Like it or not, dogs are just cuddly commodities and our relationship to them is driven largely by market influences.


I bought my dog for $14 in a Hollywood Video parking lot.

“Volpi,” as I named her, somewhat pretentiously, is my thing. I own her. If you napped my precious Volpi and were caught, you’d likely face a misdemeanor charge for possession of stolen property. However, if you napped my precious Volpi and then proceeded to beat her to death with a Louisville Slugger, you’d be charged with a felony.

As for me, I’d be distraught. I’d curse your mother and unholy name. I might even hire a hitman on the Deep Web for $10,000 to avenge the demise of my poor pooch — a thing which, again, I got for the price of a bottle of Fireball.

Such is the limbic position dogs and other like pets hold in American culture: somewhere between price tagged commodity and ethical entity. It’s a strange thing. To buy something to love. Of course, there are hunters and ranchers and junkyard owners who purchase these pets for their utility. But for the vast majority of us, the first rationale’s the one that holds. And, as the paragraph above indicates, our love is strong.

However, despite the ease of our relations, our partnership with dogs isn’t completely driven by nature (at least not nowadays). It’s partly the product of an industry, a marketplace. As mentioned, dogs are products, commodities with pecuniary poochy value (many purebreds costing in the thousands of dollars), whose company we are socially conditioned to enjoy (see info on cultures that don’t hold human-dog relations so highly).

And this culturally contingent dog market is a bull market (best sentence ever!), ever-growing, even in the face of recession, as this breakdown from The American Pet Products Association (APPA) reveals. Fifty-eight billion dollars were spent on pet related products in 2014. That’s a $24 billion increase in ten years (2004: $34.4 billion). And even though the association has charted all pet-related products, dogs probably account for a large portion of that spending. According to the ASPCA, 37-47 percent of all U.S. households have dogs — 10 percent more than those containing cats. So it’s safe to assume that the dog’s share is the lion’s share (right, stopping now) of pet spending in the U.S.

Bob Vetere, CEO of the APPA, says this increase is largely due to the myriad of new non-essential pet services available (professional groomers, pet hotels, and … Doggles?):

People are pampering their pets more than ever and manufacturers and businesses are offering new products, services and opportunities to meet their needs and wants from interactive and innovative toys to dog walking, doggy day-care and pet-friendly hotels, restaurants and airlines.

How was the pet industry able to dodge America’s economic deadfall? Not only surviving, but prospering — stretching all furry fours into markets and products (like Doggles) that redefine the absurdity of excess — in a time when the American homo sapien was supposedly tightening his belt. To explain this illogic, we again turn to love.

It’s been said that you can’t buy love, but we all know why someone had to say it. Our culture, defined in part by market consumption, doesn’t just turn anti-materialist with the words “I love you.” The more we love something, the more we pay for it. Indeed, we have an entire holiday devoted to the celebration of the L word through the mass purchase of bad candy and batting-stuffed bears made in China. In turn, what better way is there to express your admiration of a canine than to shower the mutt with toys, treats, and Italian leather dog collars?

This increase in our love-borne lavishing of dogs has been recently attributed to a proportional increase in our humanization of pets — ”humanization” being a term that the pet product industry uses to describe the psychological alignment between pet owners and their pets. In other words, what’s good for you is good for your dog. Say you’re into the paleo diet, like that one insipid hashtagger you know. Well, say hello to the paleo pet diet. Say you’re into gaudy jewelry and eliciting contempt in others: Here’s the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” line of dog jewelry.

As we project personality onto the dog, so apparently it goeth for taste and luxury. And there may be no better indicator of late capitalist decay than the fact that there are warehouses literally filled with pricey dog gadgets whose net worth could feed a dozen indigent families for a year. And here I must implicate myself too, for though I bought my Volpster for farthings, I spend crowns on her accessories. No Ol’ Roy for my pup. No sir. She gets dog food with shiny gilt lettering on the bag. Toys and treats wazoo.

When I first bought my dog, I remember thinking that I would never coo over the dog in a gooey baby voice. But it didn’t take long. Before I realized it, I had fallen into the habit, reciting that high-pitched annoying catechism of the dog owner: “Whoooo's a dog?” “Yeshh, yeeshh, you’re a dog.” And with this new attachment, of course, came new expenses, though I’ve thankfully never gone so far as to dole out for Italian leather dog collars.

However, as a part of this trend, I have to wonder where it’s heading. I also wonder about the nature of our market-dog connection. Is our material connection to our dogs deepening because of our emotional connection to our dogs? Or is it the other way around? How much of “my thing” is the pooch, after all?

“Whoooo's a dog?” I say, looking right into her marble eyes. She then stands up on her hind legs, waiting for me to answer.