“As the United States became a modern industrial and commercial society,” writes Katherine C. Grier in Pets in America: A History, “pet animals... (became) commodities, reared specifically for the purposes of sale, to be purchased as inventory by store owners and as goods by customers” (2006: 231). Grier traces the genesis of the pet store as a small business into what we now know as a pet industry. As a productive force, the pet industry encompasses everything from mongrel animals, expensive rare breeds, and designer canines to dog shows and agility competitions; vegetarian biscuits, pre-packaged raw food diets, massage, and glittery dresses; overcrowded shelters, cyber communities, and dog birthday parties. In short, the pet industry disseminates a host of manufactured goods that rely on myths about what a dog is or should be.3 The co-evolutionary history of dogs and humans, as well as the specificity of dogs as a distinct but contingent species, is displaced by a mythology that sustains itself by evacuating the dog-human relationship of behavioral and ecological difference. The consequences for the non-human animal in the equation are detrimental: the dogs are left vulnerable to becoming victims of ignorance, abuse, and waste.
Two familiar relationship formations between humans and dogs that operate as mythologies are anthropocentrism (in which the dog is regarded as a furry human) and idealization (wherein any dog is expected to be a perfectly behaved super-companion). Heidi J. Nast characterizes the anthropocentric relationship as unqualifiedly positive; the pet replaces the child as an “ideal love object.” She points out that the dog is expendable where the human child is not:
Dogs can be dressed up as your baby forever. If a pet-animal becomes onerous (scratching furniture, pooping on a carpet, or spraying the house when you are gone too long), you can have them de-clawed, euthanized, or given away. If a pet becomes a financial or mobility burden (you change towns or jobs), it can be given up for adoption or taken to the SPCA. And if it dies, you can have it cloned. All advantages that human children do not share (2008: 302).
The point of view espoused by Nast, that expendability is exactly what makes pet-dogs marketable, is a disturbing underside to, and a propelling force of, the consumer driven pet industry.
Furthermore, when a dog is shifted socially into a “baby” or a “kid,” humans’ ability to understand the specific needs of the dog is inhibited and elided. If the dog is not discarded at whim, he may be made into a reflection of the owner’s self rather than permitted the autonomy or behavioral boundaries appropriate to a separate species. While Millan works to expose this myth, placing love as a third priority behind exercise and discipline in the dog-human relationship, he still permits it to exist in the television program and supports its continuation. In multiple episodes of season one, he linguistically extends the parental instincts and habits of dog owners towards their human children to their pets.4 I am not trying to declare that we can know what the dogs want; indeed some may enjoy being dressed up, respond to baby-talk, or sleep well in a pseudo-bassinet. I am arguing that anthropocentrism sets up unrealistic expectations of what kinds of treatment a given dog may be able to endure. If a dog does not respond well to being cradled on his back like a human baby, for instance, and nips or bites the human, the dog faces dismissal, punishment or disposal.
Just as dangerous for dogs is the myth of an ideal: a loyal sidekick, well-adjusted, house-trained, tons of fun and ready to give love unconditionally. The expectations of the dog owner can be unreasonable, informed by cultural icons such as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin or predicated on the cuteness of a “helpless” puppy. “Being a pet,” that is, simply learning to co-habitate with a human family, let alone save Timmy from the well or endure dress-up time, is already a “demanding job for a dog, requiring self-control and canine emotional and cognitive skills matching those of a good working dog” (Haraway, 2003: 38). If the dog cannot live up to her owners’ ideals, she can, once again, fairly easily be discarded.5 Dogs are abandoned or given to a shelter for just about any reason: moving to a new house, going on vacation, kids outgrowing him, she got too big, she’s too much work and so on. In the pet industry, there is too much of one product, at least: the dogs themselves. The dogs become animate surplus value with nowhere to go.
To combat this waste and disregard, Donna Haraway, in The Companion Species Manifesto (2003), argues for a reevaluation of the dog-human relationship by attending to the history of the co-evolution of both species and the genetic predispositional needs of individuals, both human and non-human. This requires humans to shift the paradigm of “pet and owner” towards an understanding of mutual biological and ecological evolution and existence across species. In Haraway’s vision, dogs and humans are accountable to each other; one is not, in the relationship, more valuable than the other but neither are both beings the same. Furthermore, the relationship between the human and dog is not an instantaneous bond, but a process of “significant otherness” involving change and adaptation predicated on commitment, patience and education. Yi-Fu Tuan points out that the dog-human relationship is not, cannot be, one of equality (1984). The dog is dependent on the human and the human must set boundaries for their lives together. The human, however, rather than being simply an owner enjoying their possession, could be more attentive to how their dogs come to be their possession. Practices of training, breeding and mating are, Tuan writes, “repressed” in the dog-owner relationship (1984: 108). Haraway proposes they be foregrounded. With these two theorists in mind, I suggest that humans have options in how they choose to perform as the animal with the most power.
The specific and ethical investigation, along with its attendant interspecies accountability, that Haraway argues for could expose the material underpinnings of the ideological apparatus (capitalism, individualism, primacy of the human, disposability of the other, and so on) that produces and supports nonhuman and human abuse and waste. This exposure, in turn, might offer an opportunity to critique and change the naturalized systems that govern our living relationships amongst and between species.6The Dog Whisperer, airing on a legitimate science channel, widely popular and with a large audience, could be an effective platform for just such debate. The possibility, however, is evaporated by the program’s efforts to sell quick fixes and “good dogs.” The dogs are not historicized in terms of their own lived existence or their relationship with their humans. The dogs are transformed into essentialized, simplified types: “the bad dog,” “the goofy dog,” “the child dog,” “the ideal dog” and so on.
The humans, in fact, are largely excused from history by the dominance paradigm, the Pack Leader mentality espoused by Millan, in which the dog is required to submit to the human’s wishes and the human, is automatically given a narrowly defined right of dominion. For example, in episode five, we meet Brooks, a Burmese Elkhound, who was purchased by his owners because he “looked like a real dog!” The couple traveled from southern California to Oregon to buy him as a Valentine’s Day present to themselves. The woman simply wanted him, in true capitalist desire; she did not research, as far as we can tell from the television program, the breed and its needs nor the breeder. The dog became a fetishized product; the owner, and the viewers at home, are permitted to purchase a dog based on the drive of consumer desire. For Brooks, the consequences of being a product to satisfy humans had pathetic consequences.
When Brooks was a puppy, it was funny, his owners relate, to make him chase a laser pointer. Five years later, the dog has been so conditioned to play with lights, he cannot stop panting and searching for flashing shadows or reflections. The neurosis was engendered and cultivated by his owners; now they want him fixed. Millan forces the dog to abandon his game: when he chases a flash or a shadow, Millan jerks his choke collar to surprise him into stopping. The human, Millan tells the couple, must become dominant, must become the Pack Leader. The human owners are slightly implicated in the dog’s history but not held seriously accountable for the ignorance that created their dog’s problems in the first place. They do not need to be. The dominance paradigm permits a power relationship not only of owner over pet, but of human over animal, and culture over nature. However, as Erika Fudge argues, “nothing which is used to maintain power is innocent, however it is presented” (2002: 11). The Pack Leader mentality gives dog owners the permission, because of their constructed superiority, to do whatever they want to their dog: to forcibly “fix” a neurosis but also, because of the power relationship inherent in the paradigm, to create one.