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A Dog's Life

Comedian George Carlin once posed the question, "What exactly do dogs do on vacation?"

A fair question for our times, as the role of the canine as a work animal is all but outmoded. Large scale farming and ranching and the reduction of hunting to mere sport have deprived the poor canine of a way to earn his daily bread. And while the contemporary dog may find purpose as a seeing-eye dog, a drug sniffer, or in the occasional feature film, most must remain content as members of a proud leisure class. Fortunately for the dog, its use as a pet has skyrocketed over the last century, to the point that more people have dogs than have children. Doggie welfare is not in the works.

A Material Pooch
While traditionally the dog was viewed as servant and the owner as master, it is finding new status on par with that of its benefactor. No longer the loyal servant, the dog is enjoying a new egalitarianism in the pet world - the notion that pets are people too. And while few pet owners would confess to holding such a belief, the very language used to describe the care and treatment of our pets signals a change in perspective.

A host of amenities once reserved for humans are finding a four-legged niche market. A common kennel will never do for Fluffy; she frequents nothing but the finest in pet hotels. She wouldn't dare trust her coat to any groomer. Quick, off to the doggie spa. Doggie delis, canine caterers, and get-fit doggie camps are springing up across the country. There is even a doggie design center in New York's garment district that features designer knock-offs for the pooch that has everything.

Dog foods and products are expanding to the point where they occupy more grocery store shelf space than baby food and formulas. Gone are the days of feeding dogs scraps and bones. Now there's Puppy Chow for every stage in a dog's development, dried food, wet food, chunky food, meaty food, dog cookies, dog buscuits, and other assorted snacks.

Freud for a Field Spaniel?
Neurotic Newfoundlands and depressed Dobermans are seeking solace with their local doggie psychologist. There is even help for them online. One site advertises the services of a pet psychologist with degrees in both education and psychology and whose methods consist of "Animal Behavioral Analysis, Pet Psychology, Lots of Love and Respect for Animals, Inter-Species Communication, Kindness and Understanding for all of life."

One regular feature reads, "Are you an Animal with Human Problems? See Dear Dr. PepperSauce!" Dr. PepperSauce is the good doctor's Persian Cat. She answers questions. The cat, that is.

But even in the mainstream media, there is a propensity to attribute an almost human level of complexity to the family pet. In March of 1994, McCall's ran an article entitled "What My Husband Could Learn From My Dog" in which the author writes, "He's loving. He's loyal. He's srong. He's cute. He's sensitive. He's well-bred, highly intelligent, down-to-earth, good-natured, attentive." The author was not describing her husband.

New York Times Magazine contributor Joseph Olshan wrote of his experience dogsitting, "I'm attracted to troubled souls and I promptly fell in love with Beo - short for Beowulf - because he had so many hints of affliction."

This trend towards elevating the dog to almost human status is ironic in that it is the fact that dogs are "less" than human that makes them such attractive companions. Their affection and obedience are pure, uncomplicated, and consistent, devoid of the complexities that complicate and therefore frustrate human relationships.

Bred to the Task
But what is the effect of all this pampering and coddling on the dog itself?

According to Peter Paris, Senior Director of Public Affairs for the ASPCA, such treatment can be beneficial: "What this does is it increases the depth of the relationship between animal and person."

Mr. Paris goes on to say that this type of anthropomorphization represents a positive movement away from thinking of dogs as mere property. A "positive reward relationship," while involving a lengthier training process, is preferable to one involving negative reinforcement.

As for committing a dog to a work task such as heavy hauling, Mr. Paris says that it is fine if the dog is bred for that task.

On the subject of pet psychologists, Mr. Paris is equally receptive. However, he claimed that the difference between an animal "psychologist" and an animal behaviorist or trainer is largely semantic. The techniques they employ do not differ significantly. The title is assumed to comfort the owner, as it suggests a perspective that values the emotional state of the dog, and not simply the behavioral result.

As for those who claim a psychic connection with dogs, Mr. Paris states, "That 's best left to the judgment of the individual."


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On the Trail of the Past / From Workhorse to Welcome Friend / Past Uses for Your Pooches

Written by Steven Shaklan with graphic design by Dana Byerly

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