Andrea Schneider might be considered a typical 21st-century dog owner. The consultant and Pearl District denizen has her golden retriever, Ellie, with her “most of the day”; loves to go to Barista, the Pearl District café that allows dogs in the lobby; and is the founder of pdxdog.com, a social networking site for dog owners that features updates on everything from the “Portland’s Next TopDog Model Contest” to dog-focused iPhone apps.

I asked Schneider why people now spend so much time—and money—on their dogs. (Americans dropped $46 billion on pets last year, up from $29 billion in 2001.) Given Schneider’s pedigree, I expected her to wax poetic about Ellie and all her treats; instead, she sounded more like a social scientist than a besotted dog owner. Demographic changes such as divorce and delayed marriage and child rearing have created “upheaval in the social structure,” she says. As a result, “relationships people used to count on for love and contact are now including dogs—because they are true companions.” Vetere offers a similar, albeit sociopolitical, analysis. “During scary times,” he explains, “dogs are refuge, solace, and comfort.”

Sure, that statement oozes more than a little marketing pitch. But by most accounts, dogs are indeed ideal psychological pacifiers. Over the past several decades, researchers have compiled an array of evidence demonstrating the mental and physical benefits of pet ownership, which has been found to alleviate everything from depression to heart disease. Such studies help explain the canine cultural transition—from dog as plaything to dog as partner—as well as the money people now shell out for the kinds of care previously reserved for (well-off) humans: $40 dog hydrotherapy treatments, $120 dog acupuncture appointments, $60 dog massage sessions. (According to the website for one local purveyor, massages are “part of a well-rounded health and wellness plan for … your animals.”)

But as the boundary between dogs and their owners blurs, the everyday realities of a dog’s life are also changing.