Michael Schaffer: America Is Going To The Dogs In his 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 Is Going To The Dogs

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Michael Schaffer: America Is Going To The Dogs

Michael Schaffer: America Is Going To The Dogs

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Michael Schaffer and his wife rescued Murphy, a sweet, cuddly and goofy St. Bernard from a shelter, it led Schaffer 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 his book "One Nation Under Dog," Schaffer 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 has been a former staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington City Paper.

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 PetSmart 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 grown 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.

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 -PetSmart 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.

GROSS: Yeah. 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. 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."

I know that there are dog parks in most cities. Do you have a dog park to take Murphy to?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Not officially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: There is - 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, and 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 time people have a kind of dogs- will-be-dogs attitude - well, you know, 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 OK.

And there, again, there's no sign that 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 the rules, but because it's the closest thing to my house.

GROSS: Right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)


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 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 increasingly isolated…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And this is - I mean, 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 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 every day and walk the dog, while a pleasure also, you know, sort of impeded on their social life a little bit, and this was a way to combine the two. And as ornate as a lot of city dog parks may be now, very 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, or 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: 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. 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 and 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 wildly 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. That's how it used to be, or at least you'd 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 - it 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 he 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 who 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 is 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 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 a - 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 thing. And that, you know, it worked.

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 "One Nation Under Dog." Our Animal Week series continues tomorrow.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by jazz singer Chris Connor. She died of cancer Saturday. She was 81.

(Soundbite of song, "Strike Up The Band")

Ms. CHRIS CONNOR (Singer): (Singing) Let the drums roll out, let the trumpet call, while the people shout strike up the band. Hear the cymbals ring, calling one and all to the martial swing, strike up the band. There is work to be done, to be done. There's a war to be won, to be won. Come, you son of a son of a gun, take your stand. Fall in line, oh, oh come along, let's go. Hey, leader, strike up the band.

Let the drums roll out, let the trumpet call, while the people shout, strike up the band. Hear the cymbals ring, calling one and all, to the martial swing, strike up the band.

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