It's a dog's life

And it's not half bad. Even in a recession, Americans bow to the slobbering, shedding, fiercely loyal king of pets.

By , Correspondent

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    Keats, a chocolate Labrador retrieves a toy from a Copley Square fountain in Boston.
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Not far from the 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 (low fat or grain-free, allergic to chicken, preference for duck) and their medicines (for the heart, the joints, the jitters). 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. And judging by the reaction of the "mommies and daddies" – there are no "owners" here – it is also much appreciated. Ms. Schreiber is thinking of starting a waiting list for the full-time, $900-a-month slots.

For many in the dog world, Schreiber explains, pet day care is no more of a luxury than preschool. Buying high-end dog food feels no more frivolous than serving organic fruits and vegetables; Prozac for the pup no more outrageous than Ritalin for the teenager.

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"When we were growing up, I had an American Eskimo [dog]," Schreiber says. "We didn't get him fixed, we fed him the grossest food. We didn't know better. Today we do ... and people want to do what's best for them ... their dogs are like their children. They're definitely members of the family."

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

Others of you, however, are smiling at the thought of the Wagtime wards wiggling and wagging in that delighted, exuberant, puppy dog way. 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.

Perhaps you're not the doggy day-care type yourself, and perhaps you live in the suburbs and believe that office-bound city dwellers should not own a dog. But you understand the inclination – after all, the American Animal Hospital Association found that 83 percent of you call yourself your pet's "mommy" or "daddy."

Most of you, though, will have some gut reaction to Wagtime. And this is because it represents something larger than itself – a widespread cultural trend, a phenomenon that could easily be called America's pet revolution.

This revolution is bolstered by the country's exploding pet population, which James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, estimates has increased threefold since the 1960s. It is spurred on by the apparently recessionproof pet industry, which has grown to $46 billion this year from $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association. (This isn't a coastal phenomenon, by the way. You Midwestern pet owners outspend Northeasterners by more than $1 billion.) And while many experts say there are deep roots to our pet obsession, there is something substantially different about the role we now give to the animals that share our homes.

This is particularly true for the slobbering, shedding king of pets – the domesticated American dog.

Although there are more cats than dogs in the US – 93.6 million compared with 77.5 million, according to the American Pet Products Association – about half of American households have dogs, compared with the approximately 30 percent with cats. (This is because cat owners are likely to have more than one.) And perhaps because of the dog's more public status, or because of the positive personality traits we attach to the canine (there's a reason a Gallup poll found that 26 percent of cat owners describe themselves as "dog people"), it is the dog that has nuzzled his way to the forefront of our pet revolution. Love him or hate him, Fido is changing American society – in ways municipal and medical, emotional and economic, social and scientific – as never before.

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 ($104.95) I bought for him earlier this year. Although I have never taken him to doggy day care, I have used the services of a pet travel agent ($1,600, including crate and airplane ride, with a layover at KLM Royal Dutch Airline's five-star cargo pet hotel). We have also gone together to puppy socialization classes ($100), dog-training sessions (multiple $100s), dog-friendly hotels (too embarrassed to say), and dog hydrotherapy rehab (far, far more than what I'll get paid for this story).

After the pet-food recall two years ago, I upgraded to an expensive kibble ($25 for a 15-pound bag) 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.

But I keep handing over the cash – despite a year of personal finance that the experts would describe as flat-out depressing. I do this because I believe this food is healthier, and that I owe my dog the very best. Who else has stuck by my side – snuggle-ready, tail-wagging – through a career shift, a divorce, and an intercontinental move?

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.

"The emotional bond makes this industry unique," Mr. Dillon says.

In his recent book, "One Nation Under Dog," Michael Schaffer delves into this phenomenon.

"This," he writes in an adaptation of the book in The Boston Globe, "should also matter to those of us who don't make a living operating doggie day spas. In an atomized society, the growing amount of time and money we collectively spend on pets is an indication of how much we thirst for community, leaning on animals for support once provided by other humans. And the specifics of how we treat those pets no longer just reflects what we think is appropriate for animals … the way people interact with their pets says a great deal about two-legged society."

LET'S EXPLORE THAT SPENDING part first.

Despite the global recession and widespread job losses, Dillon and others say, the pet industry has remained strong, with new businesses opening and old ones expanding. The animals-only Pet Airways, for instance, started flying in July, offering "first class pet travel" for the four-legged jet set. (Pets ride in the main cabin, not the cargo hold.) Megaretailers PetSmart and Petco are actually hiring and, in some areas, opening new stores. Meanwhile, a new wave of nonpet businesses are trying to jump on the doggy bandwagon – Martha Stewart, for instance, recently opened a pet franchise; Honda this year introduced a new, dog-friendly concept car, complete with dog seatbelts and entrance ramp.

Though there have been reports about an increase in animals given up because of the economic downturn, shelter workers and other animal experts say these handovers are generally part of an otherwise extreme situation – families facing true hunger and homelessness. In the majority of cases, Dillon and others say, when a pet owner is squeezing her budget, dog-related expenditures are among the last to go.

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

In fact, the amount spent on pet food has nearly doubled since 2000, from $9.4 billion to a projected $18.2 billion this year – a sum that makes food the largest part of the already Great Dane-sized pet industry. If anything, the pet-food recall two years ago has helped sales; much of the new money comes from specialized, "healthy" food, such as the brand I dutifully purchase every few weeks.

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. The baby boomers out there might remember this. According to marketing surveys, in the early 1950s, only 20 percent of pet owners used canned food, Ms. 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. Today, she says, it's no coincidence that pet foods advertise as good for weight control, rich in omega-3s, and low in carbohydrates.

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 in winter, or the antianxiety drugs to ease his separation fears. Or even testicular implants, brought to you by a company called Neuticals, to help your neutered dog's "self-esteem." (Seriously.)

Always, the message is the same: You'd do it for yourself – why not for the animal you love?

"Things that were once considered optional are now really being considered necessities by pet owners," Dillon says. "These companies have made the attachment between the health and well-being of your pet and their product."

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," Ms. 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.

IT'S NOT AS IF THE EMOTIONAL connection between pet and human is new. Just think Old Yeller. Or Lassie. Grier found portraits of American families – with trusted hound – from the 1800s. Go back further, Mr. Serpell writes in his book "In the Company of Animals," and the ancient Greeks were debating whether their countrymen should be giving so much affection to their pets. At a Paleolithic site in northern Israel, a 12,000-year-old human skeleton was found buried with an arm around the skeleton of a 5-month-old puppy.

Today, though, there's something extra about our bond with pets, many sociologists and historians say. And the change is in the animals' role.

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.

"In the past, these animals had practical tasks to perform," Serpell says. "Now they have social tasks. And they're very good at it. The quality of a relationship with an animal is clearly less multidimensional than with another person ... but there's also less negativity than with other people. The animals don't criticize."

There are various theories behind the canine career shift. The US is now a less rural country, so most Americans don't need help on the farm. We're more likely to live alone, in cities, far from family, and have children later in life – all factors that create a need for extra social support and connection with other species.

At the same time, there's growing scientific justification for treating animals as social partners. Primatologist Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees gave "official" support to those inclined to view animals as individuals; more recent studies have offered proof that animals have emotions, sophisticated intelligence systems, and even moral codes, says biologist and author Marc Bekoff.

"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," he says. "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. In other words, if I'm relying on my dog for social support – a term Serpell would say includes my chance to give care as well as receive affection – then I'll be inclined to believe that my dog's exuberant wag means that he truly loves me. That validates our relationship more, in my human eyes, than if he was simply associating me with the pleasant experience of nightly kibble.

Once I believe my dog and I share a deep, humanlike bond, Serpell says, I will embrace other responsibilities that come with this sort of relationship – whether providing healthy food, day care, or the latest medical care. (Veterinary procedures have become far more sophisticated and expensive – and so has the pet insurance that increasingly accompanies it.)

And now, with more self-described parents in relationships like this – relationships with the same loves, fears, and dilemmas of the human world – there is a growing push for society to respond accordingly.

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.

It was hurricane Katrina, as much as anything, that drove home the importance of social institutions evolving with the animal-human bond, says Stephen Zawistowski, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. During the New Orleans evacuation, he notes, people of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds refused to leave if it meant abandoning pets. Later the government and organizations such as the Red Cross changed their pet policies.

"The emotions might have been here all along," he says. "But this showed the depth to which the sentiments have become part of our culture."

BUT WHAT ABOUT 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, popping antianxiety meds, and living in high-density cities? 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. (Thirty percent of dog owners polled by the Associated Press in June admitted sleeping with their pups.)

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.

Our tendency to anthropomorphize can also create communication barriers. Take the canine "guilty look," an expression most dog owners will swear reveals doggy knowledge of wrongdoing – a chewed shoe, for instance, or a stolen steak.

Ms. Horowitz studied this and found that the expression we describe as "guilty" is really anticipatory – made when the dog expects a scolding, regardless of whether it did something "wrong."

"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.

Photo contest: Show off the family pooch by uploading your favorite images to the Monitor's Flickr site by Aug. 17. flickr.com/groups/my-pampered-dog-photo-contest.

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