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Carter: Dogs aren't parasites, but our relationships with them are fascinating

Chris Reed, an opinion writer with The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, may have found a way to simultaneously break and unite the internet with his latest piece. Conservative or liberal, black or white, male or female, Yankees or Red Sox, Coke or Pepsi, DC or Marvel, Roman Reigns or anyone but him — the backlash seemed almost universal to Reed’s article “Let's be honest, America: Dogs are parasites, not man's best friend.”

There are few things that Americans value more than their pets, so if you’re going to talk trash about them, you’d better be prepared to hear about it. The backlash was so strong that if you do a Google news search for “Dogs are parasites,” you’ll find it buried among about a dozen other articles — including a follow-up by The Union-Tribune — about the internet’s reaction.

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I came across the article during my morning routine of browsing Twitter while cramming a bowl of Special K cinnamon before heading to work. The link included a photograph of a beagle puppy with a sad look that reminded me of my own dog, Buddy, a hound dog who looks like an overgrown beagle but is also the most silent hound dog you’ll ever meet. In the almost 12 years since we adopted him from a rescue, he’s only barked three or four times.

Once you get beyond the incendiary headline, Reed’s article is a fascinating take. While he insinuates in his tagline he is the owner of several dogs himself, he rails a bit on the amount of money we spend on pets — more than $68.5 billion (yes, with a “B”) in 2017. That includes ridiculous things like doggy spa treatments, gourmet meals and cosmetic surgery.

Petplan, an insurance company for animals, told CBS News that U.S. dog owners spent approximately $62 million in 2011 on what humans would consider plastic surgery treatments. Some of those may have health benefits, others are purely cosmetic.

Regarding those gourmet meals, I don’t know about you, but my dog isn’t too picky. (Warning: If you’re reading this while eating breakfast, stop reading until your stomach settles.) I’ve seen Buddy eat just about anything, including digging through the trash to find days-old meat scraps and once trying to eat his own vomit before I stopped him. Although, that combined with his outright rejection of mushrooms is my gold standard argument to my wife any time she tries to make the case to order them on our pizza.

Reed’s article points to the work of scientific researcher Stephen Budiansky, who wrote a book called “The Truth About Dogs,” where he surmises that primitive dogs wisely recognized they could manipulate humans to feed them and take care of them rather than fighting with other animals for food in the wild. Maybe there is something to that bumper sticker that states, “My dog is smarter than your honor student.”

Part of the reason humans do this is because of a psychological phenomenon known as anthropomorphism, which is our innate tendency to assign human traits or emotions to non-human beings, like animals, or even inanimate objects. We’ve been using animals with human characteristics for as long as storytelling has been a thing, from religious texts and fairy tales to Mickey Mouse and modern-day feature films like “Zootopia.”

One reason we might associate dogs with humans more closely than any other animal: eyebrows. Now, dogs don’t actually have eyebrows, but they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes that they can manipulate similar to the way humans use their eyebrows to express emotion. Just look at the emojis in your smartphone and note how many rely on eyebrowed smileys to reflect a certain feeling.

There is some research into the various facial expressions of dogs, which seem to indicate they are a form of communication with humans. Whether this is a learned behavior through years of domestication to manipulate us or is genuine emotion is yet to be determined.

Of note, many breeds of dogs have roughly 100 different facial expressions, whereas breeds like pit bulls and bulldogs only have about 10. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that fact fascinating when considering these two breeds are often stereotyped by humans as “aggressive” and “ugly,” respectively, and wonder if the lack of certain facial expressions that we can attribute to human emotions contribute to those feelings.

But whether dogs are just playing us to get food and attention — the basic premise for Reed’s article referring to them as parasites — the fact is most pet owners don’t care. Whether the unconditional love we get from our pets is real or imagined, there is much research on the very real benefits of having a pet in the family. People with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, heart rate and heart disease risk, and newer research shows pets have a positive effect on our mental health as well.

A parasite is defined, scientifically, as “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host's expense,” or someone “who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.” While it’s clear domesticated dogs rely on their host’s expense based solely on the dollar figures spent on them, to say we get nothing in return is ludicrous.

A parasite? No way. But is man also a dog’s best friend? Probably.

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