This article was published online on July 29, 2021.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I have asked one question more than any other. It’s come up time and again, day and night, as frequently in my post-vaccination spring and summer as it did in the dark moments of the pandemic’s first wave: Are you my booboo?
The question is never answered by Midge, my agoraphobic chihuahua, but the answer is obvious. She’s been my booboo since 2018, when I brought her home from a cat shelter, where she had been stashed by a Long Island dog rescue after her foster family gave her back—she didn’t like them, or anyone, and cats aren’t looking for new friends. At 12 pounds, she is twice as big as the most desirable chihuahuas, and she has a moderately bad personality, which is maybe why the puppy mill where she spent the first year of her life decided it didn’t want any more of her robust and extremely rude babies. Now almost five years old, she has grown to tolerate me. I ask her questions she doesn’t answer—if she’s my booboo (yes), if she’s a big girl (relatively speaking), if she has a kibble tummy (a little bit).
Since last March, Midge and I have been testing the bounds of what it means to live in my very small apartment together. In many ways, she’s been a perfect pandemic pal: She hates interacting with others; she loves to sit on the couch; she long ago assessed sneezes as an existential threat. Whether she was sitting on a blanket in the kitchen while I cooked, frowning at me from a safe distance while I did yoga, or watching me do chores from beneath the leaves of her favorite enormous tropical houseplant, she bore witness to a year I spent otherwise alone. Every day, she climbed up the back of the couch to snooze atop its rear cushions, her face pointed toward mine at eye level while I worked at the kitchen table.
In a year when time felt slippery, Midge kept track of it—waking me up for breakfast, waging a nightly campaign for dinner, huffing and snorting and pacing until I got up from work to play fetch with her stuffed crocodile for a few minutes. Many days, she was the only living thing I spoke to, and the only one I touched. She tolerated most of my hugs, and once, when I was in the depths of late-winter depression, she let me pick her up and hold her tiny, warm chest to my forehead for a few seconds. Her big brown eyes look dismayed and embarrassed after these displays of affection, which is usually enough to make me laugh. I tell her she’s a good girl and try not to think about how much worse the past year would have been without her.
Or, for that matter, the past three years. The 2020 pet-adoption surge was sharp: Shelters emptied and rescue groups ran out of dogs as the work-from-home set welcomed new companions for themselves and their kids. Among adults under 40, who accounted for the majority of pet adoptions, the pandemic-era spike in demand was anomalous in its intensity, not its trajectory. Millennials recently overtook Boomers as the largest pet-owning cohort of Americans; by some estimates, more than half of them have a dog. The pet-ownership rate is even higher among those with a college education and a stable income—the same people who are most likely to delay marriage, parenthood, and homeownership beyond the timelines set by previous generations. Dogs, long practical partners in rural life or playmates for affluent children, have become a life stage unto themselves.
That dogs’ roles are changing isn’t itself so surprising. Humans and canines have been molding themselves to each other’s needs for tens of thousands of years, helping ensure the mutual survival of both species. The question is why the relationship is changing so quickly right now. For America’s newest adopters, a dog can be many things: a dry run for parenthood, a way of putting down roots when traditional milestones feel out of reach, an enthusiastic housemate for people likely to spend stretches of their 20s and 30s living alone. An even more primary task, though, is helping soothe the psychic wounds of modern life.
Midge’s adoption was both planned and impulsive. In 2017, I went apartment hunting for my first place of my own in New York, looking only at buildings that allowed dogs, even though I didn’t have one. Then, I waited. How do you know if you’re ready to keep another mammal alive? I had no idea, but I found myself at a party in early 2018, in a professional rut and at the end of a relationship. A friend notorious for her flakiness showed up late, and when she arrived, she had in tow both her own happy mutt and another that she was watching for the weekend. A little bomb exploded in my head—if she could avoid killing two dogs simultaneously, surely I could manage one. I spent the next few days perusing Petfinder.com. Midge was on my lap on the B48 bus the next weekend.
I would have denied it at the time, but I got a dog because I was frustrated with everything else. The benchmarks that I was raised to believe would make me a real, respectable adult seemed foreign, even though I was 32, the same age when my mother, already a married homeowner working for the employer she’d have for the rest of her career, became pregnant with me. This particular Millennial sob story is familiar by now: Thanks to wealth inequality and wage stagnation and rising housing and child-care costs and student loans and all the rest, we’re the first generation to do worse than our parents. People like me, who grew up middle-class, don’t tend to suffer the most severe economic fallout. But the existential crisis provoked by these changes can still feel acute. All your life, you were told that if you worked to follow a particular path, you would be rewarded. Then the path was bulldozed to make room for luxury condos.
When I adopted Midge, I had no clear view of a future beyond my one-bedroom apartment, let alone a future involving a family of my own, and I still don’t. As I looked around for an opening through which to push my life forward, the gap that was available to me was roughly the size of a hefty chihuahua. Dogs are, for some of us, a perfect balm for purgatorial anxieties. If you have time and care to give, they love freely, they put you on a schedule, they direct your attention and affection and idle thoughts toward something outside yourself. The desire to turn outward and spend energy nurturing others is a mark of emotional maturity, but that nurturing needs a vessel.
People without kids adopt pets not only as a dry run for eventual children but for lots of other reasons, too, including as an outlet for caring impulses that have nothing to do with parenthood. They also lavish their dogs with privileges that, in America, have historically been reserved for other people: Dogs now sleep in the same bed as their humans at night; they have birthday parties; they go see their friends at day care.
But for the particular rung of the American socioeconomic ladder that has pursued dog ownership most fervently in recent years—young, urban professionals, especially white ones—dogs serve yet another purpose: They’re a class marker and a way of coping with deep status anxiety. Dogs broadcast stability—Midge is not nearly as expensive as a child or a single-family home, but she is an indicator that I have mastered enough elements of my own life to introduce some joyful chaos into it.
Yet while dogs can be an effective therapy for the stresses of modern life, especially as it grows lonelier and more precarious, their friendship isn’t always available to those who could use it most. For people clawing to maintain basic stability (instead of signaling that they’ve attained a middle-class version of it), the barriers to dog ownership are larger than simply having the disposable income to feed another mouth. A lot of subsidized and low-income housing refuses pets or limits the type and number that residents can have, and homeless shelters generally require people to abandon their pets to get a place to sleep. Companionship, whether with a pet or other people, is elemental to human dignity; in America, it’s easier to come by if you have money.
According to Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist and the author of the forthcoming book Our Oldest Companions: The Story of the First Dogs, humans and dogs have been living together for about 40,000 years, though for almost all that time, the relationship was primarily practical; we gave dogs food and heat from fire, and dogs helped us spot approaching danger and track prey.
As humans shared their hunting spoils, dogs had less need for their lupine ancestors’ brutality, and more need, evolutionarily speaking, to appeal to people. As a result, long before we started breeding them, dogs shrank, their ears flopped, their tails curled—they became cute. They also acquired eyebrow muscles that gave them a much larger range of expressions than wolves, allowing them to better communicate with humans.
In A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans, Laura Hobgood shows how, along the way, dogs became vital players in humans’ emotional lives. As smaller dogs suitable for in-home pest control (and companionship) emerge in prehistoric fossil records, their burial sites reflect a high level of care: Dogs weren’t just useful to humans; they were beloved. Still, the concept of a pet—a companion animal that plays no functional role in a household—is far more recent, dating back only about 3,000 years. The first pets tended to be tiny, manicured lapdogs, and were an extravagance of the wealthy; the ancient Pekingese breed, for example, was once legally reserved for members of the Chinese imperial court. For everybody else, the human-canine bond continued to be not only emotional but practical. (Many of the breeds now slotted into the working, sporting, hound, herding, and terrier groups at dog shows were in fact developed to perform specific tasks for agrarian families.)
Industrialization was the beginning of the end of that era for most dogs. Over time, as people left rural areas for cities, more of them began departing the home every day for work or school—and much of daily life suddenly took place where dogs weren’t allowed to go. But if dogs were with humans less, that didn’t mean that humans no longer needed their companionship—in some ways, we may have needed it more. “Having pets helps people physically and psychologically,” Shipman told me, rattling off research findings. Mental illness, incarceration, isolation, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism—virtually all modern trials can be eased, in measurable ways, by the companionship of a dog.
Seen this way, it makes perfect sense that so many isolated, stressed-out people brought dogs into their life during the pandemic. Dogs pull us out into the world, make us get some sun on our face, give us an opening to chat with our neighbors. After a year when serendipitous social interaction was hard to come by, it returned to my life in the form of Cowboy, a then-14-week-old puppy who moved into an apartment on my floor in February. While waiting for his vaccinations to be complete (same, buddy), Cowboy’s owners ran him up and down the empty hall a couple of times a day to work out some of his puppy energy. That’s how I met him, and after a few encounters, he would scratch at my door every day to say hi.
At some point soon, Cowboy’s dads will go back to in-person work, and so will I. Visions have danced in my head of loading Midge into a BabyBjörn and carrying her everywhere I go, like a real asshole. Some minority of pet owners may be able to do just that, as anxious employers try to cajole people back into the office and prevent them from jumping ship with promises of pet-friendly work spaces. But many people—even many dog lovers—will likely balk at these reverse-engineered solutions. Contemporary offices are barely hospitable to humans, let alone a new population of four-legged co-workers.
What if, instead of forcing dogs to fit our modern lives, we set about making modern life more hospitable to pets? Doing so would require us to acknowledge that our connection to other living things—and to the natural world at large—isn’t a luxury, but an essential element of what makes us human. Fittingly, virtually all of the changes that would make having a pet easier would make life more humane for people too: flexible working conditions, for example, and affordable housing, and more public green space. (That the list of dog-friendly circumstances is basically identical to the things that would make it easier for more Americans to have kids isn’t a coincidence. Dogs aren’t children, of course, but their popularity among those of childbearing age is indicative of the deep emotional commitments that people rush toward when given the chance.)
I often look down at Midge—as she weaves between my feet while I cook, or when she’s sprawled in a sunny spot, tongue hanging out—and marvel at the little animal that lives in my apartment. She knows what bedtime means, and she has somehow learned to tell whether I’m opening the fridge to get a drink or to get food, even before I touch anything. She doesn’t know how she got here, or who I am, beyond the fact that I care for her, and she takes care of me.
This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “Why Millennials Are So Obsessed With Dogs.”