The XX Factor

Is City Living Changing What It Means To Be a Dog?

There’s no question, as Charles Schulz once said, that, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” For every baby-sitter-gets-hardcore-DPed video on the Internet, there’s a clip of sleepy-eyed, murmuring golden retrievers rolling around in a picnic basket. Even scientists have enumerated on the value of Snoopy: Pet owners recover faster from heart attacks than non-pet-owners do, children who grow up with dogs turn out to be more empathetic. Apparently man’s best friend helps in the sack, too-a 2008 study proved what you already knew if you’ve ever seen, oh, any C-grade romantic comedy: Men with dogs snag more female phone numbers than men without.

But what do we do for our dogs exactly? It’s the central question of John Homans’ piece ” The Rise of Dog Identity Politics ” in this week’s New York magazine. When Lassie, the quintessential dog of the ‘50s, dies, she goes to the big farmhouse in the sky. But urban dogs, whose numbers are ever-growing, don’t have a backyard to play in, let alone the faintest conception of the idyllic pasture where a dog can run around and just be, you know, a dog. When a New York dog passes, she goes to the big tray of all-organic, vegan, flax-seed-peanut butter dog treats in heaven’s version of the Park Slope Paw-tisserie, then maybe to the doggie massage parlor in the sky. City living and city culture, Homans argues, are turning dogs with all their beastly glory into whimpering little beta-mammals, with a bad case of “learned helplessness.”

Of course, there’s some truth to this. My parents own a King Charles Cavalier. She’s the cutest, fattest ball of mammalian warmth and should come with the warning “May Cause Heart Murmurs,” but her life as a beast is somewhat neutered. She doesn’t walk on pavement in the summer (“Her paws get too hot!”), she eats organic chicken drizzled in flax oil for dinner, and she has a doggie stroller in case she gets too tired on her walks . (Yes, I just linked to a YouTube video of my own dog in her stroller. Sorry.) But it’s also hard not to read this article as a tie-in to the recent deluge of anxiety-mongering pieces devoted to the great “downside” of feminism and the liberal city culture it created: the neutering of just about everything “male.” First there was the Katie Roiphe piece positioning the new male author as a ball-less, sexual wimp compared with the animalistic lust of Roth and Updike. Now is seems like we’ve ruined the basic essence of our pets, too.