Posts Tagged ‘dog culture’

Thorstein Veblen, American economist (1857-1929).

Dogs have  always been used as symbols.  It seem one of the perversions of the relationship.

 Dogs exist not just for the jobs the perform or the companionship they provide. They exist because of what they say about us. It’s disconcerting. I know.

Thorstein Veblen, a somewhat unorthodox American economist, understood the power of this symbolism perfectly. He noted that as agriculture became more efficient to have a class of people who did not have farm, the non-farming class began to use possessions as symbols to represent their class. Veblen called them the leisure class. It is somewhat similar to Marx’s ownership class, but it is not exactly the same. In industrial and mercantile societies, the leisure class includes the rising middle classes.

In this system, people buy things they can’t use to prove their status. Veblen argues that this comes from ancient and Medieval societies, where hunting and warfare were generally the realm of the nobility (the leisure class of their time period). Owning hunting dogs and weapons that one may never use was a sign of one’s status. In industrial societies, the rising middle classes also took to using possessions to signal status. People buy things to show that they are on the way up in the world, not because they are useful. It’s why people buy brand name clothes. It’s why people buy sports cars. It’s called conspicuous consumption. The term is Veblen’s own invention, although it is almost never attributed to him.

It’s also why people buy “useless” dogs. It is no coincidence that the rise of purebred dogs and the mass production of family pets happens just as the industrial revolution begins to take off. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the dog everyone had to have was a Newfoundland. The dogs had a romantic history as working dogs on their native island. There were many stories of these dogs saving people from drowing, and how wonderful they were as ship’s dogs.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain.  At the same time, Britain was putting together the world’s largest navy, and the nation’s maritime tradition was already developing itsplace in the popular imagination.  Anything associated with ships would have fascinated the British public. Those ships were their space shuttles. They were their connection to both national prestige and to the outside world.

Newfoundland dogs probably became popular simply because they were common on ships. If you owned a Newfoundland, it was like being connected to these ships. You could signal your patriotism by owning one. It also helped that the dogs were gentle, very intelligent, and excellent family dogs.

Those traits also played to another sign of rising social status, one could care about the children. One didn’t have to sell them into indenture just to make a living. One didn’t have to make the children work long hours on the farm. People with status can afford to buy pets for their children, and what could be better than an heroic Newfoundland dog?

These issues play out today almost exactly as they did then. It’s just now the fads often don’t last as long as they did back then. Only a handful of dog breeds have been popular for nearly a century. As far as I can tell, only the German shepherd, the poodle, and the beagle have been in the AKC top ten for registrations for over 70 years. I might be wrong about this, but the retrievers have only been popular for a relatively short time.

We also have different species for people to buy. African hedgehogs are now replacing Chihuahuas as the pet to carry around in a purse. Pot-bellied pigs were a big deal in the early 90’s, but now there is an even tinier breed of swine that is being offered.

Fad pets fit perfectly with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. The  mass production is one of the things that drives a lot of welfare  problems in companion animals. Puppy mills are but one of the concerns connected to mass production. Narrowing gene pools to produce exotic colors is another, but this one often goes unmentioned.

But this problem is hardly confined to Western societies.

Conspicuous consumption has started to appear among the rising middle class in China.

To look like you’re rich in China, you have to get a Tibetan mastiff.

I don’t know whether the breed they buy is the recreated dog that has been a source of intrigue in the dog fancy for many decades or the actual livestock guardian mastiffs that are found in Central Asia

You can’t get better symbol of relative wealth in Chinese society. Meat consumption is on the rise, but most of the Chinese diet is plant matter. To own a carnivorous pet shows real changes Dog ownership is very strictly regulated, and in many areas, people are allowed only one dog. If you rely on your dog for anything, you have to choose one that is economical in size and broadly applicable in its utility. The dogs that are close relatives of the Western chow chow have to be good watch dogs and livestock guardians. They also have to have good pelts and produce nice carcasses to butcher.

Now what could better  tell the world that you’re up and coming than to own a dog that really has no purpose in an urban environment. The dogs look like lions, which are a symbol of luck in Chinese culture.

The dogs evolved on the Tibetan plateau and lived as livestock guardians for thousands of years. Some dog experts claim that they are the original mastiffs, although I’m somewhat skeptical.

So like the Newfoundland, these dogs have a romantic connection to the traditions and lore of the society in which they are found. One cannot make the case that these dogs have much economic utility to urban dwelling young professionals. They could have a chow-type dog as a watch dog, and it wouldn’t cost that much to purchase or feed.

The dog is valuable for what it is, not for what it does. To buy one is the perfect example of conspicuous consumption.


I should note here that Veblen hated dogs. All dogs– although he did respect those dogs that actually worked.

This is something that he shared with Chairman Mao Zedong. Dogs were persecuted by the Communist Party from 1949 until 1976, when Mao died. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards went on dog killing sprees throughout China’s cities. In a country that experienced a lot of famines, keeping animals that had little economic utility was seen as taking food away from starving children.

So the dogs got shot.

Since Mao died, his successors have liberalized restrictions dog ownership. They first allowed small dogs. Then they allowed big ones.

And now they have a burgeoning dog market (and not just for food).

One wonders what pit falls the Tibetan mastiff will experience from its newfound status in China.

The breeder featured in this piece appears to be running a high priced puppy mill.

And we all know where that leads.

China is trying to get into the FCI, and my guess is they are going to try to adopt the entire Western model  of the dog fancy.

The contours are already there. It just needs a little push for the infrastructure to appear.

And if it does, it might hamper the kennel club reform movement in this country.

The newly open Chinese market for inbred show dogs will distort any attempts to increase genetic diversity and deal with health problems here.

One can only hope that they don’t adopt the Western model.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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Most of our dogs are of very little practical purpose. Most of us don’t need our dogs to herd livestock for us. Few of us rely on our dogs’ hunting behaviors to actually feed ourselves. We don’t eat them, and we don’t even allow dogs to clean up the wastes as they once did in those hunter-gather camps of yore.

We spent vast sums of money trying to make sure they are happy and healthy. We spend lots money buying things that we project will make them happy.

Dogs provide something for us that very few beings on this planet can provide. They are just “human” enough to be a confidant or a partner, and they are just animal enough to not be judgmental. And things would be nice for both species if we both lived in rural areas where we could regularly behave as the creatures we are.

The dogs’ elevation in human society has come at the same time as our great urbanization. Now, dogs and people live in a sterile environment of concrete. People are on anti-depressants. So are our dogs. Many of us don’t adjust that well to the contrivances of urban living. How can we expect dogs to do the same?

And that brings me to Michael Schaffer. Schaffer writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Schaffer has also written a book on the pet industry. I think at first Schaffer wanted to do some real detached analysis of the pet industry. Instead, he has written an interesting book that really talks about the sociology of dog culture.

Here is a video of Schaffer’s talk about the book. Everyone who comes to this blog will be able to relate to just about everything discussed in this talk.

I think the reason why we wind up arguing so much about dogs is that it goes back to the old Australian Native proverb: “Dogs make us human.” How we view our dogs says a lot about how we view our own humanity and our own image that we wish to project to society. I think part of the reason why so many dogs are so ill-behaved is because we spend so much time using the dogs to project our own human image that we forget about the dog as a being unto itself with its own drives, instincts, and emotions.

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