Thirty years ago, dogs often spent their days outdoors, rain or shine, and were deemed by their owners to be happy enough with a bowl of kibble, a chewed-up tennis ball, and the occasional hug from a sticky-fingered child. Such dogs (known as “latchkey” dogs by people who study such things) still exist today. But there is also a new breed in town: the structured and pampered dog, a creature who is lavished with an ever-expanding array of products and services—from doggie day care to dog yoga—and whose life is carefully orchestrated by humans.
“When I was growing up, our dog, Duke, had a nice house with a burlap door, and if he ever got inside [our house], it was by accident,” says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association, describing the difference in dogs’ lives, then and now. Today, Vetere’s family’s golden retriever, Dakota, reclines on a living room carpet matched to the color of her coat. “When she does go out, it’s by appointment.”
According to Vetere, the dominant trend in the pet industry is “humanization”—the tendency to treat animals like people instead of, well, animals. And it’s more than a consumer fad; it’s a sociological phenomenon.
“Dogs have always straddled the divide between animals and humans—neither wild creatures nor totally assimilated dependents,” says James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. But in the 21st century, canines have drifted more and more toward assimilation. “We now view dogs as people, little people,” he says.
The creeping anthropomorphism of dogs in the United States raises several questions—am-ong them, why is this happening? If we are re-making dogs in our own image, what kind of image are we projecting? And finally: is this a good thing for dogs? Such questions have special resonance in Portland, which is consistently ranked (by Forbes, Men’s Health, and other magazines) as one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country, based on the number of veterinarians, doggie day cares, and dog parks. (We boast 32 dog parks, more than any other city in the country.) Armed with the notion that in Portland, “Dogs R Us,” I set out to explore who, exactly, we have become.