Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog (Holt, 2009) is a satirical book that is sure to please dog lovers and people who enjoy absurdity of all sorts. Schaffer’s subtitle — America’s Love Affair with our Dogs — pretty much gives away that this book is a gentle send-up of the extremes pet-lovers often go to in order to give their pets the best of everything. Schaffer’s vision is that of a rueful pet owner who knows he’s been suckered, but can’t stop the madness. There’s just enough in Schaffer that responds to all the consumerism, that makes him want to give his dog Murphy the best things in life, and this is why he can be moved by the various PR firms selling this or that dog-accessory to keep buying things Murphy neither needs nor wants even though he knows better.
Now, with a title like One Nation Under Dog, you probably already realize that Schaffer’s point is obvious — dogs really don’t need to have expensive designer outfits (though there’s a dog fashion show every year in New York that attracts many people interested in buying whatever the hot new “look” may be), they don’t need to have the most expensive hot, new toy, and they really don’t need to have the newest, best-designed food, either — all of that is for us, the pet owners, not for the dogs themselves.
Schaffer’s argument is that we, as a society, seem to have adopted our pets more as our children — the term “fur-baby” has been in use for at least fifteen years (along with the similar “fur-kin”), and perhaps the reason for this is because people are having fewer human children. Schaffer mostly talks about pet ownership from the affluent American “middle class on up” perspective, which is why there are chapters about pet hotels, the aforementioned pet designer clothing industry, pet toiletries (some of which are incredibly expensive), the race for the most difficult and challenging pet toy (to keep active pets amused and exercised during the day when they’re forced to be inside waiting for their owners to show up), etc. And he gently mocks much of the contemporary “pet movement” in America today while admitting he’s no better than anyone else as his pet, Murphy, takes anti-depressants, turns up his nose at the various high-end foods Schaffer checked out (preferring homier fare, I guess), and goes to the vet probably more often than Murphy really needs in order to reassure Schaffer and his wife that they truly are doing everything they can to give Murphy the best-possible quality of life.
The way Schaffer structured his book with anecdotes about his pet, Murphy, between visits to the local pet hotel (don’t call ’em “kennels” any more, folks, not unless you want a thrashing from the PC-police), the visits to PetSmart and PetCo and other pet stores, talking about the horror that is the “puppy mill” industry and of course the ridiculousness that is the dog fashionista movement, helped to humanize Schaffer’s book and reflect better the American experience with pet ownership and its uneasy alliance with American consumerism.
I enjoyed this book; it’s funny, it’s skillful, and it made me think about many of my previously-unchallenged assumptions about dog ownership. I think if you enjoy pets, or at least appreciates a writer who pokes fun at American consumerism, you will also appreciate this book.
Reviewed by Barb