The dogs are winning. Dogs are in our offices and beneath our feet in coffee shops. While stretching at my gym, a very sweet retriever sometimes stretches too. Like The Ritz-Carleton, Holt Renfrew is “dog-friendly,” and this Christmas, someone somewhere is buying a Swarovski crystal dog collar for around $200. The popular blog and book Hipster Puppies feeds ironic pet fetishes with photos of dogs in tuques clutching David Foster Wallace books.
Dog ubiquity matters little in wide-open fields, but it’s an issue in cramped urban centres. Depending on how you feel about the furry fellows, dogs represent the infringement of public space, or the celebration – in fact, the point – of it. Either way, dogs have become the catalyst for a million intense, unbottled urban emotions.
According to Statistics Canada data from 2009, just under half of Canadians are pet owners. We shell out for this privilege, with the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association estimating that an adult dog costs more than $1,800 a year.
To many of the pet-less, this is madness, and public parks are ground zero for the fissure between dog people and people people. Earlier this year, those whose yards abutted a fenced-in off-leash area in Ledbury Park in north Toronto complained of constant noise and mess. One proposed solution was to move the enclosed space to the centre of the park – where, as many irked parents pointed out, the kids go. Eventually, the enclosure was taken down but not before the reported flinging of insults at heated community meetings.
As someone who is dog neutral but might some day get one, I’m wary of the obsessive culture we’ll be joining. Consider our neighbour, slowly driven mad by a barker. Seeing her in the morning, eyes like pinwheels, she croaks, “It was no better last night.” But the dog’s owner shrugs off her complaints, granting the beast autonomy: That’s just the way of the dog, man. He has something in common with the worst parents, those who believe that discipline is akin to “crushing the spirit.”
Certainly, dogs have become as romanticized – and indulged – as children. Post Marley & Me, the “dogoir” is a bona fide literary genre, recently entered by Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times. In The Puppy Diaries, she admits to spoiling her dogs, feeding her terrier rosemary chicken and anthropomorphizing her new golden retriever into a baby.
Speaking of which, perhaps dogification is karmic payback for my generation’s fanatical parenting practices. For every $1,200 stroller purchased or baby sign-language class taken, we shall be rewarded with dog crap on our shoes and pet makeovers in our malls. Like a baby in a bar, a dog in a bookstore is there to say, “Why can’t the world come around to my way of looking at things? I poop – possibly literally – on your adult-human-centric attitude!” Once, while I was trying to track down the owner of a leash-less beast ripping through the playground, a man sniffed, “I’m not his owner – I’m his person.”
With a few exceptions – Egyptians dug their cats – at no time in history have humans had such an emotional and sentimental attachment to their pets. In 1999, an Australian sociologist named Adrian Franklin wrote a prescient book called Animals & Modern Cultures, noting that through the last century, the categorical distinctions between human and animal were pretty clear-cut: They were in service to us, but a little snuggling was okay. Now that we reside in slippery postmodernity, with its broken foundations and shifting categories, animals have come to seem closer to human. Franklin says that we share “common adversity” with our pets: They seem as vulnerable in these tumultuous times as we are. To survive, they need more from us – and we need more from them. Animals are “available, reliable, stable and predictable in their relations with humans at a time when human social relations are the opposite.” If community is eroding, animals, those social catalysts of the dog park, are one answer. Taking care of an animal is a way of recreating familial relations in a time of diaspora; if you can’t fly your mother across the world for Christmas, you can still make your dog’s holiday Swarovski-special.
Across from my local, dog-filled park, a former café has been replaced by a sleek pet store with German collars and eco-friendly dog food. It’s a symbolically appropriate, financially viable business: The neighbourhood is a mixture of families with dogs and twentysomethings in condos using dogs as starter babies.
But what will we talk about on the stoop where the coffee used to be drunk? The thing is: Your dog is as boring to me as my kids are to you. Let’s spare each other blogs and descriptions about the cute things our creatures do. Four legs may be good, but as social animals and decent neighbours, it’s still the two-legged who make a community.