Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs In his new book One Nation Under Dog, Michael Schaffer investigates the booming pet-care industry. He discusses how the $43 billion business reflects our ideas about consumerism, family, politics and domesticity.
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Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs

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Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs

Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Michael Schaffer and his wife rescued a sweet, cuddly and goofy St. Bernard from a shelter, it led him into the world of contemporary pet ownership, a world of doggie antidepressants, dog park politics, dog furniture, organic pet food and a whole service industry of grooming, training and caretaking.

In Schaffer's new book "One Nation Under Dog," he says America's house pets have worked their way into a new place in the hearts, homes and wallets of their owners.

Schaffer is a journalist who is a former staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington City Paper. He's also written for Slate and the New Republic.

Michael Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I don't want people to think that your book mocks people who love their animals and mocks people who spend money on their animals, but you do take a look at that phenomenon. So what are you trying to get at in the book?

Mr. MICHAEL SCHAFFER (Author, "One Nation Under Dog"): I guess I wanted to sit down and write a book about how it is that we became this pampered-pet nation. You kind of can't go a week or two reading a newspaper without seeing some crazy story about what people do for their animals.

You know, it's the dog with the pink mohair sweater, or look at these people, they feed organic cat food. And these stories tend to have a kind of undercurrent of derision in them. You know, this is a sign of frivolity and over-the-top excess. Particularly in these dark economic times, this is out of place.

And I felt that way when I got a dog. My wife and I remember - we were driving to this shelter where we knew this dog we wanted was available. We were driving - it was about two and a half hours from our house, and the whole way up, we were talking about how, well, we're not going to become like those people, the ones that we had heard about, and we were saying you know, we're not going to do this, and we're not going to do this, and we're not going to do this. And of course, then the dog arrives, and all of that goes out the window.

And it doesn't go out the window because he's so cute and melts your heart, although that helps. It goes out the window because a lot of the stuff is actually - a lot of the stuff people do for their pets now is just an inevitable reaction or reflection of the society we live in.

GROSS: Let me ask you to give an example, and here's the one I'm thinking of: A lot of people make fun of animals who are taking things like antidepressants.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Your dog, on antidepressants because of what?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, we had jobs, and we had this dog at home. And we live in a little row house in Philadelphia. And our next door neighbors are retired, and they're home all day, and one night, they came to us and said you know, that dog of yours yaps from the minute you guys leave in the morning until the minute you guys come home.

And this was a time when he would also go to the bathroom in the house when we left. We would take turns rushing home at lunch, you know, hoping to head it off, which didn't usually work. And you know, he was quite clearly in distress.

And you know, I mentioned this to the vet, kind of in passing, more thinking hey, do you have any, you know, behavior-type techniques I could do to help him relax. And the vet said, you know, there's a drug for that. It's called separation anxiety, that's the condition he's got, and there is a canine version of a human, tricyclic antidepressant.

The only actual chemical difference is that the pills are beef flavored.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: And you know, this was this thing where our - my in-laws, my uncles were saying you know, you're giving your dog antidepressants? I mean, what's the matter with this country where even our dogs are on antidepressants. Aren't they supposed to be the happiest creatures in the world?

And you know, I guess if you step back and look at it that way, it seems kind of silly. But as a very practical matter, we should all be so lucky as to have had the positive effect he had from the medication. And you know, we're at a time when we humans are quite comfortable with psycho-pharmaceuticals.

There was a - maybe I shouldn't say this - but there was a time when, you know, all three members of our household were using some sort of antidepressant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Now he's the only one. But you know, this is all just to say that we humans are quite comfortable with this. Lots of people do it. It's not weird. It doesn't mean you're crazy, and as you - you see this with a lot of things in the pet-spending world, where things that we experience and kind of think of as normal, we will go and ask hey, can I do that for my dog or my cat?

GROSS: But as you point out in your book, putting your dog on antidepressants because of separation anxiety, his separation anxiety, is a reflection on how humans live now.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Absolutely.

GROSS: I mean, there used to be a time when a family that had a dog typically had a mother-homemaker who was there all day, who was there with the dog, or there were kids of different ages, and there was a young kid at home to play with the dog. There was a yard that the dog could run around in.

And now you've got dogs cooped up at home with nobody home to play with them, nothing to occupy them. And so it puts the dog in a position of great discomfort because they have no activity and no company.

Mr. SCHAFFER: That's absolutely right. And I mean, you know, I write in my book that an anthropologist from Mars or something that showed up here and had only the contents of like a Pet Smart to look at could figure out a great deal about our human society.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What would they learn?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, they would learn, among other - I mean, looking at just this question, they would learn that we are a society where two career couples are the norm in a lot of places, and that has led to a whole bunch of things.

It's led to more dogs being alone more of the time. It's led to these very elaborate chew toys that I write about where, you know, these toys are basically designed to keep the pet entertained during these very long absences of its people.

And they have all of these devices to kind of make it complicated to get a piece of food out from the middle. And the idea is that a dog, you know, with this toy thrown to him in the morning as the owner heads off for the day will actually spend a couple of hours trying to manipulate it and chew on it in a certain way that makes the food pop out and so on, and at the end of that, the dog will be exhausted.

He'll be mentally stimulated, which is great on a theoretical level. He also won't spend the rest of the day destroying your couch, which has a more practical benefit for humans.

So people still want pets. They want them, I think, more than they ever did, and they are adjusting the nature of pet-keeping in such ways as to reflect the other aspects of how we live.

GROSS: And that's part of the reason why a whole pet services industry, a huge pet services industry, has blown up.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right, right.

GROSS: Give us an overview of some of the services available for pets now.

Mr. SCHAFFER: You can find some really crazy examples of wealth and excess in pet services, and you can also find some very practical things.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: I spent a day driving around Manhattan with this pet taxi driver, and his company would take calls from people, saying you know, I need to take my dog to the vet. Manhattan's a place where a lot of people don't have cars, and you can't just take any old pet on the subway, and a lot of cabs won't stop for you. So it's actually a practical need that was being filled.

And people would pay, you know, $31 for this trip, $42 for that trip. It was a Friday at the end of the day, people were going out to the Hamptons, similarly being driven out with their dogs.

For them, they've decided - for the dog owners, they had decided it was kind of the cost doing business, the cost of owning a pet in their world.

GROSS: But a typical service that a lot of people use now is dog walking.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Because of what we were talking about before.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Someone who is a single person or both people in the household work, and the dog needs to be walked. Or you're leaving town for a couple of days.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And as a full-time job, this has grown tremendously. There are a couple of dueling, dog walker professional associations, which offer certifications - a kind of guarantee that this person you're hiring is not going to steal your dog or anything else from your house. And it's - you know, it's not that expensive, $15, $20, depending on where you are, and a lot of people decide that boy, having a pet brings me so much joy that spending, you know, $15 every weekday because I have to work 10-hour days is worth it for me.

There's another - there's also this incredibly fast-growing business of professional dog grooming. And you know, to me, it is connected fairly intimately with this change in where people's pets have lived, literally lived, over the years.

In the old days, it was pretty common to have your dog, especially, sleep out back for the night, in the doghouse or out in the yard. I actually saw an article in a business journal that sort of traced images of dogs in advertisements in women's magazines over the course of the 20th century. And in the 1920s, the sort of prototypical picture would be of a stylish woman out on the street walking her dog in public. By the '50s, you'd have the dog kind of curled up on the hearth in the living room. And by the '80s and '90s, you had this image of, you know, like an aspirin ad, where the mom is supplying medicine to the sick child, and the dog is literally on the child's bed.

So you - it's this kind of progression indoors and into the family and into the bedroom. I don't think it's any surprise, given that - I think I saw statistically it's at 47 percent of people have their pets sleep in their own bed. I don't think it's any surprise, given that…

GROSS: Sleep in the people's bed.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Sleep in the people's bed. I don't think it's any surprise, given that those people are going to be a lot more interested in getting their dog groomed because you don't want to sleep with a stinky dog.

GROSS: In talking about services, one of the services that you've both researched and taken advantage of is pet hotels, the more high-end kennels that you can board an animal in if you're going away. Give us a sense of the range of things that you've seen in looking at the high and low range kennels that are available.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, for a lot of people, if they go out of town, the easiest thing to do is they just go to their vet, and the vet will have a few kennels, and the dog can stay there.

This used to be pretty standard. To a lot of people, it's now thought of as kind of cruel and that, you know, it'll be in some dank room in the vet's office in these mom-and-pop vets.

And you have seen this tremendous proliferation of pet hotels. At the biggest of the pet stores - Pet Smart and, I believe, PETCO, are getting into this business as well because it's growing very fast.

But I cited - I visited a place in San Francisco called The Wag Hotel where there are several types of rooms you can choose from, but the largest and most lavish of them have TVs and, you know, beds and a video camera that lets the owner, who is presumably on vacation someplace, log on and actually look at their…

GROSS: Oh, it's a Web cam.

Mr. SCHAFFER: A Web cam, right. And then the owner can then call the hotel or e-mail and say, boy, you know, my dog looks hungry. Can you please bring him a treat?

And of course, that costs extra. But this place costs, I believe $85 a night, which is, you know…

GROSS: Significant.

Mr. SCHAFFER: More than a lot of Motel 6s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. So you put your dog up in a hotel?

Mr. SCHAFFER: I have. I've put him up in a hotel for, you know, when we went on vacation. I also once took him with me to one of the many human hotels that have become pet friendly.

GROSS: Right, and they have room service menus…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: …with the dog and cat food.

Mr. SCHAFFER: And this was something, this was a case where I really wanted to go experience the most lavish, over-the-top thing I could imagine, and we went to the Regency in Manhattan…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …which has been advertised quite extensively as pet-friendly, and it sure was. And we got there, and there was a doggie bed in the room. They brought a bowl of doggie biscuits. We were able to pay for having a hotel staffer, liveried staffer, out walking the dog for us. When we went out to dinner. They had in-room babysitting for the dog in case you felt the dog would be distressed by being left alone, and it was really something.

The joke of it was our dog didn't much like it. He was unaccustomed to having this hallway right outside the door where people were walking by, even in a very nice hotel with carpeting, and you don't - you know, it's not a cheap place where you actually hear the people in the hallway. He was able to hear them and didn't much like that.

GROSS: You got your dog from a shelter. And that's, I think, for a lot of people the preferred way of getting a pet because you get to, you get to rescue an animal that's been abandoned or was homeless. How are shelters changing?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, the world of where pets come from stands at great contrast to the rest of the pet industry. There are professional market-research types who can tell you exactly how many brands of high end pet shampoo came on the market in the year 2006, for instance.

But people have only a relatively foggy idea of where pets come from: how many of them come from so-called puppy mills, how many of them are purchased in stores, how many of them come from rescues or breeders or what have you.

But one of the phenomena of recent years, which is related to this campaign against cruel puppy mills that mass-breed puppies in often inhumane conditions, has been that the shelters themselves and the advocates for adoption are trying to compete on a kind of market level.

So you have, in the old days, you would have to go to the pound, which was often in a bad part of town, and it was a miserable place where all these dogs are howling, and you know that the ones you don't pick are going to be euthanized. And if you're with your kid, your kid's going to start crying, and it's going to be a very unhappy and stressful day for everyone.

Instead, I went to a place in Chicago called Paws, which might have been the most beautiful space I set foot in in that entire week. It was like a Restoration Hardware or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: It was a beautiful retail environment. It had enormous bay windows, so the sun kind of dappled in, and they had arranged the dogs' rooms in such a way as that there were no sightlines from one dog to another, which is something that causes howling. So there wasn't this kind of cacophony of unhappy howls.

One of the employees was taking me around. You know, at one point, she said - we were in the cat adoption area - and she said, well, you see the walls in here, they're kind of a more Ralph Lauren-y color.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, and I sort of looked at her. I thought, you're a person who's dedicated your life to this really tough issue of rescuing pets that might be killed otherwise, and we're sitting here talking about Ralph Lauren colors and which color is most flattering to a cat.

The experience there is so pleasant. I mean, this is the argument, is that if you make the experience pleasant, make it retail, make it customer friendly. People will be more eager to adopt pets rather them to buy them in ways that often abet a really cruel system.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer. He's the author of the new book, "One Nation Under Dog." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, and his new book is called "One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics and Organic Pet Food."

You found your dog, Murphy, initially from a Web site, which is how a lot of people are finding animals now. So what attracted you to your dog? I mean, it's just, it's kind of like online dating or something? You know, you're looking at all these pictures, and you're thinking hmm, how does that person look? How did you decide this was your dog based on what you saw on the Web?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, that's another way adoption has changed is that you used to have to go down to the pound, and you'd kind of take what was there. And if you lived in a city like Philadelphia, where I live, what was there would be a lot of pit bulls, a lot of dogs that have a -rightly or wrongly - have a reputation as being tough and something you might not want.

And there's this Web site called Petfinder, which you know, it kinds of works like Amazon.com. You can call up whatever it is you particularly want, and it will show you all of the animals at shelters in whatever range of miles away from your house you are willing to travel that need adoption.

For me, I never had pets before. I never had a dog before. And I was always attracted to those dogs that have sort of droopy, jowly faces because I thought they were really cute.

There really wasn't a great deal more thought to it than that. The idea of having - and we wound up with Murphy, who is a St. Bernard, and he's not just any drooly dog. He's a very, very, very big drooly dog.

And I don't know why that particular face managed to woo me, but that was what I wanted. And it was mostly just sort of messing around. I would type in - you know, I'd go to this Web site and type in oh hey, what about bloodhounds? You know, they're kind of cool-looking. And I didn't know anything about their behavior or temperament or whatever.

And then I typed in St. Bernard, and there was a picture of Murphy. And it said in the text that accompanied it that he was unusually small for a St. Bernard, which was good because I lived in a pretty small house.

And you know, my wife and I had been talking about getting a dog, and we said how about this one. And we drove out and took a look and wound up bringing him home.

GROSS: There's a funny chapter in your book where you're trying to decide whether the dog will adapt to living with you, and you're giving all these doggie tasks to him…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …that you've read. And your wife is reading out loud from the book, explaining what you're supposed to do to test the dog. Tell us what you did to administer a test to see if the dog would fit in at home with you.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, as with any other aspect of pet ownership, there are endless sources of advice, and they are often quite contradictory.

We wound up with this book about how to adopt a dog from a shelter. And it warned us. It said: listen, you know, the shelter owners often, for very good reasons, very noble reasons, will try to tell you a sob story, and the whole purpose of this is to make you overcome your skepticism and take this dog home. But you should really be tough and think about what dog is going to work with you.

And it had some ideas. You know, one of them was well, you were supposed to - we didn't actually do it right - but you're supposed to take a sort of phony hand on the end of a stick, and you'll put some food in front of the dog and then push the dog's face away from the food with this phony hand, and if the dog nips at the hand, well that's a very bad sign.

I did it with a real hand, which apparently was, you know, taking my life or at least my hand into my hands. But you know, we were trying to sort of assess whether this dog's temperament and mood and everything was going to be all right because neither of us really knew a great deal about what we were getting into. Neither of us had a huge amount of time, and so we were concerned about having something that was going to be a real problem for us.

And the woman who ran the shelter was just, you know, sitting there sort of chuckling at us because she thought we were these, you know, typical, neurotic city people who had come out the shelter.

She eventually took us aside and said listen. You know, I don't really know you or care about you, but I do care about him. And if he goes and bites someone, you'll probably put him down, and I don't want that to happen. So I'm going to tell you right now, he doesn't bite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: And you know, it was good enough for us.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "One Nation Under Dog." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Michael Schaffer, author of the new book "One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food". Schaffer was led into this world after adopting a St. Bernard named Murphy from a shelter. Schaffer is a former staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and U.S. News and World Report. He's also written for the New Republic and Slate. I know that there are dog parks in most cities. Do you have a dog park to take Murphy too?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Not officially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: There's - in my neighborhood there's, you know, but it's interesting you asked that because when we got Murphy and began taking him to this park in the neighborhood where everybody takes their dogs, you know, it was like I was Margaret Mead and I'd just landed in Samoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: There was this very intricate network of rules and what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do and no one wrote them down and no one told you them, but you just sort of figured them out. And you could see how the people who were regulars of the park would, you know, shun people who engaged in behavior that wasn't cool, or subtly remind you of what you're supposed to do, you know - heaven forbid that you let your dog poop and don't pick it up because everyone will remind you. But there's other types of things, which as I went around I visited a lot of dog parks.

There's great variation among dog parks, even these informal ones, in terms of what is permitted and what isn't. And I'm not again talking about a written list of rules.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well in my neighborhood - I live in a sort of college-y neighborhood right by a university. And one thing dogs do in dog parks is they hump. And, you know, most of the times people have a kind of dogs will be dogs attitude - that's what they do, they're dogs. And, you know, sometimes if there's a new person people will try to get their dogs to not do that because they don't how the new person will react but that tends to be how it works. There's another very nice, actually legal, official dog park in a kind of ritzy part of town that we take our dog to sometimes and there it's really not okay.

And there again there's no sign that's says no humping but you can tell from the way everyone else is reacting that when Murphy is mounting another dog that it's not at all acceptable. And they really don't like that and they don't know who you are and they kind of want you to go away.

GROSS: So are you a regular now at the dog park, you know all the rules?

Mr. SCHAFFER: I'm a regular there not because I know all rules but because it's the closest thing to my house.

GROSS: Right, right. Okay.

Mr. SCHAFFER: And it's actually been a place where, you know, I spend an hour a day there, and I've made a lot of friends. And some - one of our - my wife and I - one of our closest friends in our city is someone we met through the park and I think this is quite typical this, this idea of…

GROSS: That's a point you make in your book that dogs are a way of connecting to other people in addition to having a connection to the dog. And in a society where we're growing interestingly isolated…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And this is something that's been the subject of a certain amount of scholarly research. But it's something I've also sort of experienced in my own life…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …at my neighborhood dog park. And I've also sort of seen it in action and - and I've written about some of the business people who are trying to take advantage of it. In Austin, Texas, I remember visiting a bar that had a Yappy Hour I believe every Wednesday or Thursday night…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: …and it was a great idea. I mean whoever thought of this…

GROSS: That you bring your pet with you?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Bring your pet with you. And, you know, it was outdoors and they had put out some dog bowls and - probably a quiet night of the week and it was a great way of drumming up business. The people who were there loved it because for them, you know, having to rush home from work everyday and walk the dog while a pleasure also, you know, sort of impeded on their social life a little bit and this was the way to combine the two. And as ornate as a lot of city dog parks may be now, there are few of them serve beer.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned earlier that more people seemed to have pets now than ever before. And if that's true, have you thought about the reasons why that might be true.

Mr. SCHAFFER: The most convincing of the reasons I've heard, and I can't claim to have come up with it myself, you know, traces the point where the growth of the pet population began to grow faster than the human population to the 1960s, late '60s. And the argument is that this is the same time when we began moving further from families, and more divorce, and people leaving tight knit urban neighborhoods in favor of a more isolated suburban lifestyle, and that kind of broad array of social support mechanisms going away.

And that one thing people did was turn to pets to help fill that void. And I think it also explains the role that pets were given in this new world, that they were considered much more as full fledged members of the family with all of our obligations to them than in the old days. And if you walk through a pet cemetery, you know, you can kind of see this in real time, some of the very old graves are likely to say, or liable to say, you know, here lies Fido, a loyal servant.

And newer ones, you'll find, you know, here lies Fido, my best friend. Or often, and there are all these Internet sites where people can write tributes to their recently deceased pets and it'll say, my baby, Fido was my child, except that his name is not so likely to be Fido anymore. I actually saw some statistics from a pet insurance company about what the most common names of policyholders was and it was like Max, and Jake and Chloe and Julie - which are also pretty common names for babies nowadays.

GROSS: What does that say to you, that more people seem to be giving their pet's human name instead of you know Fido and Spot.

Mr. SCHAFFER: I think there is this idea of humanization and this kind of promotion of pets to being junior humans, being members of the family. And it explains - I mean from the marketing point of view, the people who have businesses selling, you know, chew toys or nights at doggy day spas or whatever, it's great for them. For us, I think, you know, I think it's actually a kind of a sweet thing because I think it speaks to, this desire people have to embrace pets, to take them into their lives and into their hearts. And it actually, you know, for all of us it's kind of nice to be needed.

And this idea that their pet really needs them, relies on them, is a pretty huge thing for a lot of people. There was a public health campaign run by, I think, by the San Francisco city health department and it's a Web site. It's called Dogs Are Talking and the argument - it's an anti-STD campaign, it's encouraging people to go get tested for syphilis. And dogs, you know, don't have anything to do with syphilis. The argument is, look if you have a dog and you get sick, you know, your dog is going to be, is going to need you and you're not going to be able to provide for. And this is kind of playing on that urge to provide and to nurture and using that urge to encourage what the public health people think is better behavior.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, author of the new book "One Nation Under Dog." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is journalist Michael Schaffer and he's the author of the new book "One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food." You have a chapter on basically dog training culture wars where you compare two different styles…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: …of dog training. And what are the different styles and what do they tell you about our culture today?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. Well, there is the number, according to the federal government, the number of animal trainers in the country tripled in just six years between 2000 to 2006. And, you know, one of the reasons for this is as I said that getting dog training has become, for a lot of middle class pet owners, a kind of basic normal responsible thing you do to be a good citizen.

And there has been this widely popular and really good TV show called "The Dog Whisperer" starring Cesar Millan, which is like a weekly advertisement for the concept of dog training, you see him go - you know, you might imagine hiring a dog trainer is something that only, you know, absurdly rich people do, or you only do if you want to train a seeing eye dog, or a stunt dog or something, and that's how it used to be, or at least you would only do if you had kind of a problem dog. And, you know, watching "The Dog Whisperer" you actually see him go into these houses of perfectly normal people, and granted normal people whose dogs are acting in ways they don't want, but people who are not fancy spendthrift types. The thing is though that this growth of this industry has masked or hasn't made up for the fact that there are wildly divergent views about what the most effective and most humane way to train a dog is.

For most of the 20th century, since the sort of dawn of kind of modern dog training, which was geared, again, towards police dogs and Hollywood dogs and whatever - here was this very rote military style training, actually the first prominent dog trainer was in the Prussian police force. So, you can imagine it was sort of in his image and it was - if the dog, you know, doesn't behave in the right way, jerk its chain. And that idea kind of carried through most of the 20th century. There was this pedagogical revolution in the '70s and '80s among trainers who thought, hey, maybe actually positive reinforcement, you know, hitting him with a reward as quickly as possible after it does something well is a more effective way to train.

The argument was that dogs are too dumb to figure out why it is you're kicking them. So if you were trying to correct some bad behavior it's difficult to do that through these purely negative ways. And this positive reinforcement model kind of became the standard among professionals. And - academically based professionals as well as trainers and we might hang out a shingle and so on - until Cesar's show went on the air - and his idea is quite different. It's that, you know, there's this natural order of things as existed in a pack of wild wolves. Where the alpha dog was the boss and the other dogs were subordinate.

And his idea is the way you - that the problem for American dogs, the problem with their behavior is that we have lost touch with the natural order of things. And that the way to shape a dog's behavior is to remind it that you, the human, are its alpha, which seems good in theory but to a lot of the positive trainers the ways he gets to that are considered cruel or at least impractical. And they see all this, this sort of talk about nature as just a mask for a return to this old fashioned, dominant top-down model.

And to my mind it all plays out kind of like a version of the culture wars over how to raise a kid, you know? We've got one side based in institutions and universities that has a softer, more positive approach. You have another side that says our society has gone amiss because we've lost our discipline and lost our sense of authority. And, you know, it sounds awfully familiar.

GROSS: Which kind of - which approach did you go with your trainer?

Mr. SCHAFFER: We hired a woman who - because we didn't know anything about this - we, you know, hired a woman at a good Web site and we liked her a lot - who had a kind of alpha approach. And it was this, you know, when you go through a door, you go first, Murphy doesn't go first. That way he…

GROSS: You've got to teach him who's boss.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …right. And when you come home don't pet him. Once he has calmed down, call him over to the couch and then pet him. And she was, we really like her. And she, you know, things I'm saying might sort of -removed from the experience might sound kind of monstrous, but the argument was this is what will make him feel better. That, you know, any behavior problems he has have to do with anxiety over who's the boss. And that dogs, unlike humans, are not sitting around scheming hoping to become the boss, but what they do need is a secured sense of where they are in the order of things.

So, it was, you know, put out his food for exactly 20 minutes a day then put it away. He has to know that he's going to eat on your schedule not on his. And, you know, he doesn't get to come on the bed, and when you walk him, you know, hold the leash tight and he doesn't get to decide where you go, and that sort of things. And that, you know, it worked.

GROSS: You started your book when times were much better economically than they were by the time you finished it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: And by the time, certainly by the time it was published. How do you think the economic mess that we're in is affecting what people are willing to buy for their pets?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know I, when I started the book I had thought of it at least in part as a book about excess, as a book about manifestation of excess through the way people treat pets. And so as I got into my research, I realized that wasn't what it was about at all. Pets I think are a pretty good reflection of the society at large, which includes a little bit of excess but includes a lot of other things too.

And it's a good thing I came to that conclusion because excess went rapidly out of style while I was working on this. And the pet industry seems to be, and so far as any one can tell yet, surviving very nicely and I've - one of things I've written about, one of the constant themes in this book is this social promotion of pets to be like ersatz children, to be members of the family. Once you've received that promotion, it's very hard to be demoted by a mere economic catastrophe.

And people seem to be, people who had decided that they were going to buy, say, organic pet food for their dog, even the most deluded pet people don't think that's because the dog is a gourmand. They think it's because it is the basic nutritional thing that they owe them. They have decided that this is a nutritionally and important thing to do and they are going to stick with that and sacrifice for themselves while they do it.

I went - each of the years I was working on this, I would go to the Global Pet Expo, which is this massive, massive pet goods trade show and you see, you know, glow in the dark leashes and hamster mineral water and mental enrichment games for fish, and all kinds of crazy stuff there. And each year at that amount, the Pet Trade Association rolls out its latest figures for what their economic performance was in the past year.

And in 2008, they had done $41 billion of business the previous year and projected $43 billion in the year to come. When everyone got together in February of this year, there was a lot of trepidation and nervousness about what the numbers would show and it turned out they had hit their $43 billion target for '08, they say. And they predicted $45 billion for the year ahead. And that also comports with what some of the business people I've gotten to know are telling me, that they think they're doing okay, not growing as fast as they were but they think they're doing all right.

GROSS: At the same time, I read about people who abandon their animals when they are foreclosed on or can't effort their rent anymore.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. I think one of the things the recession is showing is that there is a limit to the elasticity of people spending on their pets. It's one thing if you have a choice, you know, I'm going to scrimp on myself in order to keep buying this - this particularly worthy brand of food or this medication, or what have you, but it's another thing to be hit with, say, a $8,000 veterinary bill. You just can't pay it so you don't do the procedure. You don't have a choice. And similarly if you've been foreclosed from your house and you have to go and rent a place and the landlord won't take pets, you don't have a choice anymore.

And people are in a very tough situation. And you can say that it also shows that there are limits to how much people will consider their pets a member of the family because if your new landlord said wait, we can't take your kid, no one would give up the kid. But it is kind of the best of times and the worst of times. People are showing this - the intensity of this bond by sticking with it when they have a choice. But more people are now in a position where they - where they don't have a choice.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer is the author of the new book, "One Nation Under Dog."

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