Inequality and the Canine Cultural Divide

Food for Thought

By Carly Piatocha


There are some key debates that regular readers of a pet magazine are familiar with: Raw food or kibble? Prong collars or harnesses? To vaccinate or not? Breeders or shelters? The differing answers to these questions – waged passionately on both sides – are unimportant. Stating that is akin to blasphemy to some people, so before we go any further, please know that I am not stating that animal welfare is unimportant. In this article, instead of vilifying one side or the other, I would like to suggest some food for thought; it is pertinent to consider our luxury to be able to even ask these questions and consider their answers in the first place. Your opinion on the questions above does not really matter. What matters is that the luxury to take the time to ponder these questions (and form an opinion either way) already demonstrates how much societal privilege you have. In Canada, as well as in most of the developed Western world, we pat ourselves on the back for having highly developed animal welfare standards. Yet, despite these standards, we seem to continually face overflowing shelters, animal abuse and animals that fall through the cracks in the system. This issue is complex and cannot be fully understood or solved by tightening animal cruelty laws and sentencing on one hand, while zealously promoting holistic pet ownership trends on the other. The answer lies somewhere between expressing less judgment (and providing more assistance) and improving the welfare of those who are struggling, human and animal alike. 

To gain a better understanding of how people and pets are entwined, it is helpful to understand how pets are not just family members but often status symbols as well. In fact, one could argue that, in many ways, dogs have become a barometer of a person’s success. Where we once tried to “keep up with the Joneses” through the overt purchasing of extravagant new appliances, new cars and more, it seems that the culture of the rich and influential is shifting – and dogs are a part of that shift in priorities. Society has begun a slow and subtle mental movement to a place where what you know – and how you display your knowledge to others – demonstrates your social status much more than by what you own. Nowadays, the upper classes are placing much more emphasis on buying experiences instead of possessions with their extra cash. When they purchase those experiences – such as vacations abroad, or dinners at unique locals – they have a chance to display their values. These values are derived partly from family influences and partly from (in many cases) the chance to access a post secondary education. People demonstrate their values in many ways via disposable income, but it is currently a high priority in many upper-class homes to value environmental protection and animal welfare, from farm animals to pets. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and some upper-class families simply do not value their pet’s well-being very highly. However, for the most part owners love their pets: on average 87.5% consider their pet to be a member of the family. How are the demands of the knowledge economy shaping the lives of pet owners? Before delving into how a person’s social status is connected to their pets, it will be helpful to investigate how we came to value the things we do.canstockphoto2809794

Canada’s economy has shifted – starting in approximately the 1980s – from being based in manufacturing to being based in services. This change has been driven mainly by the ever-increasing importance of technology and the pervasive influence of globalization. Canadians have adapted to these changes by investing more heavily in education as the “good jobs”, as these jobs now require more education. In the last thirty years, there has been a significant amount of growth in Canada regarding the number of post-secondary students enrolled in university. In 1980, there were 550,000 undergraduate students enrolled nationally – a number that jumped to 994,000 in 2010. During those thirty years the number of people getting Masters degrees has doubled, and the number of people enrolling in PhD programs has tripled, compared to the rates of people in these programs in 1980. More importantly, Canadian census data demonstrates that this investment generally tends to pay off. From analyzing this data, we observe that university graduates generally see their income rise more rapidly and consistently throughout their careers than non-graduates do. We also observe that graduates experience fewer and shorter periods of unemployment. We are accustomed to seeing these statistics painted as a ubiquitously positive thing for human society, generating increased interest in making animal welfare a priority. However, what we tend to not acknowledge is that this knowledge is also a form of societal power: cultural capital. 

Cultural capital, a term coined by the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, is a form of invisible currency in society which includes your social network. This is all the knowledge you have regarding what conversation topics and subjects, body language, spoken language and behaviour are both acceptable and desirable in your own personal social circle as well as your own social class and overall society. This system helps societies maintain class distinction between members, by rejecting those that do not know or follow the “unwritten rules” of what it takes to maintain or improve your social status in your particular class. In the case of pets, the “unwritten” expectations of the most privileged classes tend to be to feed your pet raw (or at least grain free) food, to use force-free training, to use doggy daycare while you are at work, and to be cautious about over-vaccination and indiscriminate sterilization. When we see or speak to a pet owner that does not practice all (or at least most) of these behaviours, we often unconsciously assess them as “less”: less educated, less wealthy, less caring of their pet’s well-being. Cultural capital is extremely powerful in both predicting and dictating your success in life, by either increasing or decreasing your access to resources, opportunities and beneficial social networks.

Although societal trends are slow, over the last thirty years there has been a distinct shift: cultural capital used to be mostly dependant on how much money you made and what you owned; now there is more dependence on how much education you have and how many interesting experiences you have had. Education is the new measuring stick of success and high social status, partly because a lot of the “good” jobs – those that bring money and prestige – are now only accessible to the highly educated. The knowledge economy elite unintentionally demonstrate their high status through things like purchasing organic food, driving a fuel-efficient new car, going to CrossFit classes, traveling abroad to broaden their horizons, going to museums and art galleries, and watching documentaries (bonus points if they are in another language!) Children that grow up with parents who have a lot of education learn to value these same things, and this is reinforced when they get into the school system. Since educated people are running the school system, children who have learned to value activities like these thrive in this environment, and this creates an upward spiral of achievement. Children who are born to parents that did not have access to educational opportunities themselves now have – through no fault of their own – put their children at a disadvantage in a society that is rigged to benefit the educated. There are obviously exceptions to every rule, and we all know people that don’t fit these definitions. Individual exceptions aside, it is important to recognize that different classes exist in society because some people have more cultural capital – and thus privilege – than others. Whether or not you feel this is just and fair, the point is that this cultural shift is relevant to pet owners, because it is only relatively recently that pets have been added to the realm of cultural capital.   

With the aforementioned rise in the desire (and need, to a certain extent) to obtain advanced education comes specific ripple effects in society, which include the delay of marriage and children for many people. In 1980, the average age for the birth of a woman’s first child was barely twenty-five, whereas in 2011 Statistics Canada rated it as almost twenty-nine . Pets, with their child-like status (in the West) and their irresistible unconditional love, make excellent companions for a society that has delayed having children due to the current economic realities. Since pets are, on average, looked at as members of the family – rather than merely pets – it naturally follows that we want to give them the best possible care that we can. The trouble is that we often forget that it costs a lot more money than some pet owners have to be able to afford to feed fido raw food instead of kibble, to give him organic grain free treats, and to take him to good quality dog training classes regularly. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens, it is more important than ever to suspend judgment towards other pet parents that do things differently than we do. Let’s take force-free training as a case study of potential judgment. cat eating with eyes closed

Many would argue that positive-only dog training is the best method of training a dog, as it is backed by scientific research and is very humane. The problem is that by promoting this training method as the only one that is acceptable for all dog owners also unintentionally and uncomfortably puts forth a message that says something else entirely: if you are not at least middle-income and have a fair bit of free time off work to dedicate to training, than you cannot own a dog – at least not humanely. Before you get angry at that statement, let’s explore how it’s true. Again, this argument is not regarding which training is the best for the dog, nor is it a statement that force-free is bad; it is simply that what is accessible to the upper-classes is not always possible for everyone. In this case, positive-only dog training requires a lot of commitment and a learning curve to truly understand how it works, and why. Although you could learn to train your dog from a book, taking classes from a certified trainer yields a much higher likelihood of success. In addition, this method requires many treats be given for correct responses (although toys can also be used for toy-driven dogs), which must be purchased. Even if you make the treats (or toys) yourself, you must have the money for the ingredients, as well as the time to make the them. Finally, it requires that the owner devote a lot of time and energy to training the dog for a substantial period of time with markers – or in paying someone else to devote that time. Skills like walking on a loose leash can take a very long time to perfect for some dogs, if trained in a purely positive manner. This type of training might simply not be possible if someone is low-income and works two jobs to make ends meet, a senior on a fixed income, someone in pain and on disability, a student, a single mother on welfare, a person facing homelessness or someone who is the head of a working class family with children to support. 

We face a very slippery ethical slope if we claim that those that cannot afford to feed their dogs premium price healthy food and/or train them in the “best” (and most time-consuming) manner do not deserve to own a pet. Essentially, no matter which way you look at it, by saying this we are really saying that you can only access the unconditional love a pet provides if you can afford it. All people and all situations are different, but one thing that is always true is that everyone needs and deserves companionship, and that no amount of money can buy love. Since most Canadian pet owners (87.5%) feel that pets are members of the family, it is both unfair and inaccurate to paint people as unfit to have a pet at all should they not live up to our lofty standards. As has been stated in a previous article of mine (ref. to ‘Pets and Personalities’) as well as in many other places,  having a pet staves off loneliness and depression, increases social interaction and improves physical and mental health in a slew of ways. It is crucial to note that these benefits are certainly not limited to therapy and service dog companionship. If pet ownership is only socially sanctioned for the affluent, then those that are already suffering in other domains of life are to be dealt another devastating blow. These people must cope with the daily critical judgments of others as they walk their dog on a choke or prong collar, due to a lack of knowledge and access to knowledge, or more often a lack of time or money for training. They are judged when they feed their dog or cat kibble from the grocery store out of lack of money for anything else. One thing the owners of these animals are usually not short on is love and the desire to care for their friend in the best way that they possibly can. They put that collar on their dog because it is a one-time purchase that doesn’t involve as much time invested in training, so that they can take her for a walk without being unsafely pulled down the street – thus they avoid letting her languish in the backyard or the balcony, barking and alone. They stretch their last dollars to buy that supermarket kibble, or anything they can afford, so that their dog or cat will not go hungry – while they often do. Women that are victims of horrific domestic abuse often stay with their abusers for years despite wanting to leave, because most women’s shelters do not accept dogs or cats. They work those two or three minimum wage jobs because they are trying to provide for their families, which include pets. Sometimes they work those multiple low-wage jobs with the additional burden of being a person of colour who faces overt and covert racism daily, and maybe sexism as well. 

These facts are sobering and important. Instead of judging those that don’t practice positive-only training, feed holistic or raw diets, or those who are not the perfect pet owner, we should be trying to fix the underlying societal issues that force people into these situations in the first place. With shelters in Canada (and abroad) already overflowing with unwanted dogs and cats, is it really fair to argue that a dog would be better off in a shelter – or dead – than eating subpar food and receiving questionable training?

 If it bothers you to see people in these situations, what can you do? Instead of judgment, we can offer a place to stay that is affordable and actually allows pets. Offer cheap or free better-quality food, information on pet food banks or suggest where to go for free training classes and equipment that work around someone’s long work hours. Offer free walks, kitty-litter cleaning or trips to the vet or groomer if you know the owner is sick, disabled, elderly, is often alone with small children, or has to work all the time. All of these would be much more uplifting than condoning the person with the spoken or unspoken feeling that they “shouldn’t have a pet”. By going beyond the same tired debates that have ignited division in the pet industry for years, we are able to see the root of the problem. When someone has privilege, the option to learn about force-free training, the dangers of overvaccination and the benefits of a raw food diet are possible – because everyday life is not consumed with the daily struggle to stay alive and get by. 

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