"I Can't Put a Price on My Dog. They're All Priceless."

Questions about what a dog is worth produce many different, interesting answers.

Posted Jan 12, 2019

In response to four recent essays, I've had a good number of emails containing predominantly positive comments, thoughtful questions, and relevant and interesting stories. Some common themes include: We need to appreciate and respect each and every dog for the individual they are (there is no "the dog"); the life of each and every dog matters and each and every individual is valuable because they're an alive and sentient being; just when we think we know "all" there is about a breed, a mix, or an individual, there is much to learn; and the same or similar behavior or vocalization can mean different things depending on the context in which it's performed. (See "Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities," "Why Dogs Matter," "People Should Stop Saying, 'Don't Worry, My Dog's Just Fine'," and "Why Dogs Growl.") 

ID 59854853 © Oleg Dudko | Dreamstime
Dog with currency.
Source: ID 59854853 © Oleg Dudko | Dreamstime

Because many people seem to think that a dog's life matters because they're "worth something," in "Why Dogs Matter" I wrote, "People often ask, "What's a dog worth?" While most are thinking in monetary terms, my answer is that each and every dog's life is priceless because, as Arianne [a youngster I was quoting in this essay] aptly said, 'They exist—they are alive.' Dogs (and other nonhumans) aren't objects on which one should put a price tag, although many people do."

A number of people responded to "What's a dog worth?" as follows: "I spent $1500 for Codie, and that's what she's worth"; "I can't put a price on my dog or on my human friends, they're all priceless and precious"; "If you're worried about affording a dog, don't get one"; "I'll give you $200 for the dog, nothing more" [a negotiation in a divorce]; and "I couldn't live without Sherry, my life would be ruined" [from someone I'll call Mary]. 

These and other comments and queries got me thinking about how different people place a value on dogs [and other nonhuman animals] and how they're represented in legal systems around the world. Basically, dogs and other nonhumans are viewed as property, and while there seem to be an increasing number of dog abuse cases that result in misdemeanor convictions and occasionally felonies, after all is said and done, by and large, the nonhumans are treated as disposable property. Of course, dogs and other animals don't really care about ridiculous and antiquated timeworn laws. They only care about how they're treated. (See "The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise" for more discussion about the important work being done to achieve legal rights for individuals of other species.)

Further, usually when there is some sort of payout because a dog has been harmed or killed, their value is assessed based on the emotional cost to the human involved. Consider the response from Mary, in which she focused on her emotional life rather than her dog's. In the responses I received, some males also seemed to be more concerned about their own well-being rather than their dog's emotional state. 

I decided to follow up on the comments and queries I received via email and asked both familiar and unfamiliar people what their dog is worth to them. The results of this informal survey were very interesting. Six people referred to what they paid for the dog (4 from shelters and 2 from breeders), but three stressed that was what came to their mind first and that they didn't necessarily cash out their dogs' value based on money. Fourteen people didn't refer to monetary value, but rather spoke about their dog's worth in terms of how they're "great company," how they "got them outside," or the ways in which they've facilitated their being more social with friends and others. This makes sense, as dogs often are viewed as "social catalysts" or "social lubricants." (See "The Lube Effect: Dogs Foster Cooperation and Trust in Humans" and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.) 

I was pleased that 12 of these 14 people stressed that they didn't value their dog only for what they could do for them (their instrumental value), but also valued their dog because they clearly had feelings and they could sense when their dog was happy and content or sad or not feeling well. For some, the dogs' feelings often made them value them even more because the dog's well-being "really matters."

"I can't put a price on my dog or on my human friends. They're all priceless and precious."

One of the responses I received via email—"I can't put a price on my dog or on my human friends. They're all priceless."—sums up my answer to the question, "What's a dog worth?" Dogs aren't objects or commodities on whose head a price can be placed. Individuals of different breeds aren't worth more than other purebreds or mixes. All individuals are priceless and often it's all too human to try to put monetary value on dogs or other nonhumans. Let me stress that I can well understand why some people might value a dog's life in terms of money, because sharing homes and hearts with a dog can be expensive. For example, each and every dog at the very least needs good food, friends with whom to play and hang out, opportunities to exercise their bodies and their senses, a place to feel safe and secure, lots of love, and veterinary care that can be very costly. Some people think ahead and help to defray the cost of veterinary care by purchasing insurance, and I know a few people who truly benefited from doing this. 

Are you sure you want and can afford to share your life with a dog?

"It's essential that when people decide to offer a home—and, one hopes, their hearts—to another animal, they realize the enormity of their responsibility." 

How many dogs should a person be allowed to adopt and return? I know someone who’s done it eight times. Thank goodness, when she tried again, she was told no.”

Choosing to bring a companion animal home is a huge responsibility and it is essential to reflect on the life changes that are to follow, some or many of which will force some people out of their comfort zone. Thus, I was pleased to receive the response, "If you're worried about affording a dog, don't get one." It would be a good idea if shelters and breeders would help people understand some of the projected and possible costs in terms of time, energy and money when they choose to share their life with a dog (or other animal). I also think that a person should be asked to develop some literacy in dog behavior before they take a dog home. (See "Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?") 

The ethics of choosing to live with a companion animal

"Oh my, what did I get myself into when I adopted Roscoe?"

"I've tried to do the best I could, but I'm afraid I've failed and should have done my homework before bringing Jamie home."

“I decided to give Patricia up and let her have the opportunity for a better life. I just can’t do what I need to do and what she needs to do, and it breaks my heart.”

"I love Mervin, but I’m not sure I can give him what he wants and needs, although I’m his total slave from the time we get up until the time we go to sleep. Do you think pet keeping will end?”

"I knew it would be a great change in life, so I did my homework before I rescued Sharon."

These are but some of the comments I hear when I hang out a dog parks. They reflect some of what some people experience after choosing to live with a dog, but perhaps not thinking through the decision in enough detail. I talked with some of these people and with others who also were greatly challenged by choosing to live with a dog, and it was clear that this is not any indication of the sort of person they are. All were deeply saddened when they discovered, as someone else put it, "They just didn't have what it took to live with a dog." Of course, "good" people can make "bad" decisions, and thinking about what's involved before bringing a dog home and perhaps also thinking about the question, "What's a dog worth?" will result in making better choices. (For more, see essays by Dr. Jessica Pierce, and Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets.)

The bottom line is easy to summarize: If you're planning to share your home and heart with a companion animal, take the time to learn about them and to think through what you're getting yourself into. Shelters and breeders should, and many do, help people learn about the individual who is to become their housemate and encourage them to think deeply about life changes that surely will follow when they make an addition to the home. I can't find any formal data on this topic, however, so I'm not sure anyone really knows with any accuracy the percentage of shelters or breeders that actually educate humans who come to them to find a companion animal and stress that not all individuals of the same breed or mix will behave the same or have the same personality. (See "Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities.") It is irresponsible for them to do otherwise, despite the short-term inconvenience or disappointment it might cause some humans who want to share their home with another animal. 

We need to do all we can to give our companions the very best lives possible because, while it may surprise many people, a large number of companion animals don't get what they want and need from their humans—not only near the end of their lives, but also throughout their cohabitation with humans. We are the lifelines for other animals, and they, each and every individual, totally depend on us for our goodwill and concern for their well-being for as long as we are responsible for them. When they're doing well it's also good for us, and it's a win-win for all. However, even if we have to leave our comfort zone to give them the respect and dignity they deserve as living beings, we are obliged to do so from the moment we become their caregiver.

If you can't or don't want to do the work that begins even before a dog or another animal becomes your roommate, seriously consider that it's best not to bring them home. 

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