Mark Cushing: Lobbying for Our Furry Friends

Best friend dogs admiring the view

Some people say work is for the dogs. Others work on behalf of the dogs, lobbying the government and industry in favor of our furry pals. While the pet and animal lobby may not get a huge amount of attention, the fact is that the world has become much more friendly to pets and animals over the last decade or two. Much of that positive change is a result of the work of Mark Cushing. A lawyer by training, Cushing is the founder and CEO of the Animal Policy Group, which advocates for animals in a number of ways across the regulatory, political, and strategic realms. The Animal Policy Group (APG) serves clients ranging from large veterinary practices to pharmaceutical companies, pet nutrition companies, and pet retailers. APG also works with veterinary colleges both to promote and enhance existing programs and to create new avenues for veterinary education.

Mark Cushing from Pet Policy Group
Pet Policy Group founder Mark Cushing / Photo by Tony Taffe

Evidence of our cultural evolution around animals over the last twenty or so years is everywhere. Dogs, especially, have become front-and-center in so many people’s lives that the landscape of entire industries has shifted. If you tried to bring a dog into a hospital twenty years ago, you would have been asked to leave. Today, hospitals and other medical facilities commonly use therapy dogs to help patients recover emotionally from trying circumstances or to relax them before major procedures. Hotels have gone from eschewing the presence of dogs to welcoming them with open arms. Some hotel chains, such as Kimpton Hotels, have become so accepting of dogs that there are special floors reserved for the few people who don’t want dogs around. Clearly, Cushing’s work has paid off in spades. Let’s learn more about why he believes that lobbying for companion animals benefits society as a whole. 

Cute dog sitting at kitchen table head on table
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Companion Animals: Driving the Animal Revolution

Historically, animals have been viewed more as labor or resources than as companions. Only the truly powerful or wealthy could have animals just for the sake of companionship; most people’s animals performed some sort of function. Dogs used to serve specific purposes: they were hunters, herders, or protectors. And while there certainly are working dogs in our current era, there are many more dogs whose function is less obvious. Rather than sniffing out bombs, finding lost children, or protecting a home, most modern dogs exist only to provide companionship to human beings. Animals such as cats have a similar history. Before we took photos of them basking in the sun for our Instagram feeds, cats existed to keep vermin away from our food. They were crew members on ships and welcome sentinels in granaries, hunting rats and mice that could spoil valuable food. Your housecat may occasionally kill a bug or a rodent, but most cats today couldn’t be said to be “working” or performing a specific function.

Today, in the United States alone, there are somewhere around 200 million cats and 100 million dogs that exist solely to provide companionship to their human friends. Not everyone likes the trend of companion animals; the Pope, for example, expressed worry that dogs are replacing kids in modern families. Of course, dogs are not children – Cushing points out that they have no teenage phase, which will be food for thought for anybody who has a teenager. Regardless, dogs fill a unique niche in our world. “Dogs are not the new children, but they have emerged and stepped into this role as a species that is very different from humans, but they love to engage with humans,” Cushing explains. “We get an oxytocin spike when we interact with our pets, which makes us happy, and your cortisol level – which makes you tense and anxious – drops.” This relationship is a two-way street: dogs also experience a spike in oxytocin and a drop in cortisol when they interact with their people.

Oxytocin and Cortisol: What Are They?

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus. Scientists believe that Oxytocin is responsible for pro-social and bonding behaviors, which has led them to nickname it the “tend and befriend” hormone. In animal studies, higher levels of oxytocin have been associated with improved maternal behaviors, and lower levels of oxytocin have been associated with less interest in social behavior and child-rearing. Dogs and humans both get a boost in oxytocin when they interact with each other, which is why people and their dogs have such a strong bond!

Cortisol

Cortisol is a less fun hormone than oxytocin. Cortisol is controlled by a system known as the “hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis,” or the HPA axis, which releases cortisol in times of stress. Of course, stress is a valuable physiological response, and cortisol helps mediate important changes that the body uses to respond to stress. However, too much cortisol, or prolonged high levels of cortisol in your body, can lead to unpleasant effects. When we interact with dogs, our cortisol levels go down, and we feel less stressed!

Dogs: All-Purpose Friends

Human beings are inherently social animals. While many of us have wonderful social support systems, including spouses, children, friends, and colleagues, even the healthiest interpersonal relationship doesn’t quite approach the level of true, loving companionship that a dog can provide.

This might sound silly: after all, a dog is not a human being and cannot interact with you in the same way. But that is what makes them such good companions. Humans have ulterior motives and independent incentives. Your kids might suck up to you to get privileges or line up for inheritance; your colleagues might just be networking or setting you up to “help” them with their work; even your spouse may approach you with transactional requests. Humans also have independent lives. Your spouse probably has their own job, their own friend group, their own ideas, and needs. Your kids, especially during those pesky teenage years, are not always the best companions. But dogs have no ulterior motives. They just want to hang out with you. Whether you’re on a boat, taking a drive, going for a jog, watching TV, or going to the market, your dog wants to come along for the ride. They just like being with people, and as time has gone on, people have begun to love being with them too. It might sound absurd, but deep down, any dog owner knows it’s true: even the best marriage or the healthiest parent-child relationship is not quite the same as a bond with a dog.

We Get By With a Little Help From Our Friends

Despite their newfound purpose as all-around companions and friends, dogs still serve many useful roles. Veterans and people who suffer from PTSD often rely on the companionship of their dogs to help keep them grounded. Dogs can help people suffering from autism connect with the world and feel secure. Even as they help us in their own way, they’re still dogs at heart. They like to chase the stick and catch the ball and stick their nose in things. Sometimes, they get into predicaments or do something funny or amusing that makes us laugh. They’re the ultimate companions: they can be helpful and serve specific roles, but they also really just want to hang out with us and do whatever we’re doing. They’re affectionate, lovable, useful, ever-present friends.

Woman taking a selfie with her dog
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Have We Overhumanized Dogs?

Have we reached a point where we’ve overhumanized our companion animals? Have we gone too far with our anthropomorphism and attributed characteristics to them that simply don’t exist? For all their amazing abilities, dogs are still dogs. They still want to roll in things that stink, stick their noses in weird places, or poop on the floor. Is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of dogs?

Cushing gives this question an emphatic no. Cushing doesn’t think we are approaching any kind of unhealthy relationship with our dogs. On the contrary, he says we’re enjoying a natural bond with an animal that is often more present than our human friends and family. “Dogs just show up every time, every day, and people don’t,” he explains. For many people, their dog, cat, budgie, or other animal is a companion that is always there for them. The busy and distractible nature of modern human existence makes human companionship rather challenging. Animals, especially dogs, are easy companions. And while we might sometimes dress them up, give them voices, or talk to them, most people haven’t gotten to a point where our relationships with or love for our animals are detracting from everyday life.

Virtual Animal Companionship: Dogs and Social Media

The idea that we may have gone too far with dogs has fodder in the world of social media. Dogs are endlessly entertaining, and a trip into the dog sections of TikTok, Instagram, or Reddit will provide you with an inexhaustible stream of content. You’ll find hours and hours of videos and photos of dogs wearing hats, doing tricks, making faces, getting into predicaments, or behaving in cunning ways. And while we might be tempted to think of this as a modern phenomenon, consider that people in the past had no way to share dog antics like we do today. However, classic entertainment like Lassie, Scooby-Doo, or Peanuts suggests that the urge to bond over dogs has always been there.

Today, people can’t get enough of animals. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of animal influencers online. The average person’s camera roll on their phone is going to be heavily laden with photos of their animal companions. Our tendency to capture them on film betrays our true feelings for them. It seems that the only reason dogs weren’t more present in our media in earlier eras was that the average person couldn’t produce and share content about their animals as easily as they can today. Apart from being companions and being fodder for photos, how else can our dogs help us thrive?

Dogs for the Modern Professional: How a Canine Companion Can Help You Climb the Ladder

Can the companionship of a dog provide a real, tangible benefit for aspiring professionals? Cushing thinks so. “Dogs inherently tend to make us better. They take grouches and grumpy people and arrogant people…and they make them better. They take you out of your head, away from work and all the striving and competing. They’re quick and frenetic, they go all-in, and they force you out of where you are.” In other words, dogs make you focus on something external to yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our human problems and dramas: can you believe what Brenda said in the email? How can I outperform my rival at work? We can become absorbed by our trivialities and lose sight of the moment by overthinking. Dogs pull us out of our inner world and make us become mindful of a moment. We take them outside, play with them, let them sniff and explore. They force us to be mindful of and engaged with something other than ourselves, which gives us a break from whatever human problems we’re fixated on.

That’s great, but how does taking a break to play with your dog help you climb the ladder? First, the physical act of stepping away from a problem or situation to go play with your dog can help your subconscious mind process complex problems. Psychologists call this an “incubation period,” and it’s the same phenomenon that causes us to have “aha!” moments in our dreams or in the shower. Second, engaging in a mindful activity is good for our mental health. Playing with a dog is an activity that forces us to be present: it’s hard to play chase or fetch if you’re not in the moment with your dog. Providing yourself with a mental break and a mindful activity may not seem compatible with our hyper-driven, uber-focused American work ethic, but the truth is that taking care of your mental wellness in this way is likely to benefit your career. Not only that, but getting out and engaging in the world with your dog can help you build social capital – an essential tool for success and happiness.

The Social Capital of Dogs

While a common interest in any kind of animal is enough to drive bonding behavior between humans, dogs are uniquely situated to get us out in the world and help us make connections with other people. The average cat, ferret, or lizard does not respond well to being walked outside on a leash. But dogs love to get outside and meet people and other dogs. Because they are accompanied by their humans, social behavior between dogs helps humans socialize with one another. Chances are that you’re not going to have a chat with the dude behind you in line at Starbucks, or talk to strangers on the street. But adding a dog to the equation changes things. Humans chat about their dogs, telling stories, sharing information, and developing a bond. Not only is socializing good for our mental health, it’s a great way for modern professional people to develop a diverse network of contacts. A simple chat while your dogs sniff one another and play might lead to a new friendship, a new partnership, or even a business opportunity.

Dog ownership doesn’t just benefit individual people; there’s evidence to suggest that it can benefit entire communities. Studies from western Australia, Cushing says, have shown that the primary factor that builds a sense of community is the presence of pets – specifically, dogs. In communities with large numbers of dogs, people tend to feel safer and have a stronger social bond. Similar research in Nashville, San Diego, and Portland replicated the results: the presence of dogs encourages people to get outside and bond, which in turn drives feelings of improved safety and community. Even when compared to factors like the presence of churches and schools, dog ownership seems to be tied to the building of a strong community.

Dog being cute in bed
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Dogs Drive Value

Clearly, dogs drive a lot of value. Cushing explains that dogs help humans on almost every level. Individually, they provide companionship, drive pro-social behavior, help us get physical activity, and improve our mental wellness. Dogs also help us build stronger communities. Dogs also help people with meaningful tasks, whether they’re searching for bombs or comforting a person with autism. And yet, despite the clear benefits that dogs bring to the world, they are not welcome everywhere. Many public housing complexes, apartments, schools, and workplaces still shun dogs. And that’s where Cushing’s work as a lobbyist comes in. He firmly believes that the process of building a better future for humans must include our animal friends. Many modern American problems – obesity, social divisions, loneliness and isolation and alienation – can be solved or mitigated by allowing dogs to participate more fully in our lives. Having a companion animal in your life is going to help make you a better person and improve your sense of wellness. It’s high time that we reevaluate the place of animals in our world, and take steps to include and support pets wherever we can. Thanks to the tireless work of Mark Cushing, our world will continue to become more and more friendly to dogs and other companion animals – and we’ll all benefit as a result.

Mark Cushing’s Five Tips on Dog Ownership

  1. Make sure that you, not the dog, set the ground rules. It’s good to indulge your pet but you can’t let them drive your entire life and cater to all their impulses.
  2. Live your life. Go out with friends, go on vacation. Dogs are forgiving. They’ll miss you, but as soon as you come home, they’ll just be happy to hang out again.
  3. Consult with experts like veterinarians and follow their advice.
  4. Don’t cut out friends who aren’t dog people. Dog relationships are great, but people relationships are better. Don’t isolate yourself.
  5. Get outside with your dog whenever you can. Go play!

View this article in the April 2022 issue of MP.