We Americans have become obsessed with our dogs. 85% of us now classify them as “family,” and most states have passed legislation calling us “dog guardians” instead of “dog owners” to reflect this elevated pet social status. My fabulous city of San Francisco has more dogs than children – 135,000 dogs in a city of less than 750,000 people. To underscore how seriously San Franciscans take their dogs, a recent Sunday San Francisco Chronicle featured a story about expensive doggie birthday parties on the front page of the Style section. These parties can easily cost thousands of dollars by the time you throw in organic dog treats, pawdicures, and designer sweaters for 25 energetic canines. I’m not kidding. Americans spent $39 billion on their pets in 2007. People are paying $1000 to have prosthetic testicles (called Neuticles) attached to their neutered dogs, for god’s sake.
It seems crazy, lavishing this treatment on our furry loved ones. I read these articles with a chuckle, remembering my childhood dog Ginger. She was a stray mutt who “found” me one day while I was playing in the dirt behind our enormous front-yard pine bushes. I was absorbed in my game of dolls, when I heard a loud noise on the sidewalk. This stray puppy had knocked over my bicycle because there were cookies in the bike’s basket, and when I came out from behind the bushes, I found her eating the cookies. I picked her up, she licked my face, and the rest is neighborhood history.
It was the only instance of love at first site that I’ve ever experienced.
From that day (I was three) until I was fifteen, the dog never left my side again. She followed me everywhere. I’d ride my bike, and she’d run alongside me—for hours. I’d go inside a neighbor’s house to play, and she’d lie in their driveway until I came out. I’d run into my house to eat lunch or go to the bathroom, and she’d lie on the back porch or sit patiently looking in the door until I reappeared. I’d try leaving her in our fenced backyard when I knew I was going far away on my bike. She’d back up a few paces to get a running start, and scale the fence in a single flying leap to assume her position at my side.
This was the mid-1970’s, and there weren’t video games (well, I think Atari came out with Space Invaders around this time, but it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as the great outdoors), and television was only interesting on Sunday nights when the Wonderful World of Disney aired. We didn’t think it unsafe to tear wildly around the neighborhood--as long as we could hear our mothers call us home for supper. Everyone played outside from dawn to dusk, and the neighborhood was filled with kids running, playing, screaming, laughing. I knew every neighbor up and down both sides of my street, and most on the surrounding streets.
Throughout my daily outdoor exploits, Ginger followed alongside. Everyone knew to first look for the dog, and they’d find me nearby. She had the soul of Buddha himself, and the patience of Job. As an only child, she was my closest and most constant companion and she silently endured my childhood phases of playing dress up and doctor – with her as the “patient” to be bandaged or the “doll” to be bonneted and dressed in frilly lace. Even though she’d occasionally look imploringly at my mother, still she never wavered in her devotion and would lie there all day ready to take whatever I dished out by way of “play.”
But, as beloved as Ginger was to me (and my mother, too, though she wouldn’t admit it at the time), she slept in a doghouse in the backyard, and only came inside during the foulest wintery or stormy weather. When she was allowed inside, it was strictly to one kitchen corner, in a small space beside the washer and dryer. And boy did that dog stick close to that space. If we were playing ball and it rolled out of the kitchen, she’d skid to a screeching halt at the carpet line that marked the living room. I could stand in the living room and call her enthusiastically and she would not cross the line out of the kitchen for fear of my mother’s wrath.
You have to give the dog credit, because her kitchen “bed” was precariously positioned. The dryer was old, loud, and shook violently from side-to-side while running. Above the bed was a cabinet containing canned food. Unfortunately, my mother is only 5’1” and couldn’t reach the shelves very well, so fairly frequently she’d be groping for a can and it would slip and fall onto the poor dog’s head. It got to the point where my mother would open the cabinet and Ginger would bolt underneath the kitchen table.
Clearly dogs have moved up in the world since the 1970’s. Organic dog food? Didn’t exist. Ginger ate the cheapest dog food we could buy. Occasionally she’d be treated to leftovers that were about to be thrown out, but given my mother’s cooking you probably wouldn’t classify this as a “treat.” Once, mom gave her a bowlful of leftover spaghetti, and suddenly the dog dish went missing. We found the dish several days later, about 200 yards across the large drainage ditch that ran alongside the backyard, partially buried underneath a large apple tree. The spaghetti was still in the bowl.
I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
We still joke about how my mother’s cooking was so bad that the dog hid her dish rather than eat it.
Contrast the 1970’s dog life to the 2008 life of my German Shepherd, Hannah. This dog leads a better life than most people. Full run of my expensive, custom furniture. Sleeps beside me on the bed. She eats organic dog food, with “human-grade” ingredients, and I make special trips to a dog bakery to buy hand-baked biscuits, and cookies. She wears a Coach collar. Each day, while I’m at work, her dog-walker Larry picks her up for a three hour romp on the beach. Except for Fridays. I take her with me to work on that day. The mailman brings her dog treats when she’s at my office. We go to the park during lunch. Sometimes she sees a dog dermatologist for itchy skin.
When I travel, she gets a suite at the “Wag Hotel” with a plasma screen, and a soothing bedtime massage. They give out Frosty Paws ice cream as an afternoon treat, and Hannah has morning and afternoon “playgroups” with the other dogs.
She gets birthday presents. At Christmas, I wrap presents for her and put them under the tree, and on Christmas morning she “unwraps” them. When people come to the house, they frequently bring the requisite hostess gift AND the quickly-becoming-standard doggie gift.
But, I wouldn’t throw her a dog party like these people in the newspaper story. I’m not one of THOSE people. That’s just crazy.
I read back over this, and can’t believe it. Even as I write this she is spread across my lap (at 90 pounds she’s pushing it to qualify for lapdog), forcing me to hunch over almost sideways with the computer, getting a crick in my neck, so as not to disturb her comfy position. Sometimes I sit on the floor because she’s spread across the couch and there isn’t room for me. I don’t mind.
It is impossible to articulate how important this dog is to me. A single woman who has never wanted children. I have a child. She’s furry, eats tennis balls, and sheds. A lot. I don’t mind that either.