In early spring, Tanya Oliva sent out a birth announcement via e-mail. Like many moms, she was excited to share the word about her new arrival – an adorable, bouncy, baby wheaten terrier-poodle mix named Casper (black hair, black eyes, very drooly). Ten weeks later, Oliva went to pick up her bundle of joy at a breeder not far from her Vancouver home.
“Usually you can pick a dog up after eight weeks, but I waited for 10 because that was what worked in terms of scheduling time off,” she explains, referring to two weeks of “maternity leave” she took from her position as executive director of Social Venture Partners so that she could help Casper ease into his new home.
Calling it “mat leave,” she acknowledges, was slightly tongue in cheek (it was actually paid vacation time), but she doesn’t see anything silly or extreme about prioritizing her duties as a new pet parent.
“I did my research. I read a bunch of books that talked about how the first 16 weeks are the most important in terms of development. I have a new addition to my family, and I’m giving him the time he needs,” she says.
While it’s unlikely that time off for puppy duty will be written into employment law any time soon, Oliva’s attitude speaks to the increasingly blurred lines between bipedal and four-legged dependents. Even Pope Francis weighed in recently (albeit from the other side of the electric fence), when he urged married couples to remember that when God said “be fruitful,” he wasn’t talking about doggy descendants.
The pontiff’s remarks annoyed many pet lovers, but the fact he addressed the topic at all underscores the rise of the fur-friendly family.
In many households, pets are taking the place of children, filling the nest for millennials and boomers (in the pre- and post-child rearing stages of life). According to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada, about half of the country’s households have a pet (38 per cent have dogs), compared with about 25 per cent of households having children. A 2011 survey by Kelton Global found that 80 per cent of American pet owners consider their animals to be equal members of the family; and more than half referred to themselves as “mommy” or “daddy” to their pet. Pampered pups enjoy such perks as play dates, birthday parties, spa days and social media accounts. Dogbook is home to 3.5 million canines and counting. (Sample status update from a Yorkshire terrier named Maggie: “Oh no we are out of treats! Looks like mama has to buy more!”)
Close ties between canines and humans aren’t new, of course. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert on dog-human interaction, notes that the world’s wealthy have long indulged their pups. In the 18th century, Frederick the Great fed his greyhounds at the table and gave them their own wing of his Sanssouci Palace near Berlin.
The human tendency to satisfy emotional needs through pet ownership, Coren explains, is also a matter of personal circumstance. “When I was young, I lived in the same neighbourhood as my grandparents, two aunts and uncles and a half-dozen cousins,” he recalls, but these days families can be spread around the globe. At the same time, procreation has become less an imperative than an option, so many people are left with pet-shaped holes in their hearts,” says Coren.
Carrie Trownson, the weekend anchor of CTV News in Northern Ontario, knows something about nurturing. In 2012, she spent several months caring for Tux, her then two-year-old pug-Jack Russell mix, after he was diagnosed with cancer. She and her husband met with specialists, discussed surgery options and adjusted their schedules to meet Jack’s needs.
“I’m not by any means saying that it is the same as a kid with cancer,” she said, “but we certainly felt like we were playing a very parental role – travelling back and forth between North Bay and [the dog hospital in] Guelph, spoon-feeding him.”
Trownson’s friends have teased her about her devotion to her two “dog babies” (Tux and his sister Piper) and questioned the decision to spend $5,000 on Tux’s surgery. But for now, the dogs are a priority, she says. “We’re not ready for the responsibility of kids yet. This is sort of like training.”
Oliva says she decided not to have kids in part because she never met the right guy, but at 45, she has no regrets: “With everything going on in the world – wealth disparity, unemployment, global warming – part of me thinks, who would want to have a kid?” Casper adds meaning and responsibility to her home life and brings her into the community, she adds. “When we go out walking I talk to everyone. That wouldn’t happen if I were walking by myself.”
Now that Oliva is back on the job, Casper goes to doggy daycare two days a week, and she works from home the other three days – the type of flexibility many working parents would love to have. Oliva feels her circumstances are no different: “I pay school fees. I respect you for having children, and you should respect me.”
A growing number of North American courts are recognizing the pet/caregiver relationship, as seen in the rise of divorce proceedings in which dogs and cats are a matter of custody rather than property. Some workplaces are also adjusting. In France, for example, the death of a pet legally entitles you to one day of bereavement. In Canada, where many companies compete to attract top talent, a nod to Fido might be a savvy move. “Look at all of these workplaces taking all sorts of innovative measures to bring in these millennial workers,” Oliva says. “Why not offer a one-week puppy leave?”
Special to The Globe and Mail