Magazine

How did we become such shameless dog spoilers?

As we spend upward of $60 billion a year on our pets, maybe it’s time to admit we have a problem.

WE WERE IN THE KITCHEN when I asked my wife a simple question: “What kind of cake should we bake for Biff’s birthday?”

It was April, and we were recalling Biff’s celebratory desserts from years past — vanilla cupcakes with peanut butter frosting, carrot cake with vanilla frosting. As we batted around ideas to mark his eighth trip around the sun, my wife and I quickly dug in on our cake-related convictions. Lemon cake with vanilla pudding frosting, I said. Shepherd’s pie with gravy, she said, a little louder.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, Biff twisted his head quizzically, his underbite jutting past his jowls. Biff is an English bulldog with fluffernutter-colored fur, a face like Churchill’s, and shoulders like Lebron’s. His adoptive sister Mabel, a 2-year-old bulldog-pit mix with a ballerina’s build and hazel eyes, pranced around him. Both wore nautical-themed collars.

Then it hit me: Our argument was astoundingly ridiculous. It only seemed normal because we’d become so enamored with the fur-babies at our feet.

Photo-illustration by C.J. Burton

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Generally, I’m a no-frills dog lover, not the type who goes on PetSmart shopping sprees. Sure, I might cook melanges of turkey, brown rice, and mixed vegetables for Biff and Mabel every other day, but that’s because they’ll get sick off anything in a bag. And sure, I buy them birthday presents, let them sleep in my bed, and once paid for a $400 visit to a doggy ophthalmologist — but at least I don’t dress them up. OK, at least not all the time: Biff has an argyle sweater, Mabel has a Patriots jersey, and there was that one morning our four-member family all donned matching pajamas.

My rationalizing might be embarrassing if I were alone. But Americans own roughly 78 million dogs, and 71 percent of us let our pets sleep in bed with us, 64 percent of us buy them presents, and 22 percent dress them in clothing, according to a recent Harris Poll survey. Overall, we’re poised to spend more than $60 billion on our pets this year, more than triple what we spent in 1994.

So why are we apparently sending millions of this country’s pooches to the day spa instead of the doghouse? Are we truly doting on man’s best friend like never before? Is calling your dog a member of the family more than a metaphor? And am I going too far in coddling my dog — or should I put candles on his cake, too?

Advertisement

IT’S 7 A.M. IN CHARLESTOWN, and the first aboard is Gus, a charcoal-colored schnauzer with cartoon eyebrows. We’re on the stubby shuttle bus for The Common Dog day care as it makes its roughly 90-minute pickup circuit around Greater Boston, including stops in Flagship Wharf, Copley Square, and Cambridge. Others soon join us: a cairn terrier with an open face, an Entlebucher with an attitude, a sleepy-eyed bulldog. Owners — or, if you prefer, parents — dressed along the spectrum from business casual to Nantucket swell usher their four-legged friends up a short flight of steps, watch as their harnesses are hooked into seats stripped of virtually everything chewable, and pass zip-locks of the day’s food through the rolled-down windows. One young woman in a two-toned dress brought her dog a little extra. “He eats four times a day,” she says, “so I guess he has brunch and lunch, too.”

The shuttle eventually winds back to its home base in Everett. The Common Dog, which opened in 1997, was one of the first doggy day cares of its size on the Eastern Seaboard, says owner Laura Donnell. She shows me around, from the front desk where her own two boxers hide out, to the fridge full of high-end Blue Buffalo dog food, to the mezzanine overlooking the day care’s main attraction: a 5,500-square-foot park with 58 dogs barking, sleeping, running, and roughhousing in partitioned play areas. It feels a lot like pre-K.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Lexi Bird, training to be a Common Dog bus driver, is greeted by the morning’s passengers.

For overnight guests, the Common Dog has boarding rooms with orthopedic beds and flat-screen TVs that beam a Disney-heavy playlist after nightfall, and dog moms and dads can watch an online feed from a webcam trained on the furry mob at play. “It’s addictive,” Donnell says. “Some people have told me they’ve gotten in trouble watching it at work.”

How in the world did we get here? Dog owners can now hire canine-specific fitness trainers, chiropractors, and massage therapists (including one at The Common Dog), and we can dress our pups in Halloween costumes running the gamut from Yoda to the pope. We can buy dog strollers, automatic tennis ball launchers, and the MTI Jentle Pet 1, a dog hot tub with massage jets. Getting even weirder, there are pooch perfumes and colognes; Neuticles, a prosthetic testicular implant for neutered dogs; and the Hot Doll, a plaything upon which furry friends can release their carnal impulses. For just under $2,700, you can buy a Louis Vuitton monogrammed dog carrier. If you’re on a tighter budget, $16 will get you a Donald Trump squeak toy called the Dognald.

Even Bob Vetere, the president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, occasionally chuckles at the offerings he sees at the sweeping annual trade show his organization hosts in Florida. “Sexy underwear for dogs was a really interesting booth a couple of years ago,” he says. “The models they had showing them off were hysterical.”

The Dognald, a Donald Trump squeak toy.

Since the APPA began tracking how much we spend on our pets every year, the numbers have moved ever upward — from $17 billion in 1994 to $60.6 billion projected for this year. Despite a dip in companion animal ownership during the throes of the Great Recession, spending on pets never stopped growing. But toys, clothes, and the like are a relatively small part of the bottom line: Pet food alone — from gluten-free to glucosamine-enriched to good ol’ Alpo — added up to more than $22 billion in sales in 2014. Predictably, human-centric companies like Nestle and Mars have gotten into the pet food game, and earlier this year, J.M. Smucker Co. — of peanut butter and jelly fame — spent $6 billion to buy the maker of Milk Bones.

“There’s ample opportunity to commercially take advantage of our interest in doing well by our dogs and thereby equipping them with the things we enjoy in our life,” says Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition expert at Barnard College in New York and author of the 2009 book Inside of a Dog. “Not just the birthday cake, but the raincoat if it’s raining, the special bed, the massage, whatever it is — there’s a commercial opportunity there that suddenly occurred to a lot of business-minded folks at once — but I think the impulse in us has been there for a while.”

Right around the time the first commercial dog foods appeared in America in the 1870s, so did the first knitting patterns for dog sweaters, according to Katherine Grier, a University of Delaware history professor and author of Pets in America: A History. For most of the 15,000-plus years we’ve spent closely together, people have employed dogs as tools and protectors. But by the late 19th century, Europe’s aristocratic pet-keeping pastime trickled down to America’s middle class. The stigma of giving gifts to dogs faded with the postwar rise of the baby boomers, which is perhaps yet another thing to blame that generation for.

Photo-illustration by C.J. Burton

As companion animals got more popular, dog owners modeled their relationship with Fido on those they saw among friends and family and in pop culture, says Clinton Sanders, author of Understanding Dogs and a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Connecticut. And whether it’s baking a cake or putting presents under the Christmas tree, those sorts of rituals are how humans establish dogs’ place in our inter-species rapport. “When I give you a gift, it means I acknowledge you as a person: I care about you, and we have the kind of relationship that’s close enough where’s it’s appropriate for me to give you a gift,” Sanders says. “Giving the dog something special is part of that humanizing of the dog.”

Today, 96 percent of owners consider their dogs to be members of the family, according to the recent Harris Poll survey. Even as the demands of life and work in the 21st century bring longer hours and increased social isolation, sharing office space on bring-your-dog-to-work days and church pews during blessings of the animals have become all but unremarkable. Meanwhile, costly hip replacements, dialysis, and chemotherapy have all become conventional medical treatments for ailing dogs. “People are willing to go this extra yard because they’re bonding so strongly with their pets,” Vetere says.

Vetere often hears that raising pets is preparation for rearing a family, and I guess I’m a dog-hair-covered stereotype in that regard, too. My first child — the bipedal kind — is due this spring, but I’ve already spent 20 years caring for canines, going back to the dachshund I got for my 11th birthday. I’ve been in the tank for dogs ever since. I move over when mine want to take my seat on the couch, and I fall for puppy-themed social media clickbait. I also spent two years of Friday afternoons walking dogs for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Centerville, culminating in Mabel’s adoption. (The growing esteem for dogs has coincided with better outcomes for shelter dogs in the Commonwealth: The MSPCA’s dog adoption rate climbed from 33 percent to 88 percent between 1990 and 2014.)

Back at The Common Dog, I buttonhole Gil Hudson while he drops off Lulu, his English golden retriever, before heading off to work. He reminds me of me. “My constant focus is, basically, is she OK? Where is she? Is she being well taken care of?” Hudson says. At Lulu’s third birthday two weeks prior, the party guest list included her human grandparents and her furry “boyfriend” from across the street.

The author’s dog Biff dressed for a Cape Cod Halloween.

When Hudson mentions that Lulu loved her ice cream cake, I make a note for Biff’s next birthday.

ONE MORNING THIS SUMMER, Mabel and I battle pre-Independence Day traffic to spend an afternoon inside the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, a squat building on the university’s Science Hill. (Biff is less outgoing and lazier than his sister, so he got to stay home.) For close to an hour, Yale psychology professor and center director Laurie Santos, as well as staff and volunteers, will lead Mabel through a series of experiments they’ve conducted with more than 200 dogs to date.

For one experiment, lab manager Michael Bogese feigns struggle in opening a plastic bin with treats inside while Mabel watches two undergrads either help or hinder his effort. The study’s initial hypothesis, now under review, was that dogs would keep track of who hindered and who helped, then do what Mabel did: Approach the helper.

Did I mention that Mabel is also very kindhearted?

Canine cognition — the study of how dogs’ minds work — is a burgeoning field that’s yielded compelling findings about man and his best friend. Dogs have an aptitude for following human social cues that’s even more pronounced than that of our nonhuman primate relatives, for example, and have a notable ability to enlist humans to help solve their problems. But harnessing science to understand dogs on their own merits is still a relatively new endeavor — Alexandra Horowitz traces it to the late 1990s — and another reflection of a dog-obsessed society. “Thinking about them as real members of our family,” Santos says, “causes us to be more curious about what’s going on inside their heads.”

It also does weird things to our heads. Last year, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital published study results showing how the brains of 14 dog-owning women responded to images of their human children and their dogs versus unfamiliar kids and canines. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral measures, the researchers saw some similar brain activity in the mothers whether they were looking at their own child or their own dog. Yet there was no such phenomenon when the women were looking at the unfamiliar dogs and children. Does this mean that even if our dogs aren’t literally our children, they’re one and the same in the minds of their mothers? No one is willing to go there quite yet, but Horowitz does mention that generations of purposeful dog breeding for bigger eyes, flatter faces, and larger heads have essentially designed dogs to look like cute babies.

Dina Rudick/Globe staff/file

Traveling in style during a stroll through the North End this August.

Other recent research centers on oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone that mother and baby both release while gazing into each other’s eyes to strengthen emotional bonds. Dogs and their owners produce higher concentrations of oxytocin while doing that, too, according to a report published in Science last April, which might suggest that dogs have tapped into our oxytocin in a way unique among nonhuman species. “The idea is that there’s this loop whereby over evolutionary time, our hormonal systems — our basic biology — have come to treat our companion animals like our kids,” says Santos (who was not involved in the study).

None of the experts I spoke with is ready to cite research as evidence for a “dogs are just like our children” headline. “I feel like [dogs] are finally getting the scientific attention that they should, but we only have pieces of a puzzle — that’s the bottom line,” says Lori Palley, assistant director of veterinary services in the Center of Comparative Medicine at MGH and the fMRI study’s lead coauthor. But if a dogs-as-children dynamic is ever truly borne out, it’s easy to see how that might be reflected in the ways human culture treats the creatures we’ve bonded with over time. Birthday parties for children also used to be rare, Santos says.

Before we depart Yale, Santos gives me a piece of paper with Mabel’s Sharpie-inscribed name: a certificate commemorating her entry into the center’s “freshman class.” I know it’s just a goofy memento, but I’m still a little proud. My little girl, who makes me melt whenever I look into her eyes, made it to the Ivy League.

“I DON’T WANT YOU TO GET THE IMPRESSION that I don’t like dogs,” says Raymond Coppinger, speaking by phone from his home in Montague. Coppinger goes on to explain he grew up in and around Boston with a dog and cared for hundreds of them during his days as a champion sled dog racer. And as a biology professor at Hampshire College who first saw dogs as worthy of scientific inquiry many decades ago, he even proposed a now-popular hypothesis of dog domestication: Canids that weren’t afraid to approach our early agrarian ancestors scavenged off waste, bettered their chances for survival, and contributed to producing the tame specimens that humans welcomed into their homes.

But for someone who’s spent most of his 78 years around dogs (and whose latest book about them, How Dogs Work, comes out this month), Coppinger sounds unusually ambivalent on the subject. He says our Fido-loving era is a variation on a theme: In a different time, horses got spoiled. With dry humor, he riffs on the dark sides of our modern dog mania, from bite and euthanasia statistics to the burden on people with cynophobia, also known as the fear of dogs.

Moreover, Coppinger adds, ours is an isolated obsession: Outside of the United States and Europe, you’d have a hard time finding countries willing to spend billions on their pets. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “The average dog in America certainly has a whole better life, because of the money, than the average child in Syria these days.”

Our infatuation with dogs isn’t always easy on the pets, either. Nearly 53 percent of them are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. And the British pet underwriter The Co-operative Insurance has tallied a sixfold increase in claims for anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders in pets over the last three years, with dogs accounting for eight in 10 claims. (There are troubles for the veterinarians who treat them, too: Bob Vetere of the APPA says that, as a result of treating creatures that are now family members, “the stress level on veterinarians has gone through the roof.”)

It turns out that what we consider cute could be borderline unbearable for the dogs themselves. In Inside of a Dog, Horowitz writes about how dressing a dog in a raincoat can cause an animal to freeze in its tracks. Why? The raincoat (or, for that matter, a Halloween costume) may mimic physical pressure from a dominant dog. Buying gourmet kibble or special beds surely isn’t as problematic, but it’s unlikely our pets recognize them as meaningful gestures. “What we consider higher-quality food isn’t necessarily what the dog would consider higher-quality food,” Horowitz says.

John Blanding/Globe staff/file

“Black Dog the Pirate” in Essex.

And to Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based environmental research group Worldwatch Institute, caring for our millions of pets has dire implications for a climate change-afflicted future. Pets aren’t a problem on their own, Assadourian is quick to say (his own childhood collies were “part of the family”). But the obsession with companion animals is a symptom of the broader consumerism that’s sapping resources — like the grain used in much of those billions of dollars of pet food — from a depleted planet. “We need to curb all of the demands we’re putting on the earth, and that includes, directly and indirectly, our pet population,” he says. He suggests an array of solutions, from owners downsizing to smaller breeds, to sharing single dogs among many neighbors, to levying a pet tax. “Of course, that’s not going to be popular, because it’s like taxing family members,” he says.

I ask Assadourian if he thinks current American attitudes toward pets are aligning with his own. “No, not at all — I’m sure they’re going in the opposite direction,” he says. He points to the pets abandoned during the Great Recession as a microcosm of what awaits when systems break down: Dogs are clad in raincoats one day, out on the street to fend for themselves in feral packs the next. “Maybe,” he says, “today’s dogs will become the next millennium’s wolf population.”

John Tlumacki/globe staff/file

Wheeling a dog through Boston one summer, to keep its paws off the red-hot pavement.

WHEN I’M WITH MY DOGS, dystopia couldn’t feel further away. I can’t sleep without them snoring in my bed, and I can’t envision a future when some member of their floppy-eared kin isn’t there to greet me in the morning. I might not dress them up ever again (except for the occasional Christmas card photo shoot), but I’ll still agonize over their birthday treats. And to hear Alexandra Horowitz tell it, those sorts of coddling rituals have a major upside. “It encourages an interaction with the dog, and unless you’re pressing them into a birthday outfit and making them sit, I think ultimately that interaction is positive,” she says.

But I still have a lingering question that every pet owner like me should ponder: Do my two dogs actually enjoy their lives?

While I’m confident Mabel’s sunny disposition reflects inner bliss, Biff’s always-sour face is tougher to read. And yet I care about his well-being as much as my own: In our eight years together, between nights and weekends and telecommuting, I’ve spent more time with him than with my wife. He’s brought me whimsy, affection, and loyalty, and he taught me basic responsibility. If only I could really know, all these home-cooked meals later, whether he was fundamentally happy.

Fortunately, even though Biff can’t speak my language, our world of canine goods and services can furnish an interpreter. I contact Maureen Harmonay, an animal telepath (and real estate agent) based in Sterling. In exchange for $75 and a picture of Biff, she has a remote, telepathic powwow with him one Tuesday afternoon.

After finishing, Harmonay e-mails Biff’s answers to questions I supplied. He likes his human food, because his old packaged dog food was too salty; he likes sleeping in my bed, but he’s afraid of falling in the night; he wears clothes reluctantly. One of Harmonay’s notes has me worried. “He sometimes feels that people are laughing at him,” she writes; “he would prefer to be respected.” But on the whole, Harmonay later says by phone, Biff was happy and then some. “I don’t want to call it a sense of entitlement, but it was sort of like that,” she says. “He’s used to being treated very, very well.”

I ask Harmonay a variation of the question that started it all: What kind of cake had Biff actually wanted for his birthday a few months back? She says he would have liked a carrot cake.

Biff had wound up getting a banana cake with ground turkey, shredded zucchini, and chopped carrots. Considering the distance between our species, I probably came close enough.

Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

More photos from The Common Dog’s pickup circuit around Greater Boston:

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Kristyn Goldstein encourages her dog, Barklee, to go with Laura Donnell onto the doggy day care’s bus at a stop in Cambridge.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Laura Donnell, owner of The Common Dog and bus driver for the day, takes Whiskey the bulldog’s leash as he boards the bus.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Hampton, a boxer mix, rode in the back of the bus, which is stripped of virtually everything chewable, as it made its way through morning traffic.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Smith, a black Lab, and Wesson, a chocolate Lab, get a ride to day care.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

The dogs are harnessed to the seats as they ride to The Common Dog in Everett.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Brodie, a border collie, takes in the sights during the ride.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Laura Donnell (right) and June Maloney play with the dogs in the doggy day care’s outdoor park after the morning bus run.

Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.