MIT’s Mini Cheetah quadruped robot isn’t the only new working dog on the market. The emerging work-to-eat lifestyle for dog owners banks on the idea that, deep down, every dog is a working dog. Accordingly, the lifestyle calls for a new generation of interactive dog feeders.
Encouraging owners to “banish the bowl,” feeders like the Kong Wobbler release dog food over time, often requiring problem-solving. The basic tenet of work-to-eat is that placing a full food bowl at the dog’s feet twice a day wastes an excellent opportunity: to make the dog work for its meal, as all dogs originally had to do when they hunted alongside humans. Proponents claim that dogs who do not have to work for food are bored and potentially destructive. Descriptions of feeders focus on how the dog will be challenged and stimulated, both mentally and physically, by the awkwardly shaped, mysterious plastic thing from which it must extract its meal, and occasionally describe the dog as “earning” its dinner. Like many other new dog toys on the market, which have stopped resembling children’s toys and cuddly stuffed animals, interactive feeders have distinctly minimalistic/futuristic design and are clearly for adults.
“The Dog Whisperer” successfully popularized the idea that all dogs—not just working breeds or dogs that actually work in police, military, or medical service—want first and foremost to work for the rewards of food and human affection. Banking on this idea, much of the advertising around pet products has come to rely either on a fantasy of a bygone golden age before domestication, or of a lost time when dogs and humans worked side-by-side in harmony. But the challenges that the work-to-eat lifestyle poses before today’s pet dogs have little in common with the meaningful work that created the idea of the dog as a worker in the first place.
Dogs were indeed workers—who might have been said to “earn” something—because they had real jobs, tasks that accomplished much more than just exercising their minds and muscles. These jobs were the keys to dogs becoming “man’s best friend” over millennia. The dramatic differences among dog breeds that exist today originally resulted directly from human communities needing different things from the dogs who lived alongside them in particular regions, climates, and economic conditions. The specific jobs of dogs were essential to community infrastructure, as in sled pulling, livestock herding, and hunting. To this day, dogs are irreplaceable experts when it comes to search and rescue, since no technology can compete with a dog’s sense of smell. The same goes for a service dog’s ability to detect when someone is about to have a seizure, when their blood sugar is dangerously high, and for their alleged ability to detect cancer.
The commodification of dogs in the practice of breeding and its place in the history of agribusiness is hardly innocent, as Donna Haraway has deftly pointed out in When Species Meet. But its history shows, at the very least, that the particular jobs – not just the act of work itself – mattered. This includes the invisible labor of females doing the reproductive work, as well as the affective labor of lap dogs and emotional support dogs.
The work-to-eat concept has little connection with the real history of the working dog, or the dog as worker, who had a specific, important job to do. Instead, today’s pet owners are encouraged to offer their dogs maximum challenge and stimulation for its own sake, as if they were helping their pet become the best dog it could be. But what is at stake in this idea – sometimes also called “enrichment” – and whom does it benefit? A dog doesn’t earn food by eating it from a Kong feeder any more than a human earns food by working out at the gym or wearing a FitBit. As with other lifestyles evoking a happier, healthier, more natural past, like the paleo diet, barefoot running, or earthing, work-to-eat relies on broad, often superficial claims about animal instincts and reductive versions of the complicated histories of domestication.
But the concept behind this lifestyle is driven at least as much by the history of human work culture as by what we know about canine nature. The phrase “work to eat” has no original connection to dogs. It first appears in the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians 3:10, where the aphorism “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” is at the heart of a moral condemnation of idleness, long considered a sin. Attributed to Paul the Apostle, the aphorism was cited in speeches by John Smith to the colony at Jamestown, VA in the 1600s, and then by Lenin during the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s, and eventually in the Soviet constitution of 1936.
This ancient ethic is receiving a new lease on life today, with the shift from humans to dogs, but also, and perhaps most importantly, with its emphasis on gear. The work-to-eat lifestyle is more reminiscent of a Silicon Valley startup buying standing desks or balance ball chairs for its employees in order to enhance productivity. It is by no means obvious that pulling kibble out of a puzzle feeder makes for a better, happier, more enriched dog life – unless we accept that today’s “innovative” technologies and gear designs harness and cultivate strengths and talents that would otherwise remain forever hidden, like perfect posture. We must further accept that the best world is one in which those hidden talents are put to use. The goal in such a world is no longer just work, but the optimizing of work, and of life itself. And the sin in question is no longer sloth, but allowing abilities to remain dormant when there are technologies available that would effectively put them “to work.”
This distinctly advanced-capitalist way of thinking about work – in which everything is in its service – leads to exhaustion. And indeed, from far enough away, work-to-eat appears as a study in ongoing, mutual exhaustion between dogs and humans. The most positive user reviews of interactive feeders mention that the dogs are exhausted after using the product, an unquestioned positive in a world of dog ownership where humans are short on time and energy to devote to their dogs because of – you guessed it! – work. Feeding dogs from bowls has come under attack only recently, in the context of the other pressures of modern life, in which dog owners must constantly look for new ways to tire out their dogs, for whom they never have quite enough time. As right as Haraway is to invoke Marx and Foucault in order to think about dog subjectivity and history, it’s no longer just labor and biocapitalism that shape dog life. There are also patterns of slow death that apply directly to the shapes contemporary dog life is taking.
Unsurprisingly, the company Varram has introduced a smart interactive feeder/fitness machine that promises to play with the dog in the owner’s absence and dispense treats. The company claims that incorporating such a robot into the human’s busy lifestyle helps counteract their dog’s lethargy and depression. But the appearance of such a product on the scene says much less about the past of dogs than it does about the future of humans.
Work-to-eat appears to be about dogs, but is actually another trend anchored in narratives about a happier, healthier, and more natural human past, simultaneously and surreptitiously designed to increase productivity and enhance performance in service of economic growth. It claims to banish the bowl because it’s fundamentally “unnatural” for dogs, but the real reason is complicated by projections and fantasies about human nature and optimized life. If indeed we want more meaningful relationships with our happier, healthier dogs, it is this cycle that must be interrogated, before humans take on the dog bowl itself.