It’s a dog’s life

It's a dog's life

Not far from the White House White House is a building with a
large fire hydrant built onto its facade and a new poop-bag
dispenser in the entry.
Not far from the White House White House is a building with a large fire hydrant built onto its facade and a new poop-bag dispenser in the entry. This is Wagtime – one of the city’s most popular doggy day-care operations. Here, every rush hour, owner Lisa Schreiber greets a steady stream of business-suited customers, offering heartfelt words about how nicely Cookie or Chloe or Oliver played today.

She knows each pooch. Not just their moods and proclivities, but also their diets and their medicines. This is impressive, given that on any day there are around 60 canines at Wagtime, either in the big-dog romp area, or in the upstairs small-dog playroom with attached roof deck. Schreiber is thinking of starting a waiting list for the full-time, $900-a-month slots.

And here, some of you are rolling your eyes. Wagtime, it seems to you, is the latest example of American excess. Add it to the list of jaw-dropping true dog stories – puppy facials, birthday parties, robes offered to weary canine travelers at the posh W Hotel chain – as proof that priorities are out of whack.

Others, however, are smiling. You probably live in one of the 60 percent of American households with pets. Almost half of you, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, consider your dog or cat a family member, and another 40 percent describe the animal as a companion.

At this point, full journalistic disclosure may be necessary. I am typing this article next to my Labrador retriever, Karoo, who is lying on the monogrammed L.L. Bean bed I bought for him. We have gone to puppy socialization classes, dog-training sessions, dog-friendly hotels and dog hydrotherapy rehab. After the pet-food recall two years ago, I upgraded to an expensive kibble that promises to deliver the grain-free, protein-rich goodness of bison-filled prairies.

Karoo seems to like it. Karoo also seems to like dead frogs and various other unprintable edibles.

All of this makes me a rather predictable member of the smiling group, says Michael Dillon, an independent consultant whose Dillon Media analyzes the pet industry. Even in the recession, pet owners – especially we childless ones – continue to spend.

Spend, spend, spend

Despite the global recession and widespread job losses, Dillon and others say, the pet industry has remained strong. The animals-only Pet Airways, for instance, started flying in July, offering “first class pet travel” for the four-legged jet set. Megaretailers PetSmart and Petco are actually hiring and, in some areas, opening new stores.

“Eating out oneself is going to be cut back on way before switching to a cheaper dog food,” Dillon says.

And it not just dogs.

“We’ve seen a very heavy increase in sales across the board from small animals to dogs or cats,” said Bill Zeigler, the owner Pet Stop in Gilroy. “Now people are staying home more. Pets are affordable for the average person. People still care for their pets and are still buying the quality ingredients in foods they can’t get anywhere else.”

None of this surprises Katherine Grier, historian and author of the book “Pets in America: A history.”

“The pet-food industry has gotten very good at tapping into peoples’ anxieties about the quality of their own diet, and then getting them to apply that anxiety to their pets’ diets,” she says. “First, of course, the industry had to convince people that the traditional way they fed pets – cooking them meat or feeding scraps – was unhealthy.”

That’s right – not that long ago, the dog just ate your leftovers. According to marketing surveys, in the early 1950s, only 20 percent of pet owners used canned food, Grier says. But with the explosion of the convenience food industry – TV dinners, frozen vegetables, and the like – companies such as Purina saw a new market.

Also important to a dog’s overall well-being is grooming.

“People still are doing things for their animals,” said Amber Settle, owner of Pet Palace in Gilroy. “Grooming is a way of life for most people. It’s as imperative as your school clothes. Grooming shouldn’t be a trend. It should a way of life.”

The same underlying combination of emotion and anthropomorphism drives other pet sectors, as well. It could be the chew treat that’s good for your dog’s teeth, the booties he needs to keep his paws warm or the antianxiety drugs to ease his separation fears.

Bonnie Prober, Schreiber’s sister, understands this firsthand. She adopted Morty, a beagle mix, two years ago: “I knew that my sister had clients that paid a lot of money for a lot of stuff that I thought was ridiculous,” Prober says. “I didn’t know how it sucks you in. Morty takes vitamins, he takes medicine, he has this special food, he goes to dog-socialization classes … You feel like if you don’t do it you’re not a good dog mom.”

She cautions me to approach her pup gently. He has anxiety issues. “He’s on Prozac,” she explains sheepishly.

The emotional bond

Dogs and cats have always had jobs. Although a combination of evolutionary traits helped them earn our affection – big eyes that trigger our baby-loving “cute” response, expressions that we easily anthropomorphize, an instinct to relieve themselves away from the living space – they also served a function. They were herders and guarders, mousers and protectors.

But now their job has turned social; an emotional bond is the goal.

“Good science is opening the door and showing what we knew all the time was right – this deep appreciation that dogs feel joy and grief,” said James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “People don’t feel sappy anymore … like they’re being overly sentimental because they’re attributing emotions to their animals.”

As people increasingly rely on their pets for support, the anthropomorphizing snowballs.

“If the benefit you’re deriving from them is a social benefit, then it pays to think of them like people,” Serpell says.

This has created some less-than-puppy-love situations, with neighborhoods splitting between dog people and nondog people, and local battles erupting over everything from poop laws to off-leash dog areas in parks.

But it has also forced some social readjustments that many consider overdue. Legislatures are now struggling to rework legal codes that consider animals property – a status that creates all sorts of difficulties in divorce cases, for instance, where the resolution to a disputed pet is to sell the animal and split the proceeds.

Some courts have started to issue protection orders that cover pets; a number of domestic violence shelters allow battered women to bring their dogs.

When thing take a downturn, people often turn to their pets for comfort, and as a result will pamper them more.

“We comfort the things we love in moments of distress,” said Settle, who has worked with pets for 26 years. “It’s a natural human response. Taking care of things we love gives us pleasure. We are content to spoil them because they are our best friends.”

What’s good for the dog?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s all well and good for pet owners to treat their animals as family and then ask society to respect that relationship. But what does it mean for Fido? Is it really beneficial to be dressed in Gucci rain jackets and popping antianxiety meds? Could it be that the one suffering most from this pet revolution is the pet itself?

The dog is amazingly adaptable, Grier says. Take sleeping arrangements: When the dog slept outdoors, he was fine. As flea and tick collars were perfected in the 1960s, humans were more willing to bring him into the house, and he settled down in the kitchen.

In the past 10 years, when new topical applications succeeded in keeping dogs nearly bug-free, he happily assumed his place in bed.

But this adaptability can lead to pitfalls. Humans these days want constant companions, so animals with strong attachment drives have prospered – as have pups with separation anxiety and other psychological handicaps, Serpell says.

And many dog owners seem to expect their dogs to adhere to the norms of the human world, says Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist at Barnard College studying dog cognition.

They don’t want dogs to sniff each other, for instance, though that’s the polite dog way to introduce oneself.

“If one really abided by what the dog wants and needs there could be a huge shift,” she says. “I think it would be very difficult for us to maintain the level of pet ownership that we do as a society if we were really attendant to the dog’s point of view.”

I’m taking note. My Lab has gotten up from his monogrammed bed and put his chin in my lap.

This is his language, anthropomorphized or not, for walk time. And I, devoted pet parent, will oblige.

Staff writer Nathan Mixter contributed to this report.