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Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs

In his new book One Nation Under Dog, Michael Schaffer investigates the booming pet-care industry. He discusses how the $43 billion business reflects our ideas about consumerism, family, politics and domesticity.

41:47

Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 1, 2009: Interview with Michael Schaffer; Review of the album "…for the whole world to see."

Transcript

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Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. When Michael Schaffer and his wife
rescued a sweet, cuddly and goofy St. Bernard from a shelter, it led him
into the world of contemporary pet ownership, a world of doggie
antidepressants, dog park politics, dog furniture, organic pet food and
a whole service industry of grooming, training and caretaking.

In Schaffer’s new book “One Nation Under Dog,” he says America’s house
pets have worked their way into a new place in the hearts, homes and
wallets of their owners.

Schaffer is a journalist who is a former staff writer at the
Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington City
Paper. He’s also written for Slate and the New Republic.

Michael Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I don’t want people to think
that your book mocks people who love their animals and mocks people who
spend money on their animals, but you do take a look at that phenomenon.
So what are you trying to get at in the book?

Mr. MICHAEL SCHAFFER (Author, “One Nation Under Dog”): I guess I wanted
to sit down and write a book about how it is that we became this
pampered-pet nation. You kind of can’t go a week or two reading a
newspaper without seeing some crazy story about what people do for their
animals.

You know, it’s the dog with the pink mohair sweater, or look at these
people, they feed organic cat food. And these stories tend to have a
kind of undercurrent of derision in them. You know, this is a sign of
frivolity and over-the-top excess. Particularly in these dark economic
times, this is out of place.

And I felt that way when I got a dog. My wife and I remember - we were
driving to this shelter where we knew this dog we wanted was available.
We were driving – it was about two and a half hours from our house, and
the whole way up, we were talking about how, well, we’re not going to
become like those people, the ones that we had heard about, and we were
saying you know, we’re not going to do this, and we’re not going to do
this, and we’re not going to do this. And of course, then the dog
arrives, and all of that goes out the window.

And it doesn’t go out the window because he’s so cute and melts your
heart, although that helps. It goes out the window because a lot of the

stuff is actually – a lot of the stuff people do for their pets now is
just an inevitable reaction or reflection of the society we live in.

GROSS: Let me ask you to give an example, and here’s the one I’m
thinking of: A lot of people make fun of animals who are taking things
like antidepressants.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Your dog, on antidepressants because of what?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, we had jobs, and we had this dog at home. And we
live in a little row house in Philadelphia. And our next door neighbors
are retired, and they’re home all day, and one night, they came to us
and said you know, that dog of yours yaps from the minute you guys leave
in the morning until the minute you guys come home.

And this was a time when he would also go to the bathroom in the house
when we left. We would take turns rushing home at lunch, you know,
hoping to head it off, which didn’t usually work. And you know, he was
quite clearly in distress.

And you know, I mentioned this to the vet, kind of in passing, more
thinking hey, do you have any, you know, behavior-type techniques I
could do to help him relax. And the vet said, you know, there’s a drug
for that. It’s called separation anxiety, that’s the condition he’s got,
and there is a canine version of a human, tricyclic antidepressant.

The only actual chemical difference is that the pills are beef flavored.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: And you know, this was this thing where our - my in-laws,
my uncles were saying you know, you’re giving your dog antidepressants?
I mean, what’s the matter with this country where even our dogs are on
antidepressants. Aren’t they supposed to be the happiest creatures in
the world?

And you know, I guess if you step back and look at it that way, it seems
kind of silly. But as a very practical matter, we should all be so lucky
as to have had the positive effect he had from the medication. And you
know, we’re at a time when we humans are quite comfortable with psycho-
pharmaceuticals.

There was a – maybe I shouldn’t say this – but there was a time when,
you know, all three members of our household were using some sort of
antidepressant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Now he’s the only one. But you know, this is all just to
say that we humans are quite comfortable with this. Lots of people do
it. It’s not weird. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy, and as you – you see
this with a lot of things in the pet-spending world, where things that
we experience and kind of think of as normal, we will go and ask hey,
can I do that for my dog or my cat?

GROSS: But as you point out in your book, putting your dog on
antidepressants because of separation anxiety, his separation anxiety,
is a reflection on how humans live now.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Absolutely.

GROSS: I mean, there used to be a time when a family that had a dog
typically had a mother-homemaker who was there all day, who was there
with the dog, or there were kids of different ages, and there was a
young kid at home to play with the dog. There was a yard that the dog
could run around in.

And now you’ve got dogs cooped up at home with nobody home to play with
them, nothing to occupy them. And so it puts the dog in a position of
great discomfort because they have no activity and no company.

Mr. SCHAFFER: That’s absolutely right. And I mean, you know, I write in
my book that an anthropologist from Mars or something that showed up
here and had only the contents of like a Pet Smart to look at could
figure out a great deal about our human society.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What would they learn?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, they would learn, among other – I mean, looking at
just this question, they would learn that we are a society where two
career couples are the norm in a lot of places, and that has led to a
whole bunch of things.

It’s led to more dogs being alone more of the time. It’s led to these
very elaborate chew toys that I write about where, you know, these toys
are basically designed to keep the pet entertained during these very
long absences of its people.

And they have all of these devices to kind of make it complicated to get
a piece of food out from the middle. And the idea is that a dog, you
know, with this toy thrown to him in the morning as the owner heads off
for the day will actually spend a couple of hours trying to manipulate
it and chew on it in a certain way that makes the food pop out and so
on, and at the end of that, the dog will be exhausted.

He’ll be mentally stimulated, which is great on a theoretical level. He
also won’t spend the rest of the day destroying your couch, which has a
more practical benefit for humans.

So people still want pets. They want them, I think, more than they ever
did, and they are adjusting the nature of pet-keeping in such ways as to
reflect the other aspects of how we live.

GROSS: And that’s part of the reason why a whole pet services industry,
a huge pet services industry, has blown up.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right, right.

GROSS: Give us an overview of some of the services available for pets
now.

Mr. SCHAFFER: You can find some really crazy examples of wealth and
excess in pet services, and you can also find some very practical
things.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: I spent a day driving around Manhattan with this pet taxi
driver, and his company would take calls from people, saying you know, I
need to take my dog to the vet. Manhattan’s a place where a lot of
people don’t have cars, and you can’t just take any old pet on the
subway, and a lot of cabs won’t stop for you. So it’s actually a
practical need that was being filled.

And people would pay, you know, $31 for this trip, $42 for that trip. It
was a Friday at the end of the day, people were going out to the
Hamptons, similarly being driven out with their dogs.

For them, they’ve decided – for the dog owners, they had decided it was
kind of the cost doing business, the cost of owning a pet in their
world.

GROSS: But a typical service that a lot of people use now is dog
walking.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Because of what we were talking about before.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: Someone who is a single person or both people in the household
work, and the dog needs to be walked. Or you’re leaving town for a
couple of days.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And as a full-time job, this has grown
tremendously. There are a couple of dueling, dog walker professional
associations, which offer certifications - a kind of guarantee that this
person you’re hiring is not going to steal your dog or anything else
from your house. And it’s – you know, it’s not that expensive, $15, $20,
depending on where you are, and a lot of people decide that boy, having
a pet brings me so much joy that spending, you know, $15 every weekday
because I have to work 10-hour days is worth it for me.

There’s another – there’s also this incredibly fast-growing business of
professional dog grooming. And you know, to me, it is connected fairly
intimately with this change in where people’s pets have lived, literally
lived, over the years.

In the old days, it was pretty common to have your dog, especially,
sleep out back for the night, in the doghouse or out in the yard. I
actually saw an article in a business journal that sort of traced images
of dogs in advertisements in women’s magazines over the course of the
20th century. And in the 1920s, the sort of prototypical picture would
be of a stylish woman out on the street walking her dog in public. By
the ‘50s, you’d have the dog kind of curled up on the hearth in the
living room. And by the ‘80s and ‘90s, you had this image of, you know,
like an aspirin ad, where the mom is supplying medicine to the sick
child, and the dog is literally on the child’s bed.

So you – it’s this kind of progression indoors and into the family and
into the bedroom. I don’t think it’s any surprise, given that – I think
I saw statistically it’s at 47 percent of people have their pets sleep
in their own bed. I don’t think it’s any surprise, given that…

GROSS: Sleep in the people’s bed.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Sleep in the people’s bed. I don’t think it’s any
surprise, given that those people are going to be a lot more interested
in getting their dog groomed because you don’t want to sleep with a
stinky dog.

GROSS: In talking about services, one of the services that you’ve both
researched and taken advantage of is pet hotels, the more high-end
kennels that you can board an animal in if you’re going away. Give us a
sense of the range of things that you’ve seen in looking at the high and
low range kennels that are available.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, for a lot of people, if they go out of town, the
easiest thing to do is they just go to their vet, and the vet will have
a few kennels, and the dog can stay there.

This used to be pretty standard. To a lot of people, it’s now thought of
as kind of cruel and that, you know, it’ll be in some dank room in the
vet’s office in these mom-and-pop vets.

And you have seen this tremendous proliferation of pet hotels. At the
biggest of the pet stores - Pet Smart and, I believe, PETCO, are getting
into this business as well because it’s growing very fast.

But I cited – I visited a place in San Francisco called The Wag Hotel
where there are several types of rooms you can choose from, but the
largest and most lavish of them have TVs and, you know, beds and a video
camera that lets the owner, who is presumably on vacation someplace, log
on and actually look at their…

GROSS: Oh, it’s a Web cam.

Mr. SCHAFFER: A Web cam, right. And then the owner can then call the
hotel or e-mail and say, boy, you know, my dog looks hungry. Can you
please bring him a treat?

And of course, that costs extra. But this place costs, I believe $85 a
night, which is, you know…

GROSS: Significant.

Mr. SCHAFFER: More than a lot of Motel 6s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. So you put your dog up in a hotel?

Mr. SCHAFFER: I have. I’ve put him up in a hotel for, you know, when we
went on vacation. I also once took him with me to one of the many human
hotels that have become pet friendly.

GROSS: Right, and they have room service menus…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: …with the dog and cat food.

Mr. SCHAFFER: And this was something, this was a case where I really
wanted to go experience the most lavish, over-the-top thing I could
imagine, and we went to the Regency in Manhattan…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …which has been advertised quite extensively as pet-
friendly, and it sure was. And we got there, and there was a doggie bed
in the room. They brought a bowl of doggie biscuits. We were able to pay
for having a hotel staffer, liveried staffer, out walking the dog for
us. When we went out to dinner. They had in-room babysitting for the dog
in case you felt the dog would be distressed by being left alone, and it
was really something.

The joke of it was our dog didn’t much like it. He was unaccustomed to
having this hallway right outside the door where people were walking by,
even in a very nice hotel with carpeting, and you don’t – you know, it’s
not a cheap place where you actually hear the people in the hallway. He
was able to hear them and didn’t much like that.

GROSS: You got your dog from a shelter. And that’s, I think, for a lot
of people the preferred way of getting a pet because you get to, you get
to rescue an animal that’s been abandoned or was homeless. How are
shelters changing?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, the world of where pets come from stands at
great contrast to the rest of the pet industry. There are professional
market-research types who can tell you exactly how many brands of high
end pet shampoo came on the market in the year 2006, for instance.

But people have only a relatively foggy idea of where pets come from:
how many of them come from so-called puppy mills, how many of them are
purchased in stores, how many of them come from rescues or breeders or
what have you.

But one of the phenomena of recent years, which is related to this
campaign against cruel puppy mills that mass-breed puppies in often
inhumane conditions, has been that the shelters themselves and the
advocates for adoption are trying to compete on a kind of market level.

So you have, in the old days, you would have to go to the pound, which
was often in a bad part of town, and it was a miserable place where all
these dogs are howling, and you know that the ones you don’t pick are
going to be euthanized. And if you’re with your kid, your kid’s going to
start crying, and it’s going to be a very unhappy and stressful day for
everyone.

Instead, I went to a place in Chicago called Paws, which might have been
the most beautiful space I set foot in in that entire week. It was like
a Restoration Hardware or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: It was a beautiful retail environment. It had enormous bay
windows, so the sun kind of dappled in, and they had arranged the dogs’
rooms in such a way as that there were no sightlines from one dog to
another, which is something that causes howling. So there wasn’t this
kind of cacophony of unhappy howls.

One of the employees was taking me around. You know, at one point, she
said – we were in the cat adoption area - and she said, well, you see
the walls in here, they’re kind of a more Ralph Lauren-y color.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, and I sort of looked at her. I thought, you’re a
person who’s dedicated your life to this really tough issue of rescuing
pets that might be killed otherwise, and we’re sitting here talking
about Ralph Lauren colors and which color is most flattering to a cat.

The experience there is so pleasant. I mean, this is the argument, is
that if you make the experience pleasant, make it retail, make it
customer friendly. People will be more eager to adopt pets rather them
to buy them in ways that often abet a really cruel system.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer. He’s the author of the
new book, “One Nation Under Dog.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist Michael
Schaffer, and his new book is called “One Nation Under Dog: Adventures
in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics and
Organic Pet Food.”

You found your dog, Murphy, initially from a Web site, which is how a
lot of people are finding animals now. So what attracted you to your
dog? I mean, it’s just, it’s kind of like online dating or something?
You know, you’re looking at all these pictures, and you’re thinking hmm,
how does that person look? How did you decide this was your dog based on
what you saw on the Web?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know, that’s another way adoption has changed is that
you used to have to go down to the pound, and you’d kind of take what
was there. And if you lived in a city like Philadelphia, where I live,
what was there would be a lot of pit bulls, a lot of dogs that have a -
rightly or wrongly - have a reputation as being tough and something you
might not want.

And there’s this Web site called Petfinder, which you know, it kinds of
works like Amazon.com. You can call up whatever it is you particularly
want, and it will show you all of the animals at shelters in whatever
range of miles away from your house you are willing to travel that need
adoption.

For me, I never had pets before. I never had a dog before. And I was
always attracted to those dogs that have sort of droopy, jowly faces
because I thought they were really cute.

There really wasn’t a great deal more thought to it than that. The idea
of having – and we wound up with Murphy, who is a St. Bernard, and he’s
not just any drooly dog. He’s a very, very, very big drooly dog.

And I don’t know why that particular face managed to woo me, but that
was what I wanted. And it was mostly just sort of messing around. I
would type in – you know, I’d go to this Web site and type in oh hey,
what about bloodhounds? You know, they’re kind of cool-looking. And I
didn’t know anything about their behavior or temperament or whatever.

And then I typed in St. Bernard, and there was a picture of Murphy. And
it said in the text that accompanied it that he was unusually small for
a St. Bernard, which was good because I lived in a pretty small house.

And you know, my wife and I had been talking about getting a dog, and we
said how about this one. And we drove out and took a look and wound up
bringing him home.

GROSS: There’s a funny chapter in your book where you’re trying to
decide whether the dog will adapt to living with you, and you’re giving
all these doggie tasks to him…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …that you’ve read. And your wife is reading out loud from the
book, explaining what you’re supposed to do to test the dog. Tell us
what you did to administer a test to see if the dog would fit in at home
with you.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well, as with any other aspect of pet ownership, there are
endless sources of advice, and they are often quite contradictory.

We wound up with this book about how to adopt a dog from a shelter. And
it warned us. It said: listen, you know, the shelter owners often, for
very good reasons, very noble reasons, will try to tell you a sob story,
and the whole purpose of this is to make you overcome your skepticism
and take this dog home. But you should really be tough and think about
what dog is going to work with you.

And it had some ideas. You know, one of them was well, you were supposed
to – we didn’t actually do it right - but you’re supposed to take a sort
of phony hand on the end of a stick, and you’ll put some food in front
of the dog and then push the dog’s face away from the food with this
phony hand, and if the dog nips at the hand, well that’s a very bad
sign.

I did it with a real hand, which apparently was, you know, taking my
life or at least my hand into my hands. But you know, we were trying to
sort of assess whether this dog’s temperament and mood and everything
was going to be all right because neither of us really knew a great deal
about what we were getting into. Neither of us had a huge amount of
time, and so we were concerned about having something that was going to
be a real problem for us.

And the woman who ran the shelter was just, you know, sitting there sort
of chuckling at us because she thought we were these, you know, typical,
neurotic city people who had come out the shelter.

She eventually took us aside and said listen. You know, I don’t really
know you or care about you, but I do care about him. And if he goes and

bites someone, you’ll probably put him down, and I don’t want that to
happen. So I’m going to tell you right now, he doesn’t bite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: And you know, it was good enough for us.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called “One Nation Under Dog.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with journalist Michael

Schaffer, author of the new book “One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in
the New World of Prozac Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic
Pet Food”. Schaffer was led into this world after adopting a St. Bernard
named Murphy from a shelter. Schaffer is a former staff writer for the
Philadelphia Inquirer and U.S. News and World Report. He’s also written
for the New Republic and Slate. I know that there are dog parks in most
cities. Do you have a dog park to take Murphy too?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Not officially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: There’s – in my neighborhood there’s, you know, but it’s
interesting you asked that because when we got Murphy and began taking
him to this park in the neighborhood where everybody takes their dogs,
you know, it was like I was Margaret Mead and I’d just landed in Samoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: There was this very intricate network of rules and what
you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do and no one
wrote them down and no one told you them, but you just sort of figured
them out. And you could see how the people who were regulars of the park
would, you know, shun people who engaged in behavior that wasn’t cool,
or subtly remind you of what you’re supposed to do, you know - heaven
forbid that you let your dog poop and don’t pick it up because everyone
will remind you. But there’s other types of things, which as I went
around I visited a lot of dog parks.

There’s great variation among dog parks, even these informal ones, in
terms of what is permitted and what isn’t. And I’m not again talking
about a written list of rules.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Well in my neighborhood - I live in a sort of college-y
neighborhood right by a university. And one thing dogs do in dog parks
is they hump. And, you know, most of the times people have a kind of
dogs will be dogs attitude – that’s what they do, they’re dogs. And, you
know, sometimes if there’s a new person people will try to get their
dogs to not do that because they don’t how the new person will react but
that tends to be how it works. There’s another very nice, actually
legal, official dog park in a kind of ritzy part of town that we take
our dog to sometimes and there it’s really not okay.

And there again there’s no sign that’s says no humping but you can tell
from the way everyone else is reacting that when Murphy is mounting
another dog that it’s not at all acceptable. And they really don’t like
that and they don’t know who you are and they kind of want you to go
away.

GROSS: So are you a regular now at the dog park, you know all the rules?

Mr. SCHAFFER: I’m a regular there not because I know all rules but
because it’s the closest thing to my house.

GROSS: Right, right. Okay.

Mr. SCHAFFER: And it’s actually been a place where, you know, I spend an
hour a day there, and I’ve made a lot of friends. And some – one of our
– my wife and I – one of our closest friends in our city is someone we
met through the park and I think this is quite typical this, this idea
of…

GROSS: That’s a point you make in your book that dogs are a way of
connecting to other people in addition to having a connection to the
dog. And in a society where we’re growing interestingly isolated…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And this is something that’s been the subject of a
certain amount of scholarly research. But it’s something I’ve also sort
of experienced in my own life…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …at my neighborhood dog park. And I’ve also sort of seen
it in action and – and I’ve written about some of the business people
who are trying to take advantage of it. In Austin, Texas, I remember
visiting a bar that had a Yappy Hour I believe every Wednesday or
Thursday night…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: …and it was a great idea. I mean whoever thought of this…

GROSS: That you bring your pet with you?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Bring your pet with you. And, you know, it was outdoors
and they had put out some dog bowls and - probably a quiet night of the
week and it was a great way of drumming up business. The people who were
there loved it because for them, you know, having to rush home from work
everyday and walk the dog while a pleasure also, you know, sort of
impeded on their social life a little bit and this was the way to
combine the two. And as ornate as a lot of city dog parks may be now,
there are few of them serve beer.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned earlier that more people seemed to have
pets now than ever before. And if that’s true, have you thought about
the reasons why that might be true.

Mr. SCHAFFER: The most convincing of the reasons I’ve heard, and I can’t
claim to have come up with it myself, you know, traces the point where
the growth of the pet population began to grow faster than the human
population to the 1960s, late ‘60s. And the argument is that this is the
same time when we began moving further from families, and more divorce,
and people leaving tight knit urban neighborhoods in favor of a more
isolated suburban lifestyle, and that kind of broad array of social
support mechanisms going away.

And that one thing people did was turn to pets to help fill that void.
And I think it also explains the role that pets were given in this new
world, that they were considered much more as full fledged members of
the family with all of our obligations to them than in the old days. And
if you walk through a pet cemetery, you know, you can kind of see this
in real time, some of the very old graves are likely to say, or liable
to say, you know, here lies Fido, a loyal servant.

And newer ones, you’ll find, you know, here lies Fido, my best friend.
Or often, and there are all these Internet sites where people can write
tributes to their recently deceased pets and it’ll say, my baby, Fido
was my child, except that his name is not so likely to be Fido anymore.
I actually saw some statistics from a pet insurance company about what
the most common names of policyholders was and it was like Max, and Jake
and Chloe and Julie - which are also pretty common names for babies
nowadays.

GROSS: What does that say to you, that more people seem to be giving
their pet’s human name instead of you know Fido and Spot.

Mr. SCHAFFER: I think there is this idea of humanization and this kind
of promotion of pets to being junior humans, being members of the
family. And it explains – I mean from the marketing point of view, the
people who have businesses selling, you know, chew toys or nights at
doggy day spas or whatever, it’s great for them. For us, I think, you
know, I think it’s actually a kind of a sweet thing because I think it
speaks to, this desire people have to embrace pets, to take them into
their lives and into their hearts. And it actually, you know, for all of
us it’s kind of nice to be needed.

And this idea that their pet really needs them, relies on them, is a
pretty huge thing for a lot of people. There was a public health
campaign run by, I think, by the San Francisco city health department
and it’s a Web site. It’s called Dogs Are Talking and the argument –
it’s an anti-STD campaign, it’s encouraging people to go get tested for
syphilis. And dogs, you know, don’t have anything to do with syphilis.
The argument is, look if you have a dog and you get sick, you know, your
dog is going to be, is going to need you and you’re not going to be able
to provide for. And this is kind of playing on that urge to provide and
to nurture and using that urge to encourage what the public health
people think is better behavior.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, author of the new book
“One Nation Under Dog.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us my guest is journalist Michael Schaffer
and he’s the author of the new book “One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in
the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic
Pet Food.” You have a chapter on basically dog training culture wars
where you compare two different styles…

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: …of dog training. And what are the different styles and what do
they tell you about our culture today?

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. Well, there is the number, according to the federal
government, the number of animal trainers in the country tripled in just
six years between 2000 to 2006. And, you know, one of the reasons for
this is as I said that getting dog training has become, for a lot of
middle class pet owners, a kind of basic normal responsible thing you do
to be a good citizen.

And there has been this widely popular and really good TV show called
“The Dog Whisperer” starring Cesar Millan, which is like a weekly
advertisement for the concept of dog training, you see him go – you
know, you might imagine hiring a dog trainer is something that only, you
know, absurdly rich people do, or you only do if you want to train a
seeing eye dog, or a stunt dog or something, and that’s how it used to
be, or at least you would only do if you had kind of a problem dog. And,
you know, watching “The Dog Whisperer” you actually see him go into
these houses of perfectly normal people, and granted normal people whose
dogs are acting in ways they don’t want, but people who are not fancy
spendthrift types. The thing is though that this growth of this industry
has masked or hasn’t made up for the fact that there are wildly
divergent views about what the most effective and most humane way to
train a dog is.

For most of the 20th century, since the sort of dawn of kind of modern
dog training, which was geared, again, towards police dogs and Hollywood
dogs and whatever - here was this very rote military style training,
actually the first prominent dog trainer was in the Prussian police
force. So, you can imagine it was sort of in his image and it was - if
the dog, you know, doesn’t behave in the right way, jerk its chain. And
that idea kind of carried through most of the 20th century. There was
this pedagogical revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s among trainers who
thought, hey, maybe actually positive reinforcement, you know, hitting
him with a reward as quickly as possible after it does something well is
a more effective way to train.

The argument was that dogs are too dumb to figure out why it is you’re
kicking them. So if you were trying to correct some bad behavior it’s
difficult to do that through these purely negative ways. And this
positive reinforcement model kind of became the standard among
professionals. And - academically based professionals as well as
trainers and we might hang out a shingle and so on - until Cesar’s show
went on the air – and his idea is quite different. It’s that, you know,
there’s this natural order of things as existed in a pack of wild
wolves. Where the alpha dog was the boss and the other dogs were
subordinate.

And his idea is the way you - that the problem for American dogs, the
problem with their behavior is that we have lost touch with the natural
order of things. And that the way to shape a dog’s behavior is to remind
it that you, the human, are its alpha, which seems good in theory but to
a lot of the positive trainers the ways he gets to that are considered
cruel or at least impractical. And they see all this, this sort of talk

about nature as just a mask for a return to this old fashioned, dominant
top-down model.

And to my mind it all plays out kind of like a version of the culture
wars over how to raise a kid, you know? We’ve got one side based in
institutions and universities that has a softer, more positive approach.
You have another side that says our society has gone amiss because we’ve
lost our discipline and lost our sense of authority. And, you know, it
sounds awfully familiar.

GROSS: Which kind of – which approach did you go with your trainer?

Mr. SCHAFFER: We hired a woman who - because we didn’t know anything
about this – we, you know, hired a woman at a good Web site and we liked
her a lot - who had a kind of alpha approach. And it was this, you know,
when you go through a door, you go first, Murphy doesn’t go first. That
way he…

GROSS: You’ve got to teach him who’s boss.

Mr. SCHAFFER: …right. And when you come home don’t pet him. Once he has
calmed down, call him over to the couch and then pet him. And she was,
we really like her. And she, you know, things I’m saying might sort of -
removed from the experience might sound kind of monstrous, but the
argument was this is what will make him feel better. That, you know, any
behavior problems he has have to do with anxiety over who’s the boss.
And that dogs, unlike humans, are not sitting around scheming hoping to
become the boss, but what they do need is a secured sense of where they
are in the order of things.

So, it was, you know, put out his food for exactly 20 minutes a day then
put it away. He has to know that he’s going to eat on your schedule not
on his. And, you know, he doesn’t get to come on the bed, and when you
walk him, you know, hold the leash tight and he doesn’t get to decide
where you go, and that sort of things. And that, you know, it worked.

GROSS: You started your book when times were much better economically
than they were by the time you finished it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.

GROSS: And by the time, certainly by the time it was published. How do
you think the economic mess that we’re in is affecting what people are
willing to buy for their pets?

Mr. SCHAFFER: You know I, when I started the book I had thought of it at
least in part as a book about excess, as a book about manifestation of
excess through the way people treat pets. And so as I got into my
research, I realized that wasn’t what it was about at all. Pets I think
are a pretty good reflection of the society at large, which includes a
little bit of excess but includes a lot of other things too.

And it’s a good thing I came to that conclusion because excess went
rapidly out of style while I was working on this. And the pet industry
seems to be, and so far as any one can tell yet, surviving very nicely
and I’ve - one of things I’ve written about, one of the constant themes
in this book is this social promotion of pets to be like ersatz
children, to be members of the family. Once you’ve received that
promotion, it’s very hard to be demoted by a mere economic catastrophe.

And people seem to be, people who had decided that they were going to
buy, say, organic pet food for their dog, even the most deluded pet
people don’t think that’s because the dog is a gourmand. They think it’s
because it is the basic nutritional thing that they owe them. They have
decided that this is a nutritionally and important thing to do and they

are going to stick with that and sacrifice for themselves while they do
it.

I went - each of the years I was working on this, I would go to the
Global Pet Expo, which is this massive, massive pet goods trade show and
you see, you know, glow in the dark leashes and hamster mineral water
and mental enrichment games for fish, and all kinds of crazy stuff
there. And each year at that amount, the Pet Trade Association rolls out
its latest figures for what their economic performance was in the past
year.

And in 2008, they had done $41 billion of business the previous year and
projected $43 billion in the year to come. When everyone got together in
February of this year, there was a lot of trepidation and nervousness
about what the numbers would show and it turned out they had hit their
$43 billion target for ’08, they say. And they predicted $45 billion for
the year ahead. And that also comports with what some of the business
people I’ve gotten to know are telling me, that they think they’re doing
okay, not growing as fast as they were but they think they’re doing all
right.

GROSS: At the same time, I read about people who abandon their animals
when they are foreclosed on or can’t effort their rent anymore.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. I think one of the things the recession is showing
is that there is a limit to the elasticity of people spending on their
pets. It’s one thing if you have a choice, you know, I’m going to scrimp
on myself in order to keep buying this - this particularly worthy brand
of food or this medication, or what have you, but it’s another thing to
be hit with, say, a $8,000 veterinary bill. You just can’t pay it so you
don’t do the procedure. You don’t have a choice. And similarly if you’ve
been foreclosed from your house and you have to go and rent a place and
the landlord won’t take pets, you don’t have a choice anymore.

And people are in a very tough situation. And you can say that it also
shows that there are limits to how much people will consider their pets
a member of the family because if your new landlord said wait, we can’t
take your kid, no one would give up the kid. But it is kind of the best
of times and the worst of times. People are showing this - the intensity
of this bond by sticking with it when they have a choice. But more
people are now in a position where they - where they don’t have a
choice.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SCHAFFER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Michael Schaffer is the author of the new book, “One Nation Under
Dog.”
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..DATE:
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..PGRM:
Fresh Air
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..SGMT:
Death: A Long-Forgotten Rock Relic, Reborn

TERRY GROSS, host:

By now, music fans are used to the regular discovery of vintage
unreleased recordings. Nearly all of the good material is by already
celebrated performers. But once in a great while, unknown players from
the past make an impact on the present. Critic Milo Miles talks about
once such release from the proto-punk trio Death.

(Soundbite of song, “Keep on Knocking”)

Mr. BOBBY HACKNEY (Singer and Bassist, Death): (Singing) If I can
remember it was you didn’t want to see my face. If I can remember, it
was you who put me in my place…

Mr. MILO MILES (Music Critic): In a pop market where you’ve got to pick
up every niche, there’s a relentless parade of long lost masterpieces
and forgotten gems. It can be psychedelic, rockabilly, soul, punk or
whatever. More and more these are sad disappointments, or at best,
trifles for zealous fans of a style who feast on crumbs. Quite a jolt

then that the Detroit trio Death has come up with a brief album, “For
The Whole World To See,” that’s the most surprising and satisfying
proto-punk discovery since the Monks’ “Black Monk Time,” back in 1994.
After all, the Monks have been a persistent rumor since the 1960’s, with
pictures of their tonsured heads turning up on occasion. Death are no
more than a 1976 single, heard by almost no one. Back then, neither the
market nor the audience were ready for the three black Hackney brothers:
guitarist David, bassist and singer Bobby and drummer Dennis who are
wrapped up in rock and roll.

(Soundbite of song, “Rock-N-Roll Victim”)

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MILES: Why is Death such an anomaly? “For The Whole World To See”
consists of a single, plus five recently discovered 1974 demos. And most
of the tracks evoke the hard charging racket of the Stooges and the MC5,
who are as much a part of the Detroit scene as Motown. Besides, 20 years
before Death, in the era of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little
Richard, rock and roll was too black, no matter who was performing it.
After the British invasion however, the image of a rock band changed to
unconventional white guys with charming accents. By the end of the ‘60s,
Jimi Hendrix was the only major black performer in rock. And even he
caught criticism for not embracing racial revolution.

(Soundbite of song, “You’re a Prisoner”)

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible) You’re a prisoner.

MILES: Black rock and roll never really went away. There were heavy
doses of it in the band Funkadelic and there was the occasional offbeat
group like Mother’s Finest from Atlanta. It’s clear that songwriters
Bobby and David Hackney loved the very nature of high energy rock. It
was punchy, plain, said what it thought - punky in other words. And
though punk now has a connotation of downbeat fury, that was not always
so. Like the Ramones, Death were more jokey than angry. Death’s big
experimental number, “Let The World Turn,” even promotes cosmic patience
and offers a reminder that early on, party punks could also speak arty
punks. (Soundbite of song, “Let The World Turn”)

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) Let the world turn, let the world turn around.
Let the world turn, let the world turn around. On a wild trip, on a wild
trip around. Let the world turn, let the world turn around. On a wild
trip, on a wild trip around. (unintelligible)

MILES: Even in Detroit, Death never got much radio exposure and the
Hackney’s never connected with the right music industry people. The
brothers went on to play gospel and eventually reggae. David Hackney
died in 2000, more convinced than anyone else that Death would get its
due. “For The Whole World To See” proves he was right. As rich and
provocative as the ‘70s punk explosion was, it would have been more so,
if Death had taken part.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Death’s album “For The
Whole World To See,” on the Drag City Label. You can download podcasts
of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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