Characterizations of the dog-owner bond never quite get it right. Either they're too clinical and flat, or they're too soppy and Disney'esque. Jon Katz's The New Work of Dogs is one of the very few books I consider a must-read for the way in which it honestly and accurately captures the complexity of this bond, as well as for addressing related ethical issues.
According to Katz, "The new work of dogs is attending to the emotional lives of Americans, many of whom feel increasingly disconnected from one another." The author points to various changes in suburban American society that have exacerbated a sense of social alienation. Among these are changes in family structure such as a larger proportion of childless and single-person households, tremendous divorce rate, greater geographic mobility, less job security, and longer lifespans. Compounding this is the influence of television and the internet, and busy schedules where harried persons simply don't have the time to get to know one another. A feeling of "neighborhood" is absent. Set against this backdrop, a dog becomes a convenient, accessible, steady friend to provide support and maintain morale, especially during life crises.
Katz gives an overview of scientific theory about the dog-owner bond, grounding his own thinking primarily in Bowlby's attachment theory. This postulates, in essence, that an infant's inability to gratify its emotional needs through proper attachment to its mother sets the stage for attachment issues throughout life, with such fallout as adults who are distant, excessively needy, or ambivalent within relationships. Katz contends, "though some people get dogs for the simplest reasons - hunting, say, or protection - attachment theory helps explain why so many other people get dogs and how they treat them." It is no wonder, given the social alienation that Katz describes, that people might turn to dogs as human substitutes to satisfy their emotional needs, provide them with stability and security, and re-write historical wounds.
Predicting where some readers might chafe, Katz remarks, "There is nothing wrong with forming a powerful attachment to a dog. Loving a dog is often a rich, healthy, incalculably rewarding experience. Nor it is inherently disturbing for people to address or respond to significant emotional issues through their pets. To recognize this isn't to condemn it."
Nonetheless, there is a fine line between emotional involvement and over-involvement - between emotionally bonding with another species as our friends versus exploiting them as emotional tampons that have no inherent value or needs of their own. Too often, dog or human may suffer the consequences when the underlying attachment issues are not understood or addressed, and this concerns the author deeply, as he's "seen dogs placed in impossible, even disturbing, situations, overwhelmed by the pressure put on them to fill complex emotional roles in their owners' lives."
Using Montclair, New Jersey as a representative microcosm of suburban America, Katz explores several living examples of the modern dog-owner relationship to highlight its depth, utility, and even tragedy. His concerns are clearly illustrated through the vignettes he presents.
A young woman, for example, takes great comfort in the presence of her husband's dog after the man's unexpected death. She lavishes attention on the dog and credits the animal with having, "pulled her out of herself, kept her exercising, eased her loneliness, given her a powerful reason to keep going." And yet, she readily abandons the dog when she embraces a new man in her life who doesn't like the animal. On the one hand, the author expresses happiness for the woman who "had done what humans in her situation ought to do - she'd found a human to attach to." On the other hand, he is clearly concerned that the dog - its "new work" done - has outlived its transient usefulness to the owner and has been surplused.
This ambivalence recurs throughout the book. Older folks gain comfort from the company of their dogs rather than their family members. A woman dies of cancer with her remarkably devoted dog at her side. The author expresses concerns that he was "haunted" by the idea that this woman didn't have more people to rely on throughout her illness. "In a different kind of society, or even this one fifty years ago, surely she would have been surrounded by her extended family, the members of a church, friends, neighbors, or perhaps a husband who wouldn't turn away." And yet he admits, "In the absence of such rootedness, in the absence of community, I hated to think of her without that big-eared Corgi. He was doing a hell of a job."
The author presents one situation after another, as well as layers of paradox. As remarkably attached to his dying owner as the Corgi is, he suffers no harm when moved to a new home. This contrasts with the several million dogs euthanized annually because they are no longer wanted in their original homes. Perhaps even more tragic is the affluent family that acquires a Labrador as a Christmas gift to accessorize their son's overindulged childhood. The family has only fleeting interest in the animal. They won't relinquish this possession. Nor will they spend time or effort on the animal as it languishes in loneliness, it's social needs unmet. Certainly their "commitment" to the animal is dubious, at best.
An underconfident youth in a rough neighborhood inflicts systematic, daily abuse on his dog in order to drive the animal into a state of aggressive arousal so that the youth might feel invulnerable. Other owners attend their own needs and harm their dogs in less colorful but perhaps equally destructive ways such as overfeeding their dogs, refusing to train or discipline them, or maintaining them on life support rather than allowing them to die. One woman who dotes on her little dog as a substitute baby ends up resenting the dog for becoming overly demanding and needy - a situation that clearly she has created.
The author highlights the double-edged sword of anthropomorphism. While it may be sweet to consider oneself "mommy" or "daddy" to one's dog, talk to it, and spoil it in every conceivable way, expecting that animal to be a person sets the animal up for inevitable failure. Katz "find(s) it troubling, this idea that we can deny or alter the very nature of animals to suit our temporal needs, the arrogant assumption that an entire subordinate species exists solely to lend us a hand when we want help, often later to be discarded like junk food wrappers when we don't."
And yet, this book isn't an indictment of dog ownership, per se. Katz does assert that "lots of people in Montclair and elsewhere live full and happy lives with dogs who simply hang around, play with the kids, keep a covetous eye on the garbage, and aren't involved in their humans' attachment issues or complex pasts." This book serves as a wake up call and warning to recognize, appreciate, and love dogs for what they are but to meet their needs and our own in ways that damage neither party. In a way, it is the truest celebration of the dog-owner bond, simply because it reflects the complex, often paradoxical, profound and yet sometimes deleterious impact of the relationship we share.
The book is a deceptively breezy read as it presents case after case. The author's writing style is engaging, and the book itself is riveting. My primary complaint is that his compilation of references is difficult to read, as it's clustered in paragraph-style rather than presented as a list. This is an excellent book, and not only for dog-lovers. As much a book about society and the human condition as it is about dog ownership itself, the content is sobering and thought provoking.
Kate Connick |
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