February 15, 2021

Are Dogs People? Dog Valuation, Sacralization, and the Dog Consumer Market

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos, Sociology Doctoral Student, Rutgers University

Long considered “man’s best friend,” dogs have undoubtedly come to occupy a significant role in U.S. society. Their popularity with Americans is striking: an estimated 63.4 million households owned a dog in 2019-2020, which makes up 67% of all households in the U.S.  Dogs are by far the most popular pet in America.

Dog owners are increasingly opting for more affectionate terms for their pets like “companion,” “family member,” or even “person.” And perhaps rightly so. An abundance of research demonstrates that for many owners a dog can serve as an attachment figure– someone who the person turns to for psychological and emotional support. Indeed, the psychological benefits of being in the presence of an animal, and of a dog in particular, have proven to be plentiful: dogs can reduce a person’s anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as increase their self-esteem and playfulness.

Given all of these psychological and emotional benefits to being around dogs, it is no surprise that dog adoptions and sales have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. With little to no way to safely socialize with people, and with most employment relegated to the home, many individuals have found themselves with lifestyles more suitable for owning a pet than ever before. The pandemic has brought loneliness, stress, and anxiety for many.

This trend of pandemic dog-adoption raises many concerns about what may happen once people start returning to work and to their normal, busy lives. For years, shelters have expressed concerns about the rate at which pets are surrendered during periods of increased stress and commitments (including during or just after the holidays). A dog’s life span is 10-20 years, so those  “pandemic puppies” will likely still be around when our lifestyles start returning to “normal.”

Considering the widespread presence of dogs in our lives, perhaps more so this year than ever, it is worth further interrogating the role they play in society. Sociologists have long argued that in addition to their potential psychological benefits for humans, dogs are also cultural artifacts in the sense that our culture and various social processes shape what dogs mean to us and how we treat them.

For example, scholars have argued that being socialized into traditionally masculine gender roles have led some men to seek emotional support in dogs more so than other people as a more “socially acceptable” outlet for their emotional needs. In this sense, our society’s gender roles are seen as having a direct effect on how dogs are valued, particularly by men. While dogs have been part of human life since its inception, the drastic change in how we think about dogs – first as pure sources of labor to now as companions and sources of emotional support – says a lot about how the role of dogs is socially constructed.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum entitled “The Changing Valuation of Dogs,”  authors Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Mette Evelyn Bjerre investigate these changes further. They argue that there are many parallels between the changes we have recently seen in dogs’ societal status and the change in children’s status that occurred between the late 1800s and mid-1900s.

They refer to this process as “sacralization,” whereby the perceived value of something (e.g. children or dogs) is shifted from being solely property and labor based to having “sacred” value – emotionally “priceless” value in and of itself. In the case of children, this change in valuation coincided with broad societal changes, such as increased legal protection for children and a shift in insurance companies’ approach to children.

Just as the more “humane” treatment of children gave rise to a whole economic market aimed at incorporating children as consumers in the household, Stoltz et al. argue that the change in how we value dogs has had significant impacts on the consumer market. They show that households now alter their consumption patterns for dogs and that an entirely new market for accommodating dogs’ consumption wants and needs (e.g. different kinds of dog food, toys, veterinarian visits, insurance policies, dog spas and gyms) has emerged – focused on the dog, rather than the owner, as a consumer. As an ad from Embrace Pet Insurance so eloquently summarizes what drives this new dogs-as-consumers market: “Your best friend deserves the best care.”

This is not simply a change in how we think about dogs; rather, it is a fundamental sociocultural shift with significant bearing on consumer markets. And within this new market, considering dogs to be priceless companions or family members who deserve “nothing but the best” certainly does come at a hefty price.

Comments

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