Friday 22 March 2019

How the dog industry went barking mad: Why Irish owners are treating their dogs like babies

Doggy daycare, spaniel spas, canine cuisine - modern mutts are utterly mollycoddled. Why are owners treating them like babies, asks Chrissie Russell

Eva Hall and her dog Clint
Eva Hall and her dog Clint
If your idea of a good night is sitting in with the dog watching 'Marley and Me', there's cause for concern

Chrissie Russell

'I'm an aunty!" a friend proudly exclaimed on Facebook recently. 'Ah lovely,' I thought and scrolled down, hopeful of some oxytocin inducing snaps of a pink-faced, squishy newborn. Instead I found her clutching what appeared to be a large fluffy tea-cosy.

"I'm fur-baby broody," she enthused, leaving me idly wondering if her brother was married to a terrier and how many of the other 'nieces and nephews' she'd spoken of were, in fact, four-legged.

Not long ago another friend spent a considerable amount of money sailing and driving over 3,000 miles, while suffering appalling morning sickness, rather than making a simple two-hour flight - purely so she could bring her dog on holiday.

Dog people. They've always been a breed onto themselves but lately there seems to be an almost rabid fervour to the canine obsession. There's a new book out, Stepdog by Mireya Navarro, to walk dog lovers through the notoriously tricky scenario of marrying a man with a mutt.

We have doggy daycare, spas for spaniels and, in Stockholm anyway, there's a posh fast-food van circling the capital for peckish, but discriminating, dogs.

The brand Coach just recently signed up Lady Gaga's French bulldog as part of its newly launched 'Coach Pups campaign'. In the ad photo Miss Asia Kinney can only dangle the handbag around her neck (almost as if handbags weren't made for dogs to carry) but she has a great vacant model stare.

Last week's viral internet sensation was a pair of dogs, filmed over the course of nine months, bounding in slo-mo towards their dinner. In case you actually had something better to do with 90 seconds of your life - unlike the nine million people who watched the YouTube clip - and missed this, I'm talking about Colby and Bleu (yes, this is what dogs are called these days) whose American owner filmed them from 11 weeks to 11 months in the time lapse sequence. The dog-loving population of the internet whipped itself into a frenzy.

"A dog is one of the truest manifestations of love," wrote one viewer, understandably awed by the sight of two dogs running.

"It's no wonder dog is god spelt backwards". Another succinctly observed: "This is one of the best videos I've seen in a while."

Read more: Eva Hall: In defence of dog-owners 'Do I love my dog like you love your kids? Yes I do. Let's face it - he's just better' 

This sort of scintillating online chat might leave one inclined to draw certain conclusions about the dog obsessives out there, but, intriguingly, they're mostly young, affluent women. - a website celebrating the 'pawsome stuff dogs do' (sample article: 'Nine Reasons You're Glad Your Dog Isn't On Facebook') - has eight million unique viewers, 75pc of whom are female, typically 25-45 and earning $75k-$100k (€67k-€90k).

A poll earlier this year concluded that 39pc of unmarried women would rather stay in with their dog than go out on a date on Valentine's Day (23pc of men agreed). Last year a UK survey found that one in 10 women prefers their pooch to their partner.

With news that Britney Spears spends $24k (€22k)in a year on dog grooming, and pet-sitting dominating recent headlines, Miley Cyrus tweeting her self-diagnosed 'Obsessed With Dogs Disorder' and stars seeking 'pup-nup' agreements over custody of their pooches, psychologist Sally O'Reilly ( reckons we can blame some of the mutt mania on celebrities.

"Pet ownership has become glamourised and cuteness abounds on the internet. A lot of us want to own some of that, so we buy cuteness in the form of puppies and kitties," she explains.

"Animal videos are among the most popular on YouTube. We buy what we are sold. And we are definitely being sold cute animals."

And they're definitely buying. In one year it was revealed Americans spent $52bn on pets - more than they spend on coffee and bottled water combined. In the UK a Maltese called Betty was recently hailed as the nation's most pampered pooch after her owner, who runs a five-star dog hotel and spa offering 'pawdicures', revealed she'd spent £30,000 in three years on Betty, buying things like a crystal-encrusted fork to feed her with.

Psychologist Susannah Healy says there's a danger that dogs have become a 'socially acceptable comfort blanket for adults' that they could be hiding behind rather than engaging in human interaction.

"Dog ownership should enrich our lives but should not replace human to human contact which is enormously important to good mental health," she warns.

"The emotional capabilities of a dog are estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of a two/two-and-a-half year old human, so just as you would not expect an adult to want to socialise exclusively with toddlers, neither would it be healthy for someone to use dogs as a substitute for human friendship."

There's plenty to be gained from having a pet, but if your idea of a good night is sitting in the with dog watching Marley & Me on repeat, there's cause for concern.

Sally hasn't met anyone with what she would consider a 'pet addiction problem' but believes "attachment to pets is influenced by our interpersonal attachment styles to people."

She explains: "Loneliness and isolation will lead naturally to an increased dependency on a pet for comfort, safety, company and so on."

Obsession and addiction expert Colin O'Driscoll agrees that infatuation can stem from "social dislocation, isolation or trauma where the pet became the antidote or source of a sense of safety in the context of a greater experience of threat and despair."

Read more: Can you really compare having a Chihuahua with having a child?

He reckons living increasingly isolated lives (sitting alone, watching YouTube clips of dogs) might feed into the issue.

But according to canine behaviour and training consultant, Samantha Rawson, projecting human characteristics onto an animal, expecting a dog to fulfil your emotional needs in your life and pampering pooches has one big victim: the dog.

"I think some people get over-infatuated with their dog because of the unconditional love they give," she says. "A dog is always happy to see you, rarely in bad form and doesn't judge you or your choices.

"But a dog is not a human partner and spoiling them isn't fair to the dog in the long term. A dog owner's job is to provide food, shelter, love and security both physically and emotionally which means putting in rules, limits and boundaries."

In short dog lovers, you should be able to cope without your dog and it without you - you're not Wallace and Gromit.

Irish Independent

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