The Culture of Dog Ownership Essay
Human beings have kept animals for millenia. In the early, tenuous days of our relationship, packs of gray wolves followed our ancestors as they navigated the prehistoric tundra in search of game. With time, humans began to realize the benefits to the presence of their new companions, and so began a cultural practice which has evolved in ways unimaginable to those early hunters. About twelve thousand years ago, dogs became the first wild animal we invited into our homes, and are arguably the only universally domesticated animal.
Because of their ubiquity across cultural boundaries, dogs have been so commonplace that their history seemed to warrant little consideration. What is most remarkable about dogs is their ability to adapt to the needs of the people with whom they live. Dogs have proved themselves amazingly flexible beings, and this was as true in the Americas as it was elsewhere in the world. Not only are dogs a product of culture, but they also participate in the cultures of humans. Today, over 77 million dogs live in the United States, and 39% of households include at least one canine. ) As Americans, we own more dogs than any other nation in the world. Our affluence as a nation permits us this luxury, as any pet ownership clearly requires a certain amount of discretionary income. This is not the entire story, however. It could be argued that this practice has permeated our culture in so many ways, it is an inextricable aspect of Americana. There are few people who have not seen the iconic Norman Rockwell images of a boy and his dog2(), or seen an episode of “Lassie” or “Rin Tin Tin”.
Everyone remembers the fate of “Ol’ Yeller”, and most people can recall the quiet wisdom of Snoopy. Dogs are present in our pop culture, our identity as a nation, and many of our homes. Even if you have never owned one yourself, you have met a countless number of them. Simply put, they are everywhere. A large part of the success of the domestic dog is its versatility. The capabilities of canines are many and varied, and armed with this knowledge, people have been selectively breeding them for centuries to suit their needs. Today, we keep dogs for many of the same reasons as early humans, but here are always new and creative ways to test the adaptability of the species. Working Dogs The original proto-dogs were the working dogs of early humans. They followed the settlements, picking up food scraps and serving as an early warning system should danger approach. Many modern humans use dogs for the same reason. Countless breeds have been developed to ward off intruders, guard the home, hunt wild game (or truffles! ), and even serve in war. Other working dogs are used in conjunction with our second feat of domestication: livestock.
Many dogs are specially equipped for tending and guarding herds. Some are made to look like sheep, so that they pass unnoticed to other predators. Others have developed complex mechanisms for controlling and interacting with the herd, from the icy stare of the Border Collie, to the heel nipping of the aptly named Australian Heelers. Service Dogs Using dogs to help us navigate day to day life isn’t a large extrapolation from their original use. Once we had created a species that was domesticated and eager to please, training them to serve us was a logical step.
Wild dogs in packs have assigned “roles” within the group; many people argue that because of this, dogs want jobs and things to do, and that this is an important part of their psychological well-being. To this end, dogs can be trained to do countless tasks, for which they ostensibly receive some level of satisfaction and companionship. The most common use of service dogs is as guides for the disabled. They are often used as seeing-eye dogs (for the blind), hearing dogs (for the deaf), or service dogs for people with various disabilities.
They help their owners safely negotiate their environment, and are often trained to pull wheelchairs, navigate, retrieve items, and even to assist in case of an emergency. These dogs “increase the independence, safety, and improve the overall quality of life for their disabled partners. ” 3() Companion Dogs There is no denying that as a whole, Americans love their dogs. We are not the first- humans have been selectively breeding dogs for the express purpose of companionship for over a thousand years.
These companion animals have served as lap dogs, therapy animals, and status or religious symbols for over thousands of years. The Xoloitzcuintle, or Mexican Hairless dog has been bred in Mexico for over 3,000 years. It is an interesting sample, as this dog had not only religious and social symbolism, but was also considered a beloved pet (and bed warmer! ). These dogs were considered sacred by the people of Central America, and were even thought to have healing powers which they exuded from their exceptionally warm skin.
Unfortunately, having so much symbolism ascribed to you is not always beneficial- Xolo dogs were often served at banquets due to their religious significance and purported health benefits. The relationship between Xolos and humans was complicated, to say the least. Companionship is arguably the most common reason Americans own dogs. Many people consider their dogs to be part of their family, and treat them accordingly. It is not uncommon for people to buy their dog gifts, have professional portraits made of them, take them on vacation, or even give them their own room in their homes.
There is pet insurance, dog funeral services, and dog specific salons. We have come a long way from throwing scraps to wolves. Vanity Dogs Although vanity dogs overlap with companion dogs, I feel they deserve independent mention. While the owners of companion dogs are often emotionally invested in their pets, this is not always the case for vanity dogs. Our culture loves status symbols, and many dog breeds have become hot commodities. The demand for these pooches spurs sub-par backyard breeding operations, and fuels the influx of hundreds of thousands of unwanted pets into shelters every year. Toy” breeds gained popularity with the industrial revolution. As people lived in smaller domiciles in cities, they required smaller animals to suit their new mode of life. Over the last century, this has progressed into the development of “teacup” and “miniature” breeds, often at the cost of the overall health of the breed. We create dogs with breathing impairments, defective joints, and even an inability to breed without human intervention. They are bought without consideration to their health, and often treated as commodities.
The American relationship with dogs is complicated and multi-faceted. Many love them, and others can’t bear their presence. Some use them for a purpose, some love them like their own children, and others treat them as a consumer good. It has been a relationship that has been both mutually beneficial and detrimental, and its difficult to say with any certainty who has gained more. There is no sign of this changing anytime soon- dogs have been an inextricable part of American culture from the beginning, and this will probably persist as long as our culture does.