03.31.09

Man's Only Friend

In an exclusive excerpt from the new book One Nation Under Dog, scientists argue that as people have gotten lonelier and more disconnected, they’ve filled the gap with more pets.

The dynamics of social interconnectedness have lately been a source of American worry and fascination. In 1995, a then-obscure scholar named Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, an essay chronicling the decline of the clubs and institutions that knit society together. His titular example was bowling. Although the number of people who bowl had increased over the preceding two decades, the number of people who bowl in leagues had shrunk. Putnam argued that the decline of such forms of association heralded a hemorrhaging of the country’s “social capital” in an age of mass media and suburban sprawl. The book-length version of the argument, published in 2000, became a best seller. Putnam was invited to Camp David to chat about the subject with President Bill Clinton.

The rise in rates of pet ownership… may be connected to the same trend. The University of Pennsylvania’s James Serpell, who studies interactions between humans and animals, has argued that the explosive growth in the number of Americans who get pets is tied to the crumbling of other social support structures. He traces the acceleration in pet population to the mid-1960s, the same point at which Putnam’s story of eroding social capital begins. Before then, pet ownership rose in ways that essentially mimicked population growth. If the decision to get a pet were simply a function of postwar prosperity and home ownership, the uptick might have commenced earlier.

Read our “Behind the Book” piece on Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog.

“Social networks fragmented over 40 years—there’s more living alone, more divorce, more childless people, fewer people living in close geographic range of their families, and less community involvement,” Serpell says. “And there has been a dramatic increase in pets . . . As we lose social support, as our relations become fragmented, we are using dogs to fill the gap.”

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One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food By Michael Schaffer 304 pages. Henry Holt and Co. $24. ()

How? Research going back decades shows people lean on pets for the obvious reason of keeping themselves company—and to very good effect: One study showed that pet-owning heart-attack patients were four times more likely to survive than petless patients. Another experiment on hypertensive stockbrokers demonstrated that those who’d been given dogs as well as medication performed better on subsequent stress tests than those who’d only gotten the drugs. Other research shows that social disconnectedness even shapes the way we think about animals. In a fascinating 2008 article, University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley and three colleagues determined that subjects who were less socially connected were more likely to attribute human characteristics— thoughtfulness, consideration, and sympathy, none of which are within the canine skills set—to pets. The same tendency to anthropomorphize helps sell everything from doggie sweaters to… catered birthday bashes.

Animals can also provide a way to overcome that same modern isolation... In the first decade of the 21st century, anthropologist Lisa Jane Hardy spent two years in her neighborhood dog park watching people interact, using the research for a dissertation and a documentary film project that sketch out the full richness of a self-conscious dog-owning subculture. Hardy describes a world of complex rules, rituals, and archetypes. It’s a place where people fall in love, make friends, do battle, and develop unique identities. And you look mighty weird there if you don’t have a dog.

In particularly dog-friendly areas, savvy businesses capitalize on the same phenomenon. With a dose of entrepreneurial moxie, the unsurprising idea that people befriend the folks they see every day at the dog park can be turned into something like the jam-packed “Yappy Hour” I visited one otherwise quiet summer night in Austin, Texas. Recognizing the college town’s evolving style of dog ownership—you can’t seem to sit down for a cup of coffee in the Texas capital without tripping over a leash, which itself is frequently attached to a dog who at that moment is slurping from the outdoor café’s doggie water bowl—the bar’s owner had figured out a way to turn dog owners’ daily ritual into a moneymaking social spectacle: let the dogs in. So I met Todd the vizsla and Biscuit the (mostly) Lab. I’d come to a place where everybody knows your dog’s name.

Excerpted from One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food by Michael Schaffer © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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Michael Schaffer is a writer in Philadelphia. One Nation Under Dog, his book about petmania, the pet industry, and what modern petkeeping says about modern America, is available from Henry Holt. For more visit www.michaelschaffer.net.