After moving to the USA (Washington DC metro area), one thing I noticed was the large number of people who have dogs. In the neighborhood where I live, I can’t walk one block down the street without encountering at least a couple of people walking their dogs.
Fortunately, the dog owners clean up the dog-poop that their pets produce regularly and the area doesn’t smell like sewerage.
In the past year, the management of the large apartment building in which I live redeveloped the outdoor area of the property. I found it baffling that, now, about half of the outdoor area is a dog-park, which includes a dog-washing-station, and at the same time there is not one swing or slide for children.
My first conclusion was that the property management prioritizes the welfare of the dogs over that of children. But I believe there’s a more profound explanation. The area in which I live is becoming more and more expensive (last rent increase was about 10%) and the property management wants to attract a certain target group of clients.
In my very gruff approach, I call them people who have more money than sense. Others might call them “Millennials” or just “dog lovers”.
The new dog-park is not the only clue that the neighborhood is populated by lots of people who spend lots of money on dogs. A few blocks from where I live, there is a pet-shop which sells birthday cakes for dogs, naturally in the shape of a bone. Last winter, I saw dogs dressed in Christmas-themed sweaters.
Needless to say, the dogs around Old Town Alexandria have better lives than many children around the world, including the USA.
Why do people keep dogs in the first place?
Dogs are one species that is man-made. Long story short, early man domesticated wolves and dogs came to be. As any other domestic species, dogs served (and continue to serve in some contexts) very utilitarian purposes for people.
Dogs were (still are in some contexts) a form of protection for both people and their property. Even nowadays, guard dogs are essential for shepherds to protect their flocks and, in some rural communities, dogs are used to protect people’s houses from other people with nefarious intentions (e.g. thieves).
In an urban setting, however, dogs serve none of these utilitarian purposes of protection.
So why do people have dogs in urban areas such as Old Town Alexandria? Why do so many people pick-up dog-shit in their fancy plastic bags a few times each day? What drives the consumerism driven by dog-ownership (mania)?
A clue of the answer comes from an unlikely place – dating apps. Among other things that people (ladies) communicate (signal) about themselves on dating apps is their ability to provide care to pets – mainly dogs. According to a friend who’s very active on dating apps, some ladies describe themselves as “dog moms”.
The in-utilitarian dog serves a purpose, but not the one for which dogs were created. In-utilitarian dogs are a means of signaling (communicating) one’s valuable traits to others – especially potential mates, but also potential allies.
In an urban setting, owning a dog is simulated parenting – conspicuous caring.
Dogs and children are very much alike when it comes to (conspicuously) showing one’s ability to provide care.
Both dogs and children have special food, albeit distinct – dog food and baby food. Moreover, the price per ounce for baby food is similar to the price for dog food (roughly 22 cents/oz).
Both dogs and children have dedicated, yet similar, toys (e.g. balls). They’re both taken outside by human adults to play using toys. They are both taken on walks by adult people.
Human adults buy birthday cakes for both babies and dogs for birthday parties – which are socialization occasion (social rituals) for human adults because both the dogs and babies have no understanding of what’s going on.
Both dogs and children have specialized doctors to which human adults resort to and pay handsomely when things go bad.
Both dogs and children are sent by human adults to specialized institutions to receive training. We call them kindergartens, schools etc. The dog-school in the neighborhood where I live even has an emblem that is similar to those of schools for people.
The conspicuous display of caring through owning in-utilitarian dogs is mostly unconscious
People who own dogs as pets are oblivious to the fundamental reasons for which they hold in-utilitarian dogs. In some cases, pet dogs are seen as companions, but that actually communicates that the person is unable to find human companionship.
I came across the idea that owning a dog is an investment in one’s own health as a dog motivates its human owner to walk. The same thing is done by a Fitbit and talking a walk motivated by the activity tracker doesn’t require picking up someone else’s poop.
The fundamental reason behind owning and spoiling an in-utilitarian dog is that of costly signaling – showcasing one’s mating and social value on the “market”.
Here are a few signals that are being sent through owning and spoiling an in-utilitarian dog.
I can take care of a living thing and even make it the best version of what it can be.
I have enough money to spend on bone-shaped-birthday-cakes for dogs.
I am conscientious enough to walk my dog regularly.
I’m prosocial and have some decent immune system - I pick up its poop from the street without getting sick.
I started writing this post as an ironic critic of the consumerism driven by dog ownership. Then I realized that I need to give an explanation for the phenomenon I am criticizing. It so happened that I was working on this text in the weeks in which the USA was in the moral dilemma of separating children from parents at the southern border.
It looks like simulated parenting and conspicuous caring are easier and more convenient than the actual thing. Human parental instincts exist for providing care to babies and children, not dogs. But somehow, in a very special form of twisted morality, it is very good business to exploit those instincts by selling dog-related products and services.