soap poodle
Image: David Wong

A FEW WEEKS AGO, while I stood in line at my favorite coffee shop, a scraggly poodle nuzzled its saliva-caked face against my pant leg, leaving behind a smear of slimy goo. On a better day, and with a different dog, I probably would have ignored the animal, but this pooch and I had had a similar encounter once before. With a smile, so as not to reveal the fear that might inspire the dog to bite me, I said to the dog: “Hey, mister poodle guy, I didn’t ask for that.” My goal, passive-aggressive as it may have been, was to indicate to the language-equipped owner that a modest pull on the leash (at least she had one of those) was now in order. After all, though I’ve heard that dogs’ mouths are cleaner than humans’, hygienic they’re not. They are vectors for scores of unhealthy bacteria, parasites and viruses, and those same mouths deliver 4.7 million bites to Americans every year.

Instead of removing her dog from my side, the owner, a petite thirtysomething, simply said with a chuckle, “You must smell good,” then turned her attention to her latte. Dejected, I retreated home feeling like an outcast, for I am, apparently, one of the few Portlanders who doesn’t revere dogs. It’s not that I don’t like them; I’m just not overly fond of them. As I sat on my couch sipping coffee with slobber still drying on my leg, I wondered: In Portland, where there’s one dog for every four humans, has pet-owner entitlement gotten out of hand?

Before depositing your used plastic bags on my doorstep in retaliation against such a sacrilegious utterance, consider a few facts. For starters, the state’s newspaper of record has a pet columnist. Why don’t we have a columnist for, say, human health care? That said, “Pet Talk” is flush with evidence for the absurdity of the treat-our-dogs-like-humans trend. Portland’s registered 136,332 canines can not only avail themselves of the city’s 31 off-leash areas at dog parks—we have more per capita than anywhere else in the country—but can also enjoy massages at $60 per hour. If that’s not sufficient, there are also doggy day cares filled with the latest toys and attended by on-call nail-care technicians, and gourmet pet bakeries, where you can buy a birthday cake decorated with a fire hydrant. According to a workforce analyst with the State of Oregon, employment in the pet care industry is 40 percent higher in Multnomah County than the national average.

Not that obsessing over pooches is unique to Oregon. In Boulder, Colo., dog owners aren’t even owners—they’re “dog guardians,” at least in the language of city ordinances. And last year the New York Times showcased what are essentially dating services for dogs—www.meetup.com, www.petster.com and www.datemypet.com all help humans arrange playdates for their animals. But while anyone from Los Angeles to Atlanta can find a pet psychic, leave it to Portland to up the ante with the “holistic intuitive animal communicator” who can talk to your dog in ways you, obviously, can’t.

In my nightmares, Portlanders will become so frenzied in their dog worship that our fair city will overtake Japan as the global epicenter of pooch mania. In Japan, consumers can buy pet-friendly minivans—with wood floors, no less—and contact lenses for their dogs, as well as Burberry raincoats, aromatherapy potions and “Bowlingual” translation collars (which “interpret” your pooch’s whines and barks). With Portland’s glut of doggy hotels, personal doggy photographers and doggy Halloween costume parties, we don’t seem far behind.

How did this happen? As recently as a few hundred years ago, humans viewed dogs the same way they viewed horses—tools to be used on farms and ranches, most often for fending off coyotes and other critters. In Portland, they were even lumped into the same category as pigs: An early city ordinance prohibited dogs and swine from wandering at large. We still don’t let dogs wander today, thankfully, but in the coddling department they have left swine behind. As we moved toward an increasingly urban and industrial civilization, the dog as farmhand became more and more irrelevant, and beloved Fido was relegated to the role of family pet. As Americans have fewer offspring, it seems that dogs have become our surrogate children. Today, 55 percent of American dog owners buy their pets holiday gifts, and 42 percent share their beds with their dogs.