an animal. Don’t let those heartbreaking shelter stories trick you into getting an animal you can’t handle, it warned. Put them through the paces now, or suffer later. So in the ensuing half hour, we tried the book’s suggested tests as best we could. We put food in front of him and then snatched it away. No growling. A good sign. We put more food in front of him and then pushed his face away as he ate. No nipping. An even better sign. The shelter manager gazed with dismay at this spectacle of anxious yuppiehood: one of us reading reverently from the book, the other vaguely executing its tests on the befuddled dog, neither of us quite sure what to do next.
Following the book’s instructions as if they were holy writ, we asked how Murphy had wound up in the shelter—and then steeled ourselves against what we’d been warned would be a maudlin spiel designed to undercut doubts about a potentially troublesome pooch. The dog, we were told, had been brought to her kennel twice. First he was turned in by someone who the manager suspected hadn’t been able to unload this especially runty runt of his litter: Murphy was eighteen months old and 63 pounds at the time; ordinary male Saint Bernards can weigh in at 180. Next he was returned by a woman who couldn’t housebreak him.
"But she was some kind of backcountry hick," said the shelter manager. "She didn’t even know what she was doing." Ever since, Murphy had been waiting in a cage next to Boss’s yard, staring up at people like us. "Look," she said. "I don’t much care about you, but I do care about him. And if he goes and bites someone, someone like you will put him down, right? Since I don’t want that to happen, I’m telling you: He don’t bite."
The logic was pretty good.
The dog was pretty sweet.
The time was pretty right.
And so we said yes, signing some not quite official-looking paperwork—the adoption document identified the dog as "Murfy"—before forking over one hundred dollars and agreeing to take into our lives a Saint Bernard with fleas and dreadlocks and a stench somewhere between warm bunion and rotten tripe. The shelter manager whipped out a syringe, planted what was purported to be a kennel cough shot into Murfy/Murphy’s snout, and wished us well. We coaxed the dog into the backseat of our Honda, where he promptly fell fast asleep.
As we began the drive home, we felt a bit proud of ourselves. Not for us the fancy breeders sought out by so many in our sweetly gentrified corner of upscale America. Not for us the genetically perfect beagles and bassets and Bernese mountain dogs whose poop is sanctimoniously plucked from city sidewalks in recycled blue New York Times home-delivery bags. We’d gotten a dog, yeah, but we weren’t going to become, like, those people—the ones who shell out for the spa days and agility training and homeopathic medicine for their animals, the ones who laugh it off when their puppies frighten children away from the neighborhood playground, the ones who give up vacations and promotions and transfers in order to save pooches with names like Sonoma and Hamilton and Mordecai from having their lives disrupted. No, not us.
That’s what we were telling ourselves, anyway, when the PetSmart came into view along the edge of the highway. "We should go in—get some food and stuff," said my wife. "It’ll just take a sec." Thus began our unwitting journey into the $41-billion-a-year world of the modern American pet.
It didn’t take long to realize that the line between sober pet owner and spendthrift overindulger wasn’t as clear as I’d imagined.
I started thinking about that very subject an hour or so after Murphy nosed his way into the PetSmart—at around the time the exhausted-looking staff at the in-store grooming salon told us there was no way they could attend to our filthy new pet today; we ought to have made reservations a couple of weeks in advance. My wife, who’d grown up with a dog and had roughed out a budget when we started thinking about adopting one of our own, hadn’t been aware that salon grooming was such a standard piece of contemporary pet owning that chain stores had weeks-long waiting lists. Still, without having to shell out for a wash, we made it out of the store that day for under $200. Murphy had a new bed, a pair of collars, an extend-o-leash that expands up to twenty-five feet, a variety of chew toys—that he’s never used—and other goodies. The spending seemed like basic, ordinary stuff.
But as anyone who’s read one of the dog-owner memoirs that seem to occupy about half of the weekly New York Times best-seller list could confirm, it was no onetime expense. It’s a basic law of pet storytelling: Just as the romantic comedy vixen must wind up with the guy she’d vowed not to marry if he were the last man on earth, so too must the beloved dog stomp and scratch and poop on your very last nerve—and chow down on your shrinking wallet—before weaseling his way into your newly receptive heart. No surprise, then, that four years later Murphy has gone through a variety of ever newer beds (he seemed not to like the old ones) and redesigned collars and leashes (we wanted to try the special ones that are said to keep dogs from pulling too hard) and still more chew toys (we have a PetSmart discount card now and live in the eternal hope of finding one he likes). He also owns Halloween costumes (too adorable to resist), reindeer antlers (ditto), and a picture of himself with Santa (alas, ditto once more).
He has been implanted with a LoJack-style microchip that will help us find him if he gets lost.
His food—or should I say "foods"—comes from that burgeoning market sector known as "superpremium."
He’s stayed at an array of upscale local kennels—sorry, pet hotels—when we’ve gone out of town.
On other trips, when we took him along, he got to stay in our hotel room. One place left a doggie biscuit on his doggie bed and sent up a babysitter when we went out.
Did I mention he’s on antidepressants? The vet diagnosed his anxious howling when left alone as "separation anxiety," and it turned out there was a pill for it.
Or that he has a professional dog walker? In fact, the current one is his second; the first dropped him because she had too many clients.
Or that when we tote up the numbers, he’s proven responsible for an eerily large portion of our social life? Dragging us into the neighborhood park on a daily basis, he’s introduced a wealth of new neighborhood characters into our life. One of them was a cat whom Murphy—to his lasting regret—found shivering in a hollow tree. We brought her home and named her Amelia. And then there were two.
Then we decided to add a human baby to our flock. We’d known this would mean prenatal treatments for my wife. It was a bit of a surprise, though, when other prenatal attention focused on treating Murphy. Worries about how the dog would react to that new child sent us scurrying into the pricey orbit of one of our city’s best-known dog trainers for six weeks of private lessons. Unfortunately, her take on canine behavior was so different from that of the guy whose classes we’d first taken upon adopting Murphy that we went scrambling to the massive pet-care section of our local book superstore, where we have purchased a veritable library of books about how better to raise pets.
In fact, both pets hover around all sorts of other spending decisions, poking their snouts into our deliberations on things like furniture ("I like it, but Amelia would rip it to shreds") and—most painful of all—our...
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