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What Makes Dogs Dogs

Yet at the same time, we love our dogs. We feel sure that they know us and like us, although we never know just how well; we sense they adapt to our moods, but we also know that they very naturally may be more interested in dogs they meet on the street; we believe we can count on them to be absolutely loyal companions, something we may not be able to say about most people we know. Maybe more than at any other time in history, we love our dogs as we love one another, and sometimes even more than that. In 1988, a team of researchers asked a group of dog owners to demonstrate how close they felt to family members and to their dogs, by placing symbolic representations of the people and pets in their lives in relation to themselves. What they found was that almost everyone put their dogs closer than they put the average family member and as close as the family members they said were closest to them. In 38 percent of the cases, though, they put their dogs closer. “I don’t think of Stella as a person in any conscious way. Yet I treat her as if she were a very unusual toddler,” Homans writes. And, he reports, 81 percent of people “view their dogs as family members,” himself among them.

Not long ago The New York Times featured a story about a Brazilian motel for dogs—to promote amorous canine liasons—that also sold nonalcoholic dog beer, had a Japanese ofuro soaking tub, and lots of branded dog apparel:

“I adore the romantic feel of this place,” said Andreia Kfoury, 43, a manager at a technology company who peeked inside the Motel Pet one recent morning while she and her husband were on a clothes-buying spree for their Yorkshire terrier, Harley. The couple, who are motorcycle enthusiasts, bought about $500 worth of imported Harley-Davidson brand items for their dog.

Wacky, yes, but unusual only that it is extreme. In 2011, Americans, for instance, spent over $50 billion on their pets, a 5.3 percent increase from the year before.

And here’s the thing: if we understand our dogs to be members of the family, then why not get them hospice care at the end of their days, if we can afford it, and why not massage therapy for their spinal stenosis, or Prozac to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, which the writer Cathleen Shine did for her emotionally disturbed puppy, as she relates in her heartbreaking 2004 New Yorker piece, “Dog Trouble,” now reprinted in The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (2012)? And why wouldn’t we grill chicken dusted with rosemary, as Jill Abramson did for Buddy, or take our new puppy to a canine swimming pool on a sweltering day when people all over the city are seeking relief in cool water? There is a certain consistency here that makes sense, until it doesn’t, which is to say when someone points out that this esteemed member of the family is “just a dog.”

From the start of our lives together, our relationship to dogs has told us something about ourselves: what we have valued, how we have behaved, and our connection to the natural world and to our animal selves. These days, unlike days past, some of us appear to be uncomfortable with our dominion over our dogs, perhaps because canine science offers a nuanced and thought-provoking take on a dog’s capacities, sensibilities, feelings, and intelligence. Still, the elevation of our dogs to honorary human status is not exactly new. Fourteen thousand years ago, people chose to be buried alongside their dogs. Yet you have to wonder: fourteen thousand years hence, when archaeologists uncover Swarovski crystal–encrusted dog collars and that trove of canine Harley gear, what will they say it says about us?

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