Did you know that Seattle now has more dogs than children? So does San Francisco. In a recent poll, 45 percent of dog owners said that having a dog is better than having a child. There’s a popular book out called, “Why Dogs are Better than Kids” that, in a tongue-in-cheek style, explains why (“Dogs give you warning before they throw up in the car”). The USA has a birth rate of 13 births per thousand, down from 30 births per thousand at the beginning of the last century. At the same time, 63 million American households have dogs, up 23 percent in the last 10 years alone.
You see it in the news headlines: “Dogs are the new kids!” they proclaim smugly. I have every reason to agree — I’ve never had kids, I’ve always had dogs, and I have a business that depends on people indulging their dogs. Heck, we have an entire department devoted to puppy showers.
Yet all this is troubling to me.
In our increasingly technological society, we can work from almost everywhere. Wi-fi, remote PC access services, cell phones and networks allow us to work where we want, often from home, like never before. The average age of video games is 33, and two-thirds of heads of households play video games regularly. We talk with friends on the phone while we drive and do errands. We clear our schedules so we can watch our shows on television, but we don’t have time to see our families and friends anymore. We get our news online when we’re ready to read it, and shop without ever leaving home. In our society, it’s all about me.
Meanwhile, let’s face it; we’re becoming isolated. Individuals increasingly live in a bubble. College kids don’t study together or see each other at the library anymore; they do their homework online from their rooms. We don’t have to get together to socialize; we have chat rooms and Internet game sites. We don’t have to mix with each other to go to the movies; we have Netflix deliver them to our door. Even volunteering can be done without a time commitment.
We’ve become so accustomed to having everything exactly when and how we like it — from news to shopping to social interaction — that we don’t have the patience for being around other people like we used to. We don’t want to wait in line. We don’t want to wait at a restaurant. We don’t want to wait through commercials. We don’t want to wait for our luggage at the baggage claim. We don’t want to wait to save up for what we want.
Having choice is good. It drives free markets, keeps prices low, and gives consumers the power to decide who succeeds. Having convenience is good, too. But how much is enough? What happens to us when we have exactly what we want, all the time, on demand?
I think we miss each other.
We’re social creatures. We need a group. The “reptile” part of our brain (the part that’s hard-wired for survival) tells us that there’s safety in numbers. It’s not natural for humans to be solitary. I’m speaking in general terms, of course; there are always individuals who do prefer to live in seclusion. But as our society pushes all of us in that direction — slowly, steadily, byte by byte — I believe that many of us are reaching out to dogs to reconnect with someone who needs us, someone who will protect us, someone to take care of, someone who will be there for us, no matter what. That reptile part of our brain still has a nurturing need, nesting need, a need for family and safety in numbers. And while we may not be aware of it as we busy ourselves with conspicuous consumption, celebrity watching and career maneuvering, it’s there.
Enter the dog.
Recent studies have found that having a dog reduces blood pressure and other effects of stress. That’s probably not why you and I got a dog, but we’re probably connecting with the things that make our blood pressure go down. Things like that wagging tail that greets us at the door, every single day. How many people in our homes get up and come to the door when we come home? The dog always does, and that feels good to us. The dog needs us. He depends utterly on us. He’s not going to become independent and leave (well, not most dogs). So having a dog placates our abandonment fears. He’s not going to judge us, no matter what we wear, buy, eat, drive or look like. Now we’ve got an antidote to constant criticism from ourselves and others that plagues us day after day. He’s another heartbeat in what for some is an otherwise empty home. Now we’ve got companionship in an isolated world. And all without the baggage of a human companion. No words that come out wrong. No shirking of responsibilities. No manipulation, tardiness, meanness, cheating or misunderstandings.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great to have a dog. I can’t imagine my life without dogs in it. I think most compassionate, responsible people’s lives would be enhanced by having a dog, and yes, I think people who like dogs are better people than those who don’t. But as I ponder why we love our dogs so much, I also ask myself if maybe we should reconnect with each other, too. Maybe it’s family that we really need. Maybe we should give each other a break, take more interest in each other, have a little more patience, and enjoy one another a little more.
Dogs aren’t better than kids. Nor are kids better than dogs. They just have different roles in our lives. Or at least, they should.
What do you think?