The very attributes that make small dogs cute and popular are slowly strangling their ability to function as real animals
Photo by Richard Clark/Getty
By Jessica Pierce, is a bioethicist whose work focuses on human-animal relationships and interconnections between ecosystems and health. She is a faculty affiliate with the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Her books include Run, Spot, Run (2016); Unleashing Your Dog (2019) and A Dog’s World (2021), with Marc Bekoff; and Who’s a Good Dog? And How to Be a Better Human (forthcoming, 2023). She writes the blog All Dogs Go to Heaven for Psychology Today, and is based in the Colorado mountains.
Standing in the grocery line, you find it hard to look past that mother and, especially, her baby. Your eyes keep drifting back to the sweet little face, the chubby little hands, the fuzzy hair, the wide eyes that seem to stare right into your soul. Even though you keep your hands to yourself, you might want to scoop the baby into your arms and give her a cuddle. The same thing might happen if someone walks past you with a puppy. You might feel an almost irresistible desire to hold and play with the pup, to get a whiff of her puppy breath. A bad day can feel so much better, thanks to the little furry bundle of joy. If this happens to you, your brain has been hijacked by cuteness. Don’t worry. It’s natural.
Cuteness in offspring serves a key evolutionary function of eliciting a caregiving response from adults. Ethologists have described a ‘baby schema’ – a collection of infantile features such as a round face, big eyes, a little nose, soft skin or fur, unique smells (puppy breath!), and crying sounds – that release innate caregiving behaviours. The baby schema triggers a flood of hormones in the adult brain and, more importantly, captures attention and propels into top priority those movements that respond to the baby. Human babies share with other animal babies the same cute features, which is why we find baby animals irresistible. As the neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach and his colleagues write in a review of the phenomenon, cuteness is ‘one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour’.
Cuteness is also one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping human relations with dogs. But unfortunately, it isn’t all sweetness and light – the enduring cuteness of certain dogs throughout life has become a status symbol unto itself.
Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), was one of the first social critics to suggest that people use dogs as status symbols. Veblen argued that breeding, owning and showcasing rare and unusual breeds of dog by the rich was a prime example of what he called ‘conspicuous consumption’ – consumption that signalled wealth and social status. The more useless or unneeded an object, the better it reflected its owner’s expansive success. Rather than be employed in useful work as hunters, herders or guards, the pedigree pet dogs of the rich had only to look distinctive. A dog’s function was to serve as an outward display of a person’s success.
More than a century later, Veblen’s observation has more bite than ever. Although considerably more complex than a display of wealth, pet dogs still function as status symbols. They are bought, sold and displayed as extensions and expressions of human identity and self-worth. They are used to shape how we feel, and to influence the emotions of others. And, by being cute and lovable, they function to lift our mood and tug our heartstrings; dogs have become conspicuous emotional commodities.
In Capital (1867), Karl Marx defines a good or commodity as ‘first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind’. The desire to express status or self-identify class or wealth through consumption can lead to what Marx calls ‘fetishism of the commodity’. To fetishise is to believe that an object has the power to manifest status, prestige, attractiveness or power. To create an illusion, fetishised goods must – like the pet dogs of Veblen’s leisure class – be visible to others.
Users who post successfully and with some strategy can monetise their dog’s cuteness
The most blatant dog fetish today is the yen for cuteness. Almost any foray on to Instagram, YouTube or TikTok will bring you into contact with adorable pictures of dogs and cats and other animals that will make you smile and say: Aww, how cute! You have just witnessed commodity fetishisation through a cultural phenomenon that the media scholar James Meese calls the ‘cute economy’. The cute economy exists primarily on social media, is user-generated, and is heavily dominated by pictures of animals, especially pets…