For the last couple days my Twitter feed has been punctuated with jokes about this essay by Clay Routledge, “Are Americans Too Attached To Their Pets?”
Because it’s Twitter, I suspect most of the jokes about Routledge “subtweeting” me or NR organizing an intervention for me were based on the headline alone.
Regardless, let me say I think Clay is pretty much entirely right about a very real problem. Indeed, I wish I’d included a discussion of this in my book. A big part of my argument is that civil society, starting with the family, is breaking down and people are retreating to places like Facebook instead of actually engaging in life. I’ve discussed these themes a lot on my podcast, including what Ben Sasse calls the “friendship crisis.” The share of people who tell pollsters they have close personal friends has been in decline for quite a while. So has the number of close friends people claim to have. I think technology plays an important role, but so do things like immigration (See Robert Putnam), how schools are run, and the nature of the economy itself.
Regardless, I think my record as a dog-lover is pretty solid, so I won’t belabor the point. But as much as I love my dogs — and all dog kind — I do not consider dogs to be a substitute for friends, never mind children. I always say that dogs are no alternative for children, but they are very good training for having kids in the sense that they are a serious responsibility. Cats don’t need their humans nearly as much as dogs do. I wrote about all this at considerable length, here.
Where I disagree somewhat with Clay is the implied causality, captured in the headline and subhead: “Young adults in particular may be bonding with animals at the expense of vital human relationships.”
I have no doubt this is true in some cases. But in general I suspect that the trend Clay identifies is a lagging indicator — a kind of dye marker — of the problem rather than the cause of it. People are getting dogs because of the atomization and alienation that are endemic to the erosion of civil society. Again, it’s possible that in anecdotal cases that this is making these problems worse. Are (stereotypical) cat ladies misanthropic hermits because they have cats? Or do they have cats because they are misanthropic hermits? I suspect the latter.
It’s worth bearing in mind that dog ownership — when done right — gets you out of the house. Dog ownership is also very often a social lubricant. When I lived in Adams Morgan one of the most small-d democratic and civic-minded activities in my life involved going to the local dog park with Cosmo, the late, great, wonderdog and former It Dog of the American Right®. I made friends with people I might never have said a word to otherwise. We self-organized to clean up the park from time to time and we watched out for each other’s dogs. My generally shy father loved to take our basset hound, Norman, around the neighborhood in part because of all the attention Norman got (the ladies loved Norman). He was a walking conversation piece.
I agree with Clay that many people today — and in every generation — get dogs in part to deal with loneliness. But the malady is the loneliness; the dogs are a partial cure. There are better cures, but that’s not the dogs’ fault.