By Sally Raskoff
Do you think that dogs are a human’s best friend? Are they really our best friend forever? Many feel that their pets are a member of the family, but how important are they compared to your other family members?
Today, I saw a family walking into the local mall and something about them caught my eye. The family consisted of four adults and one child. The child was pushing a stroller and she appeared to be about 8-10 years old. They caught my attention since the young girl (and not one of the four adults) was pushing the stroller.
She leaned down to tend to something in the stroller, and I realized that she was pushing a dog stroller! Her small puppy (or full size toy dog) was attempting to climb out of the carrier so she tucked it back in. As they approached the door of the mall, she had to push the dog back in the stroller two or three more times.
My first thought was that this was a great example of the reinforcement of gender norms, as the girl was practicing mothering skills--not just with a doll but with a living creature. However, I realized that this was much more than a gender socialization process when I noticed that the stroller was designed specifically for dogs.
Recently, we have seen small dogs traveling in women’s purses or in bags that appear to be purses yet are small dog carriers. The first time we notice these purse-dogs, it is somewhat surprising, but the more we see this, the more “normal” it becomes.
The stroller-dogs are similar to the purse-dogs in that they are being carried about, not walking under their own power. They are not walking, sniffing, and socializing as typical dogs do.
I’ve always thought it odd seeing a purse-dog. I wonder how it “does its business” or relieves itself. But dogs in strollers? This seems to be a very different situation. It seemed so odd to me since dogs need walking not riding!
Why is it more startling to see a stroller-dogs than a purse-dog?
- While the dog is being carried about much like the purse-dogs, the stroller is more visible and it is obvious that people are pushing around a dog.
- When we see a stroller, we assume that it is carrying a human child or a doll; it is apparent that its occupant is equated with either a human or a doll.
- Dolls are proxy humans; girls are encouraged to play with them to prepare for their future role as a mother.
Thus these stroller dogs are treated not only as family members, but also as babies or children and equivalent to humans.
When I mentioned this to my friends, one mentioned that she had seen a woman shopping in the mall with her golden retriever. Adult retrievers are far too big to be carried in purses and are probably too big for most strollers, but they can participate in the take-my-dog-anywhere phenomenon too. If small dogs can go to the mall, why not larger dogs?
Cities have the power of regulation over where animals may go. Guide dogs are allowed into public places and elsewhere to assist their humans navigate spaces and situations. But most cities have regulations requiring owners of other dogs to ensure that (1) their dogs are licensed, (2) their dogs be leashed when off one’s private property, and (3) when walking their dogs in public spaces, they remove any feces. Many businesses have policies that prohibit the presence of all dogs except guide dogs. Health codes restrict most businesses that serve food from allowing animals into their establishment.
Because so many dog owners have opted to bring their “best friend” with them everywhere they go, there is a robust market for books and websites that offer suggestions about pet-friendly businesses, hotels, and cities.
One website lists malls across the country that are pet friendly. Some shopping center websites have a “pet friendly” icon on their page. The Prime Outlets at Pismo Beach, California, is so pet friendly they have doggie treats for their four-legged visitors.
So, how do we explain this relatively recent phenomenon of dogs becoming not just our best friend, but our constant companion (when they are allowed to be)?
Norms, or societal guidelines for expected behavior are often reflected in organizational policies and governmental laws. Norms, like policies and laws, do change over time yet they do not often change quickly. What is source of such change? Typically, when behaviors of people deviate from those norms in enough over time, those behaviors become more accepted than the policies , laws, or norms that had restricted that behavior.
Animals have always been important to our culture. However, in recent years the depth of integration of animals with our families and daily life has increased tremendously. Animals have always been valued for their labor (farm animals), amusement or education (circuses, zoos), and companionship or helping humans learn caring behaviors or parenting roles (domestic pets). These days, though, many pets are considered equal members of the family.
Why are we treating dogs as if they are children?
Symbolic interactionist theory and ethnographic research suggest that domesticated pets offer humans tremendously rewarding social and emotional contacts. Studies show that the elderly and those with disabilities are happier and healthier if they have regular interactions with a pet. Dogs also connect people to other people (much as children do) because they get their owners out into the social world.
Canine companionship can also serve as a substitute for human contact. As societal and technological changes make us more isolated from each other, it seems logical that we increasingly incorporate pets, especially dogs, into our families and social lives.
Of course, it can cost money to bring your dog everywhere you go. Dog strollers sell for approximately $50 to over $200. Dog carriers or “purses” also are not inexpensive either. While middle and upper class families can afford such luxury canine carrying items, those with lower earnings probably can’t.
Homeless people with dog companions are often denied shelter unless they give up their dogs—thus most refuse such shelter. Since these dogs are often the only positive emotional connection for their human companions, they will not give them up to get a roof over their head. Their ties to their dogs are equal to or even more powerful than that of other people. Yet homeless people and their dogs are welcomed inside shopping centers they way a well-off dog-purse-carrying owner might be.
Speaking of economics, the recent growing acceptance of dogs as family members has been a boon to the economy. The market for products created for dogs and other pets has steadily increased for many years. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates that in 2007 $40.8 billion dollars were spent on pet products in the U.S. Their trend report cites not only and increasing focus on dog products but companies known for human products are including dog products (e.g., Paul Mitchell, Origins, Old Navy).
Historically, we have elevated humans above other species, and the differences between humans and animals have helped to define what humanity is. These days, those distinctions seem to be blurring—not just in the social world but in the scientific community as well.
Scientific studies, such as the gene mapping projects, have found fewer differences between humans and other species than we had previously thought. The paradigms of scientific thought are also changing, thus the enlightenment perspective, that humans have the ability to understand and control the natural world, has been challenged by alternative theories. Some of these theories acknowledge that humans neither understand the laws of nature nor are they in control; rather, they are part of a delicate ecosystem.
Thinking about this phenomenon through a sociological lens raises many questions: Should we expect increasing acceptance of dogs and other pets into our social spheres whether public or private? Will we admit other species into our realm? Will we continue to adopt technologies and make them part of our lives without thought to how those technologies change our lives? Or, will we reassert human primacy over other beings? Will we create and enforce laws and policies to keep non-human species on leashes and out of public spaces? Will we counter our blind adoption of technologies by encouraging human social interaction in a variety of situations?
No Dogs Photo: courtesy PDPhoto.org; Dog Stroller photo: PawsAboard.com