Who’s A Good Dog? with Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

Bioethicist Dr. Jessica Pierce joins us to discuss her newest book, “Who’s A Good Dog?” Our conversation addresses US dog ownership and pet care marketing, the trend of humanizing pets, and the ethical considerations it raises. Dr. Pierce also introduces us to three ‘C’s that she believes are essential for a fulfilling human-dog relationship: Collaboration, Curiosity, and Compassion. A must-listen episode for all dog owners and anyone responsible for pet product marketing.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS

Jessica Pierce: We often don’t recognize that dogs have a different sensory experience of the world in our keeping and care of them. Walking in the paws of a dog is a very different experience from walking in the feet of a human.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: A strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Pet ownership in the US has seen a significant rise over the past three decades. Today, around two-thirds of American households own a pet – that’s 87 million homes. Dogs are the most popular, with 65 million households owning at least one. Overall, pet owners spent $137 billion on their fur babies in 2022, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Bigeye’s 2023 National Pet Owners Study revealed that 97 percent of owners consider their pets to be members of the family. Gen Z and Millennial owners are more open to purchasing premium and health-conscious products for their pets. For those responsible for marketing pet-focused products, services, or retail, understanding the social dimensions of our modern relationships with domestic animals is essential. A new book, Who’s A Good Dog? explores the complexities of living with dogs and offers insights into how humans can cultivate a shared life of joy and respect with them. The book’s author is Dr. Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist whose research and writing focus on human-animal relationships. Her work covers a range of topics, from hospice and palliative medicine for aging and ill animals to the considerations of animal welfare science. Dr. Pierce is affiliated with the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. To discuss some of the themes and important ideas in her newest book, Dr. Pierce is joining us today from Lyons, Colorado. Jessica, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Jessica Pierce: Thank you, Adrian. Thanks for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Now, as I mentioned in the introduction, you are a bioethicist. Could you explain what that entails and what led you to focus on the relationship between humans and animals?

Jessica Pierce: Sure. So bioethics is, it’s a multidisciplinary field that deals with moral and philosophical implications of, the biomedical sciences and particularly advancements in biological sciences and medicine, as well as ethical dilemmas that arise in healthcare and the life sciences. And it seeks to address questions that are related to human and animal life and how to value human and animal life, and how to appropriately and ethically apply new biological knowledge. Some bioethicists come from a philosophy background, some from theology, some from law, some from medicine, sociology, anthropology, and so on. My own disciplinary home is theology, so my Ph.D. is in religion, and I’ve been especially interested throughout my career in environmental and animal ethics and how religious and secular traditions shape human values toward and relationships with animals and ecosystems. 

Adrian Tennant: Well, your new book focuses on dogs’ relationships with humans. What inspired you to write Who’s A Good Dog?

Jessica Pierce: I’ve been researching and writing about dogs for a long time, and my sense is that dogs who are kept as companion animals, which incidentally is only about 20 percent of the billion or so dogs on the planet, live as pets. My sense is that group of dogs are, they’re struggling, and they don’t get a lot of attention from ethicists because people think, “Oh, they’re pets. you know, everybody dotes on their pets. And pets are well cared for, and there are really no ethical problems.” And, you know, there actually are a lot of interesting ethical problems in this realm, ethical issues. And the most popular choice among all those animals is the dogs. So there are millions and millions of dogs, living in human homes who need our attention. And we do love our dogs, and we love them abundantly, but I don’t think love is enough. My sense from looking at the veterinary literature and just from talking to trainers, behaviorists, and pet owners is that a lot of dogs are having behavioral trouble. One of the statistics that really jumps out at me is that about 80% of dog owners report that their dog has behavioral problems. That’s a lot. And another thing that I’m seeing in the veterinary literature is that more and more dogs are suffering from severe chronic anxiety. So there’s something about the home environment that’s challenging for dogs right now, and you know, I love dogs, and I want dogs to be as happy and healthy as possible. So I wrote the book to help think through why dogs might be struggling, and how we can help them do better. 

Adrian Tennant: In the book, you introduce us to your dog, Bella, who has some unique behaviors that could also be considered challenging. How has Bella influenced your perspective on what it means to be a good dog?

Jessica Pierce: So Bella, as the title of my book suggests, Bella has really challenged me to think differently about the idea of what a good dog is and what a bad dog is. I’ve lived with Bella for about 11 years now. And you know, for the first number of years that I lived with her, I was really stuck on the idea that she had behavioral problems that I needed to fix. if she went to a behaviorist, she would be labeled reactive, and training books would label her a bad dog, and they would label me a bad dog owner because I haven’t fixed my dog. You know, Bella does not like to be touched by people she doesn’t know. And, she even sets pretty hard limits on what I can ask of her. So she just doesn’t match the description of a good dog that you see as this kind of reigning cultural narrative. So, you know, a dog who’s friendly to everybody who’s compliant with all of their owner’s commands. But when it came down to it and over time, I realized that Bella isn’t – she is not a problem who needs to be fixed;  she is who she is, and I need to love her for who she is. And maybe the problem isn’t that she’s a bad dog, but that my preconceived image of what makes a dog a good dog was inaccurate. So broadening out to dogs in general, and having spent a lot of time in the literature on dog behavior and cognition, you know, I’ve really come to think that what we expect of dogs behaviorally is what needs to change. Our expectations are off-the-charts unrealistic. And, training a dog is basically the process of taking the dog out of the dog, as it were. I call it de-dogging in my book. teaching a dog not to bark, not to sniff other dogs’ butts, not to hump things, not to roll in stuff, not to beg, not to seek attention. All of these things are perfectly natural dog behaviors that they’re highly motivated to perform. And you know, in the veterinary literature, I think it’s really interesting that a behavior problem is defined technically as a behavior that the human owner doesn’t like. So it’s a human-centered definition of a behavioral problem. And what I’d like to do, what I’ve tried to do in my book, is shift that to a dog-centered definition. And there’s no doubt that dogs are struggling, and that manifests as behaviors that are challenging for dog guardians. But all dogs are good dogs; they’re just struggling to adapt to environments that are hard for them. 

Adrian Tennant: Dogs possess a sense of smell many times more sensitive than humans. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2022 revealed the senses of smell and vision are closely connected in the brains of dogs, something not yet found in any other species. Jessica, what are some of the most common challenges that dogs face living with us in environments we’ve created for humans?

Jessica Pierce: So as the study suggests, and it’s a fascinating study, olfaction or the sense of smell plays a role for dogs that’s really different from the role that it plays for humans. For dogs, as one of the headlines about this research put it, dogs see the world through their noses. Walking in the paws of a dog is a very different experience from walking in the feet of a human. And we often don’t recognize that dogs have a different sensory experience of the world, in our keeping and care of them. And one of the main ways that plays out is that we don’t let dogs adequately use their really impressive noses. And you know, I’m sure that you have seen this, more than once. I see it all the time. Somebody walking with a dog on a leash, and they’re pulling the dog along, and you can see them saying to their dog, “Come on, there’s nothing there.” And the dog is just saying, “Yes, there is! Somebody just peed here a little while ago, and it’s really interesting.” There’s all kinds of fascinating olfactory information left behind in this, this pee-spot, and, you know, it’s like a social media post or pee-mail! We don’t give dogs enough chance to use their sense of smell. And at the same time, our human environments can be full of sensory stimuli that are pretty frightening and overwhelming to dogs. And one of the ways that homes, I think are pretty hard on dogs is the level of noise and the kind of noise that dogs are exposed to. Dogs have ears that are more sensitive than ours, and they hear a broader range of frequencies. So some of the ultrasonic sounds in our homes we don’t even hear, but our dogs are perfectly aware of them. And it’s kind of like this, over-stimulation, and there’s been some really interesting research, just to give a specific example, on the effects of traffic noise on dogs and how dogs who live near football stadiums have much higher levels of anxiety on game days because of the increased noise. 

Adrian Tennant: In Who’s A Good Dog? you mention Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a collection of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most influential Buddhist teachers of the twentieth century and widely considered the founding father of Zen Buddhism in America. How can cultivating a beginner’s mind help us better understand and relate to our canine companions?

Jessica Pierce: So one of the things that I noticed about myself, and I think it’s true for a lot of people who live with dogs, is that we’re awash in human expertise about dogs. We’re endlessly being advised by trainers, by behaviorists, by nutritionists, by veterinarians, and a whole range of other canine professionals, including pet product companies, about what dogs need. And, you know, a lot of the information is really instructive. It’s good information, and it’s important to absorb it. On the other hand, I think there’s a danger in passing over to other people, to the so-called experts, the responsibility for being observant ourselves, of our dog, and being insightful about what’s going on for our dog and being compassionate toward our dog. And I think [a] beginner’s mind is the opposite of [an] expert’s mind. The beginner’s mind is empty, it’s free of the habits of the expert. It’s ready to accept, it’s ready to doubt, to question, and it’s open to all possible interpretations. And I think in relation to our dogs, there are two benefits to at least some of the time trying to inhabit a beginner’s mind. One is that I think it can help loosen some of the preconceptions we have about who dogs are, and especially, as I was talking about in the introduction, what makes a dog a good dog. So letting go of some of the expectations that have been handed over to us by other people. And then, secondly, I think a beginner’s mind can help us be with our dogs from moment to moment in a more mindful and compassionate way. And really, when you think about it, there are no true dog experts except for dogs themselves. So let’s ask dogs what they’re thinking, what they need. 

Adrian Tennant: The concept of “humanizing” pets has been a driving force in the pet industry since the 1860s, when James Spratt used shelf-stable crackers eaten by sailors at the time, known as hardtack, to create the first commercial pet biscuit. Humanization continues to fuel the industry’s growth today, with pet foods featuring human-grade ingredients, CBD supplements, and even La-Z Boy dog beds. As we learned from Bigeye’s national study earlier this year, 97 percent of owners view their pets as members of the family. Younger owners, in particular, the Millenial generation, who represent the largest cohort of pet owners, are concerned with sustainability-related issues and corporate transparency. Jessica, do you think companies who produce products for dogs have a responsibility to be transparent about their products’ sourcing and sustainability standards?

Jessica Pierce: Yeah, so I’d say that all manufacturers of all products should be transparent about sourcing and sustainability so that consumers can make purchasing decisions that align with their values. I don’t think that pet companies have a special responsibility in this regard. but I would say that companies selling pet products do have a special responsibility to be transparent about the effects of their products on animals, on the animals that they’re targeted for. If a product, for example, is designed to inflict harm on an animal, and I’m thinking here of products that impose what behaviorists would call an aversive experience, like a shock, and that are used in punishment-based training scenarios, And thinking here of ultrasonic bark deterrence. I don’t think that these should be marketed as safe and humane, which they often are. I think that is a non-transparent practice. I would love to see more alignment between the valuing of pets and the valuing of other animals. So more attention to cruelty-free sourcing and non-animal ingredients, and the example that comes to mind here is BarkBox, which I love, I love the concept of it, and I really, really want to get BarkBox for Bella, but they don’t have, a cruelty-free option at this point. So, it would be great to see more of that.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club brings you interviews with authors who are shaping the future of marketing. Our featured book for September is From Marginal to Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come from the Fringes – and How to Get There First. This groundbreaking book by Helen Edwards explores the often untapped potential of fringe consumer behaviors and shows how they can be a renewable source of innovation for brands. The book provides a practical framework for identifying non-obvious opportunities and applying qualitative and quantitative research-backed insights for sustainable brand growth. As an IN CLEAR FOCUS listener, you can save 25% on a print or electronic version of this month’s featured book using the exclusive promo code BIGEYE25. This code is valid for all Kogan Page titles, including pre-orders, and their free paperback and e-book bundle offer. Shipping is always free to the US and UK when you order directly from Kogan Page, and it supports the authors as well. So, to order your copy of From Marginal to Mainstream, go to KoganPage.com.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with bioethicist, Dr. Jessica Pierce, the author of a new book, Who’s A Good Dog? And how to be a Better Human. Many pet products are marked with terms like “natural,” “organic,” or, as you’ve mentioned, “humane.” How can dog guardians navigate these claims to make ethical choices?

Jessica Pierce: Oh, it’s really hard. I think, you know, as in the human realm, Consumers of pet products need to do a lot of research and approach shopping, armed with as much good information as they can. And I don’t think there’s any such thing as having full information because it’s just, there’s too much information to try to gather. And I think, you know, a lot of people experience that, in trying to choose what kind Of food to feed their dog and where to buy it. I think the labels like natural, organic, and humane don’t really mean very much and can be a source of confusion. I know that they sell products too, but I think they are often misleading, particularly humane. I think it’s useful for consumers, and I try to do this. It’s hard, but I think it’s useful to bear in mind the emotional power of advertising when it comes to our animals, who we love, and to recognize which narratives draw us in particularly, and why, for example, are we drawn especially to dog foods that are marketed as feeding “the inner wolf” in our dog. And why, what is it that makes those attractive to us?

Adrian Tennant: Well, I’m curious to learn more about what you think about the ways that dogs are portrayed in advertising. Are the mistakes that you see marketers making consistently?

Jessica Pierce: Yeah, I think one that I just alluded to is that dogs are often portrayed as, or described as little wolves. So you see advertising tags like, “Feed your dog like the wolf he is,” or something like that. But dogs are not wolves. they have been evolving in connection with humans for 20,000 years, give or take, and have a much different gut microbiome. They have a different feeding ecology. they have different nutritional needs. so I think that’s not beneficial to dogs. It also suggests that dogs are behaviorally like wolves, and they’re not. Another one that really bothers me is dogs being hugged by children. I know that tugs at our heartstrings to see dogs and children together, but I think it can create, an aura of safety about dogs that might be, Not the best for children and parents because a lot of dogs do not appreciate being hugged and are nervous around children and there are so many bite incidents that could be avoided. so I, I think that’s one that bothers me. sometimes I see ads where I think we’re supposed to think that they’re happy. but behaviorally, they’re actually showing signs of stress. There is one ad in particular that I’m thinking of, and every single dog in the advertising campaign for this company is panting, which is not actually necessarily a sign of a happy dog. It may be a sign of a stressed dog. I could go on and on in this category, but the final one I’ll mention is the glamorization of brachycephalic dogs like pugs and boxers. And they are cute, but they have so many health problems that I really think, we should be cautious in using them as the models of, you know, the happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs who are selling whatever product it is. 

Adrian Tennant: Are there aspects of dogs’ lived experiences that you think could be depicted more effectively? 

Jessica Pierce: So yeah, I think depicting dogs, doing dog things! So depicting them as dogs, engaging in species natural behaviors like sniffing, and maybe it’s a little too risque, but even sniffing each other’s butts, which is a really important place to gather information. Rolling in the mud, cautiously checking each other out before engaging in a play session. just as dogs themselves, not as humanized, but as their own beings. 

Adrian Tennant: In Who’s A Good Dog? You also explore a concept inspired by Emily Dickinson of “Dwelling in possibility.” Jessica, I know this may have some sad memories attached to it, but how does this apply to our relationships with dogs?

Jessica Pierce: To give some context, my mother was a great fan of Emily Dickinson and often Used lines from Dickinson’s poems, and she said once to me, something about dwelling in possibility. And it was near the end of her life, and she was bedbound, she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was really close to the end of her life. had lost the use of her legs and was gradually losing the use of her arms as well. So she was under increasing physical constraints, but she described herself as dwelling in possibility. And that was, it was really touching to me that She focused on possibility rather than constraints, and I think in relation to dogs. I mean, the basic idea is that there are certain constraints that we and our dogs live under. Like the structural constraints of modern pet keeping that make it really hard for us to live well together. you know, for dogs, I think some examples are The lack of freedom to move about on their own, to roam around, or to reproduce on their own. And, you know, we have our own limitations in terms of our patients and our financial and emotional resources and so on. But within these constraints, the possibilities for mutually enriching relationships are endless. 

Adrian Tennant: How can keeping an enrichment journal aid in fostering a more mindful relationship with our dogs?

Jessica Pierce: There’s been a lot of talk in end-of-life care circles about keeping a quality-of-life journal for dogs. And it’s really focused on the things that are causing dogs pain, or are constraining things that their activities of daily living. and I think that’s a wonderful thing to do, a very important thing to do. But I also think that we can and should pay daily attention to, what makes our dog happy. And, you know, I think the contours of our dog’s life are determined almost completely by the choices that we make for them. So we’re in charge of when they eat, what they eat, where they go to the bathroom, who they get to be friends with, where they sleep, when and if they go out into the world. And I think because of that, one of our primary responsibilities as their caregivers is to make sure that they have an abundance of rich and interesting experiences to make sure that they experience joy. I. Whether that’s from going on a micro adventure to the lake or getting a new puzzle toy or playing with a new friend. And I think keeping a journal of what we’ve done to give our dogs joy is, well, it’s not, it’s fun for one thing because we’re reminded of their happiness and hopefully our shared happiness. And it reminds us that providing joy is something that we can and should do often, and we can keep track of what our dog likes the most so we can do more of that. I. 

Adrian Tennant: For all dog guardians listening, could you share some practical advice on how to improve our relationships with our dogs based on the three C’s you mention?

Jessica Pierce: Yeah, so in the book, I call these three Cs the Rules of Engagement for sharing a rich and mutually fulfilling life with a dog. The first rule, and I think the one that is most often overlooked is that each human-dog relationship is a delicate work of collaboration. Our dogs are working really hard to adapt themselves to our way of life, and we can work equally hard to adapt ourselves to theirs. We can meet them halfway. I think an attitude of curiosity helps foster collaborations. So being curious about who our dog really is. what is it like to walk in her paws and. Collaboration and curiosity can help us care for our dogs well and can generate compassion for animals and for people alike. 

Adrian Tennant: In Bigeye’s National Pet Owners Study results, approaching nine-in-ten owners say they understand what their pets are trying to communicate to them – 87 percent – and two-thirds of owners believe their pets understand most or everything said to them – 66 percent. Jessica, how do you interpret these data points?

Jessica Pierce: Overall, I take them as really encouraging numbers though I think they’re a little bit rose colored. What it tells me is that people value clear communication with their pets and are at least trying to understand what animals are trying to communicate. I suspect that the actual numbers are probably reversed and that animals are paying really close attention to what we are communicating. And it’s not just what we say, not just our words, but even more importantly, our body language, our facial expressions, our gestures, and so forth. And we are doing pretty well listening to our animals, but we could probably be doing better by trying to get more educated about dog behavior and cat behavior – the same goes for cats – and just, actually, trying to understand what their facial expressions, postures, tail position, gaze, et cetera, actually mean, and not just what we want them to mean.

Adrian Tennant: What advice would you give to marketers and advertisers in the pet industry to promote products that better align with ethical and mindful pet guardianship?

Jessica Pierce: I would encourage the first question about a product to be this: “Will this improve the quality of life for dogs?” And not dog owners, I think they come second. “Will it improve the quality of life for dogs?” And another, maybe even more important question should be, “Can this product potentially cause harm and in what ways? And what can we do to make sure that dogs remain safe if this product is on the market?” And I would say don’t assume that people know very much or anything about dog behavior or about the emotional experiences of dogs, and avoid supporting what you might call convenience practices. Which I would define as dog-keeping practices that squeeze dogs into human lifestyles and homes, sometimes at significant cost to dogs. And two examples that come to mind. I’ve mentioned one of them – bark deterrents I think are a convenience for humans, but they offer no benefit to dogs, and in fact, they harm dogs, and if I must be honest, I’d say they shouldn’t be on the market at all. A second example is crates, and it’s a tool that’s often used by people as a convenience practice. So a crate is often used to keep a dog confined in lieu of appropriate training or in lieu of spending enough quality time with a dog. On the other hand, crates are extremely useful, and it benefits every dog to learn to be comfortable in a crate. And I think everybody should have a crate. And when there’s a natural disaster, Crates are often a lifesaving intervention for dogs. And if a dog or cat is already comfortable in a crate, it’ll make a very stressful situation slightly less awful than it might be if they weren’t comfortable. And also, of course, veterinary emergencies, and also for dogs in a muzzle, which I think, you know, people have really sort of scary opinions about muzzles, and they’re a really useful tool in a very limited set of circumstances. And I would love to see more education with products about appropriate use and ethical use. pet product manufacturers have a huge amount of influence, and often they’re one of the only sources of information that a dog guardian will encounter. So providing behaviorally accurate, appropriate information would really, really benefit dogs.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners are interested in Who’s A Good Dog?, any of your previous books, or your articles in Psychology Today, what’s the best way to learn more?

Jessica Pierce: So my website is a good hub for information. It’s just www.JessicaPierce.net My Psychology Today blog is really easy to find – it’s called All Dogs Go To Heaven if you just search “all dogs go to heaven” and “psychology today,” it’ll bring it up. And there are a whole bunch of different blogs on a zillion different topics.

Adrian Tennant: Jessica, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Jessica Pierce: You are most welcome. It was nice to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, bioethicist Dr. Jessica Pierce, the author of Who’s A Good Dog? As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Bigeyeagency.com. Just select ‘podcast’ from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

To learn more about Bigeye’s pet product marketing solutions, check out examples of our work and client case studies at Bigeyepets.com 

And More