Chapter 1: The Coddling of the American Dog
First, wolves became dogs, and then dogs became family
I’ve never been exactly what you’d call a “dog person” (or a cat person, or a people person, for that matter). My family had dogs when I was growing up—a lazy Golden Retriever, an even lazier yellow Lab, and then a mutt I picked out in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter—but I treated them with a sort of benign neglect. I liked our dogs, maybe even loved them, but this was the ‘80s and ‘90s in the rural Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. No one I knew put their dogs in costumes and posted photos of them on Facebook (of course, Facebook didn’t exist). We didn’t call them our “fur babies” or worry about them getting lonely when we left the house. For the most part, we didn’t even take them for walks: We just let them outside and if they wanted to walk, they were welcome to it. If you’d told me to pick up their poop and carry it around in little plastic bags, I’d have thought you were nuts.
In this respect, I was not unusual. Most of the dogs in my neighborhood were free-range to some degree. The dog next door, a block-shaped mutt named Peaches, would frequently walk herself to the university campus a half-mile down the road and wander into offices and classrooms. This, I thought, was normal. What would not have been normal was, say, taking your dogs on vacation. No one I knew did that.
Those days are over. According to a 2019 survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners, 78 percent said they consider their pets to be members of their family; 67 percent said their pet was their best friend; and 34 percent said they prefer their pets to their children—which makes sense when you consider that you don’t have to sit through your pets’ school plays or pay for their education. (And while you might have to pick up their poop, at least you don’t have to change their diapers.)
That poll was conducted on behalf of a pet food company called “I and Love and You,” which has good reason to encourage pet adoration. Their tagline is “Pet Food By Pet Parents,” and the company is part of a massive and expanding industry that caters to people who baby their pets. Today, there are doggie daycares, doggie spas, doggie photographers, even doggie Bar Mitzvahs (called, of course, Bark Mitzvahs). There’s a new bar catering to dog lovers not far from my parents’ house, with a 25,000-square -foot off-leash dog park and an array of craft beers for the humans.
And there are products. You can get video cameras to watch your dogs while you’re away, including some that allow you to speak to your pet, and treadmills that will exercise your dogs when you don’t feel like going for a walk. You can pay $149 to RealESALetter.com to get your pet classified as an “emotional support animal” if you’d like to take him or her on a plane, and although airlines have been cracking down on ESAs after a rash of high profile incidents (including an emotional support dog who bit a child on a flight, and another who shit all over the seat), the last time I flew, there was a Yorkie on the seat beside me and a Golden Retriever a few rows up. The pet industry is worth an estimated $100 billion annually, and that number continues to go up. This is a country that loves its pets… maybe even more than its people.
The elevation of dogs in society has been gradual. Dogs have long been an aristocratic status symbol in Europe and beyond (both hunting dogs and lapdogs were staples in Renaissance art), but they really began to enter middle-class American society in the late 19th century, in part to domesticate not dogs but children. In the 1880s, the “domestication arts”—a move towards more attentive housekeeping and child-rearing—were all the rage, and an idea spread that dogs were good for children, specifically boys, who, it was thought, would benefit from the positive influence of pets. (This was around the same time as the first meeting of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the birth of the American Kennel Club.)
And then there was another aspect of popular culture.
“I think it was partially the result of TV and movies,” says Hal Herzog, an expert in the study of human-animal relations and, as it happens, the source of half of my DNA. Herzog (or Dad, as I like to call him) is the author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and he told me that the first Lassie show in the 1950s changed the way millions of people think of their dogs. It made them think that dogs could be not just smart but heroic. And there were economic forces too. “The history of pet-keeping is often trickle-down from the rich to the wanna-be-rich,” he said. “And after World War II, families were buying houses with yards on GI Bill home loans. That led to the expansion of the middle class.”
And then, of course, there’s a more recent advent: social media. Dogs, like celebrities, are now influencers. There’s Jiffpom, a well-coiffed Pomeranian with 10.2 million followers and no idea that he’s worth an estimated $45,000 per post; Doug the Pug, who has 4 million followers and whose owners regularly humiliate him by dressing him in seasonal costumes; and Bodhi the Menswear Dog, with 400,000 followers and a closet full of clothes more appropriate for a GQ model than a Shiba Inu. It would be impossible to know exactly how many people have decided to get dogs specifically due to the influence of social media, but I would suspect the number isn’t marginal. Who wouldn’t be touched by skateboarding dogs going viral?
I’d observed this trend for years, but none of it made any sense to me. I was about as likely to follow a dog account on Instagram as I was to follow a stranger into a van. And I complained about it. Until Covid hit, I was a staff writer at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, and on slow news days I would use my column to rail against the coddling of the American dog, especially in Seattle, a city where dogs are welcome in shops and bars and even restaurants. It seemed like every time I went out to buy coffee, there would be some sighing, farting, shedding animal in line before me. “Why are these people treating their dogs like human beings?,” I’d think. I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I wanted it to stop.
And then I met Janna, the woman who would become my wife, and not only did I change my mind about dog fanatics, I’m ashamed to say I even became one myself.
Janna, unlike me, has always been a dog person. She’s also allergic, which allowed me to postpone the inevitable, at least for a while.
“Of course I’d love to get a dog,” I told her when we were moving into our first Seattle apartment together (which, in typical lesbian fashion, we did approximately five minutes after we met). “If only you weren’t so allergic. How about a pet spider?”
She assured me that there are hypoallergenic dog breeds that don’t shed and said we should wait until we had a house with a yard before we adopted. I agreed, assuming that a massive earthquake would break Washington state off the map before I had to worry about that. “Definitely,” I said. “Can’t wait.”
Four years later, we bought a house with a big yard about an hour ferry ride outside Seattle. I’d resisted leaving the city, not so much because I especially liked living there, but because the idea of living in the suburbs felt like a blow to my ego. What was next? A Costco membership? (Yes.) Alas, she convinced me that if we ever wanted to retire, we needed some equity, and we bought a small pre-war bungalow with, of course, a fenced-in yard for our future companion animal.
Janna wasted no time looking. Because she’s allergic, we needed a non-shedding breed, something with hair instead of fur, and she had just the breed in mind: a Goldendoodle, a cross between a poodle and a Golden Retriever, and the dog of choice for people who like that perma-puppy appearance. This was not just an aesthetic choice: Janna had lived with a big, bouncing Goldendoodle named Charlie before we met, and his temperament was just right. He was obedient enough to come when he was called but not so smart that you had to worry about him getting into much mischief. And he was cute, with a mop of curly hair and big, cartoonish eyes framed by lashes any drag queen would envy.
Dogs, in fact, have evolved specifically to appeal to the human ideal of cuteness, both through natural and artificial selection. The exact history of how the descendants of wolves came to be domesticated is up for debate, but some researchers hypothesize that cuteness is an essential part of it.
In the mid 20th century, a Russian zoologist who specialized in genetics named Dmitri Belyaev began an experiment that would last decades—and his findings could explain how, exactly, the wild wolf evolved into the furry, fuzzy, friendly dogs we know and love today. For years, Belyaev’s work was suppressed by the Soviet government after Belyaev fell out of favor with Stalin over a dispute about Mendelian genetics. Belyaev’s brother, also a geneticist, was sent to a concentration camp where he died, but Belyaev continued his work after he was exiled to Siberia, where he bred generation after generation of silver foxes for a single trait: tameness.
Belyaev chose silver foxes because although they’d been bred for their fur for decades, temperamentally, they were wilder than their more common cousin, the red fox. He began his experiment in 1959, selectively breeding individuals who showed some tolerance for human presence.
After just eight generations of breeding specifically for tameness, something fascinating happened: Not only were the descendants of the original foxes as tame as the domestic dog, they’d actually started to resemble them, developing the floppy ears and piebald (or spotted) coats more common on a beagle than a fox. Researchers called this “domestication syndrome,” and it provided a simple, elegant answer to a question that has long plagued science: How the hell did the mighty wolf evolve into our canine companions? The answer was selection for tameness.
Or did it?
Belyaev’s work was largely unknown outside Russia until 1999, when his successor, Lyudmila Trut, published a paper in American Scientist claiming that after 40 years of breeding, the silver foxes were “as tame and as eager to please as a dog,” as The New York Times reported. What we could extrapolate from the fox study, the thinking went, was that wolves became dogs through a long period of natural selection for tameness, which, in turn, benefited both dogs and humans and gave these animals the look we so love in our pets. Humans got animal companions (and the occasional source of food and fur, who would also, conveniently, eat our leftover garbage) and dogs got something even more valuable: protection.
Alas, like most simple, elegant solutions, this one might not hold up. In 2015, the late animal behaviorist Raymond Coppinger visited the International Fox Museum and Hall on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, and he saw something that to most people wouldn’t have been all that notable but to him must have been a shock: early 20th century photos of foxes from fur farms in Eastern Canada that looked just like Belyaev’s famed silver foxes. And not only did they look like Belyaev’s foxes, they acted like them too. One photo published in The New York Times shows a fox industry bigwig holding a floppy-eared fox as you might hold a terrier. He apparently even walked his foxes on leashes. Coppinger suspected that Belyaev’s foxes might actually have been from Prince Edward Island, and if so, that meant they were likely tame and comfortable with humans long before he started breeding.
Subsequent genetic tests and a paper published by Kathryn Lord of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., confirmed Coppinger’s hypothesis: Belyaev’s foxes do have their genetic roots in Eastern Canada. This has cast domestication theory—that simple, elegant answer—into doubt.
But despite the questions that remain about how wolves became dogs (and theories abound, including one about dogs eating human shit), what is clear is that dog’s appeal to man has been one of the great adaptations in evolution. Dogs are pampered, coddled, fed, watered, walked, given treats and shelter. They’ve conned us into caring for them as we would our own children—and we, of course, are more than happy to do it. Why? In part, because they’re so damn cute to us humans.
Whatever path wolves took to become dogs, humans have also taken matters into our own hands, specifically breeding dogs (and other mammals) to appeal to our innate sense of what’s cute. And this, unfortunately, can come at some cost to our furry friends. Brachycephalic breeds in particular (think: smooshed-faced dogs like bulldogs and pugs) have been artificially bred to have baby-like faces, with enormous eyes, bulbous foreheads, short snouts, and bodies that could never reproduce in nature. These breeds are hugely popular, regularly listed among the most popular in the U.S., but they come with a host of health problems, including trouble breathing and skin problems thanks to the folds that look awfully cute but tend to trap in moisture and cause infections. Plus, most bulldogs’ hips are so narrow that they can only conceive through artificial insemination, and they actually have to undergo c-sections to safely give birth. In other words, in our efforts to maximize cuteness, we’ve created dogs born to suffer.
After we settled on a Goldendoodle, which wouldn’t trigger Janna’s allergies or my complaints about fur on the couch, we started looking. First, we tried PetFinder, the largest dog and cat adoption repository in the U.S., but there were few hypoallergenic breeds available, much less Goldendoodles, which aren’t exactly languishing in American shelters. We applied for a few poodle mixes, including a four-year-old named Mitzi who was, according to the website, anxious in “all situations.”
The application for Mitzi was surprisingly thorough. We had to supply references and give detailed information about our living situation, our prior experience with dogs, and how, exactly, we intended to raise her. “What is your plan for letting the dog relieve itself?,” the application asked, and I thought for a moment before typing: “Open the door and let it out?” I was surprised we weren’t required to do a home visit. Nonetheless, we never heard back.
When that failed, it was time to look at breeders. Breeders, and purebred dogs in general, aren’t exactly in good standing in much of America at the moment. Why go to a breeder when there are so many dogs in shelters waiting to be rescued? So many dogs that will be euthanized if no one shows up? While the intentions of rescuing a dog may be genuinely noble, there’s also a certain status that comes with rescue dogs, and the movement from purebreds to rescues is one of the great success stories in the history of animal welfare. (As I’ve learned over the course of my reporting, there are quite a few myths about the problem of unwanted dogs in America, but we’ll get to that in a later chapter.) Cognizant that having a rescue is a way of signaling that you’re a good, moral person, I told Janna that if anyone ever asked, we would just say, yes, our dog was a rescue. We’d rescued him from a very expensive breeder.
After several weeks of scouring Craigslist, Janna found a family in rural Washington advertising puppies. It wasn’t a puppy mill or a professional breeder, just a family with two Goldendoodles and a litter of pups on the way. It was perfect.
Janna did all the communicating with Dave, the breeder, which, in retrospect, was a mistake. Unlike me, she has a tendency to be punishingly candid, perhaps due to her career as a nurse. (As a writer, I’m better at spewing bullshit.) Janna told the breeder that we’d prefer a girl to a boy, and when he said the girls were all spoken for, she responded. “That’s too bad. We would really like to avoid the ‘lipstick,’ situation,” referring to the disturbingly pink look of a dog’s exposed penis.
I was less than thrilled when she showed me the texts. “Don’t talk about the dog’s dick!,” I said. “Ever! He’s going to call the ASPCA!”
Unbelievably, Dave did not block her number, and on a rainy, windy day in December, we drove three hours to his house to pick out our pup.
As soon as we arrived, the parents approached us. The female was a gorgeous brown with a glossy coat and honey-colored eyes. Aside from her color, she looked more like a Golden Retriever, while the dad had a big, white, poofy afro and the goofy, cartoonish look of a doodle. They didn’t bark or leap or get aggressive when we walked into the pen to play with their puppies, almost as though they were more than willing to be done with them.
And maybe they were. Puppies do get kicked out of the nest early. By eight weeks, puppies are fully weaned, with sharp little teeth that anyone who has raised one likely remembers. These teeth can easily pierce human skin; just imagine what that’s like on a nipple.
Not coincidentally, this is also about the time that puppies reach maximum cuteness, according to Arizona State University dog researcher Clive Wynne. The author of the 2019 book Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, Wynne and his team of researchers asked college students to rate dogs of varying ages according to cuteness, and the students overwhelmingly thought the dogs were cutest right around the time they get kicked out of the nest—or, exactly when they need humans most.
While all the girl puppies in Dave’s litter had been claimed, we had our pick of the boys. It wasn’t unusual that the girls were more popular: Girls are more popular, possibly because people (maybe looking at our own species) intuit that males will be more trouble. As for the actual behavioral differences between boys and girls, that’s up for debate. Michelle Behrns, a doodle breeder in South Dakota, says she gets about 75 percent more requests for girl dogs than boys, but, she adds, she actually prefers boys herself, in part because she finds them more trainable.
“There is a reason why the term for a female dog made it into society,” Behrns says. “A good female will be a great dog, but if you get an alpha female, she will be a bitch to train. I have multiple female dogs that will lift their legs and mark in the house. An old lady told me that female dogs love you, but male dogs are in love with you, and it rang true.”
We picked up the four-week-old puppies one by one, trying to detect subtle differences between nearly identical creatures. Each had a ribbon tied around its neck so the breeder could tell them apart, and there was one in particular we kept coming back to: a dark brown little boy who was so sleepy he could barely open his eyes. When he did, they were bright blue, and I’d hoped they’d stay that way forever. “That’s Mellow Yellow,” Dave told us. “He’s a lazy boy. Loves to cuddle.”
Lazy? Loves to cuddle? That was it. We put down a $600 deposit and made plans to meet up in another month, when the puppies were weaned, at their cutest, and ready for rescue.
Four weeks later, we met up with the breeder in the parking lot of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport to collect the pup we’d decided to call Moose. There was a woman flying up from LA to claim another one of the puppies, and that was it, Dave told us. The last of the litter. There had been 10 in the litter in all, each one going for $1200, and so while Dave had made a nice bundle of cash to breed the family pets, he said his wife had cried when each one had left. We promised to send pics, or maybe go back for a visit.
On the way home, we stopped at a rest area and Janna squatted down, demonstrating for Moose how to pee but, it turned out, he preferred to do it in my lap. Despite being treated like a toilet, I fell in love, hard and fast.
Before Moose arrived, I insisted we would have clear rules and boundaries. No people food. No dogs on the furniture. No begging, no coddling, and definitely no calling ourselves “dog moms.” But as soon as he was home, I immediately forgot all of the rules. Not only did Moose jump up on the furniture whenever he liked, I coaxed him to do it. Not only did he sleep in our bed, he slept with his head on my pillow. And how could we not let him? We’d stolen him from his family. The least I could do is share my pillow. Janna was supposed to be the dog person, but here I was, slyly googling “emotional support animal letters” and wondering just how hypocritical it would be for me to get one.
Moose became my constant companion. Puppies, it turns out, are vulnerable to certain viruses that are common in the environment, and you have to strictly limit their exposure to other dogs until they’re fully vaccinated, around four months. Paranoid about our little boy getting sick, I carried him like a newborn in a baby Bjorn against my chest. This was probably unnecessary, but at least one of us seemed to like it. When he got too big for that, he trotted along by my side, never straying more than a few yards away, even when I (illegally) took him off-leash. And he was a quick study, learning to sit, come, and stay in just a few weeks, and I wondered aloud if it was possible that our boy was a genius. “Nah,” Janna said. “He just really likes treats.”
At the time, pre-Covid, both of us were working in the city three days a week, so we staggered our schedules, making sure Moose spent as little time as possible alone. Intellectually, I knew that the dog would be fine at home by himself, that he was a dog, not a baby, but I hated the idea of him getting lonely. I hired dog-walkers to drop in on him throughout the day, including a precocious, homeschooled 10-year-old named Lucy who was using her dog-walking money to pay for her harp lessons. While I hated leaving him, I loved coming back. Each time I would open the door after work, Moose would rush me like I was the second coming of Jesus, wagging his whole body so hard I feared his tail would fall off. (Of course, he was equally as excited when I came back inside after taking out the trash or checking the mailbox.)
Once Covid hit and I was laid off from The Stranger and, like everyone else, stuck at home, our bond grew even stronger. Instead of writing or looking for work, I spent most of the summer focusing on Moose. We went for hikes three or four times a week and swam nearly every day. We visited every dog park within a 60-mile radius and I anxiously watched as he tried (and usually failed) to make friends. I felt like a mom watching her kindergartener on the first day of class, part of me wanting him to venture out on his own, and part of me hoping that he’d never grow up.
But, of course, there’s no delaying the inevitable. His silky puppy fur grew into tight curls, and the soft sound of puppy feet padding along the floor turned into nails clicking on wood. His tail, which had resembled a scraggly brown Caucasian dreadlock, bloomed into a gloriously feathered poof. After months in the sun, his hair faded to blond on the ends, the sort of ombre that women pay handsomely for in salons. When his sharp little shark’s teeth fell out, giving way to canines that can tear through flesh and bone, we put them in a little box on a shelf, and Janna talked about turning them into earrings. On the day we got married, just a few weeks after Covid hit, our entire wedding party was an officiant, two witnesses, and, of course, Moose. In one of the only photos of the ceremony, Janna’s holding my hand, and I’m holding Moose.
One day a few months later, I was tying a canoe to the roof of our Subaru and telling Moose that his “mamas” were going to take him to the lake, and I realized I’d fully transformed into the stereotype of the middle-aged lesbian. And, I also realized, if reincarnation is real, I hoped I’d someday come back as the only dog of a pair of childless women. Most dogs on this planet spend their nights outside and their days begging for scraps, and then there was Moose, the epitome of the one-percent. He had no idea how good he had it. “We need to talk to you about your privilege,” I said to him. “After we get back from the lake.”
It was about this time that I started seriously thinking about Moose’s testicles. On a camping trip at the end of the summer, I mentioned to a friend that I needed to schedule Moose to get neutered.
“Can I ask why?,” she asked, and I realized I didn’t actually know the answer other than, well, everyone does it. And when I thought about it, that didn’t really seem like a good enough reason to cut off a part of Moose’s body—especially a part he seemed particularly fond of. We say our pets are our family, and yet, would you cut off a family member’s nuts? Certainly not without asking first.
This got me thinking. Why do we neuter or spay man’s best friend? The obvious answer is to prevent unwanted pregnancy, but Moose is in about as much danger of knocking up another dog as he is of knocking up the pillow he occasionally likes to hump. Unlike the dogs of my youth, there’s nothing free-range about him. He’s loved (adored, even) and well-cared for, but when it comes to autonomy, Moose is basically a fuzzy, four-legged prisoner. There’s no sex in his future unless my wife and I decide to breed him, so why do something so permanent, so painful, to prevent an impregnation that’s unlikely to happen?
It turns out, the answer to this question—why do we de-sex our pets?—is more complicated than I would have ever expected, and it involves thorny ethical issues like animal welfare and bodily autonomy, multi-billion dollar industries with armies of lobbyists, and decades-long fights between veterinarians, breeders, animal rights activists, and dog rescues. And of course, there are the competing needs and wants of both dogs and those of us who love them, most of whom are just trying to do what’s right. But what is right for our pets? That is the question I hope to answer in this series. And in the next chapter, we’re going to go back to where this all started—a big city with an even bigger dog problem: Madras, India.
Moose Nuggets is free and available for all, but if you do feel like contributing to Moose’s college fund, I will gladly accept it on his behalf. If you have stories about dog de-sexing and would like to get in touch, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kittypurrzog.