LEAD STORY
Going to the Dogs

They're Cute,
They're Furry.
They're Taking Over.


BY CHRIS LYDGATE

 

 

Cat owners are less likely than dog owners to have never attended college, but more likely to hold an advanced degree. (Source: US Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, American Veterinary Medical Association)

 


Cedar Mill vet Rick White (above) fashioned a wheelchair (below) for his paraplegic dog Bubba.

 


"She's my daughter," says Powell , who has no human children. "I would do anything for her."

 

 

 

In 1998, America's dog population was estimated at 58 million. (Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, National Pet Owners Survey)

 

 


Devotion to dogs is by no means confined to urban professionals. Jerry Smith (above), a burly 41-year-old homeless man, would rather sleep outside than part with his 6-month-old Rottweiler puppy, Bert. "I wouldn't give him up for nothing," says Smith, who survives on day labor and recycling cans and bottles. "If I can't find a place to take both of us, I'll stay out here until I can." Smith is clearly devoted to his hound: Bert is neutered and up to date on all his shots and, when Smith can afford it, dines on Pedigree dog food. "It tastes pretty good," Smith says. "I eat some myself once in a while."

 

 

June 23 was
Take Your Dog
To Work Day.

 

 

 

The Animal Cemetery on Northeast Columbia Boulevard, next
to the Oregon Humane Society's shelter, is reckoned to be about 100 years old--reputedly the
oldest on the
West Coast.

 

 

 

Owners are increasingly lying down with their dogs. In 1998, 38 percent of dogs usually slept in a person's bed at night, up from 29 percent in 1992. (Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, National Pet Owners Survey)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Sidebar: Shaggy Dog Stories

Ursa wants a yellow duck. Walter plays hide-and-seek around the jungle gym. Charlotte, her mischievous eyes flashing, keeps rolling a rubber ball across the floor, hoping the day-care worker will fetch it back, while Buddy, still panting after a set of laps around a makeshift obstacle course, takes a break in the time-out zone.

From the yelps and the whining to the toys on the floor, it's your typical day-care center. Except that all the children are dogs.

Welcome to Urban Fauna--a new day-care facility in Old Town catering exclusively to canines.

On any given weekday, about 20 "parents"--mostly urban professionals--pay between $16 and $20 to drop off their dogs here before they go to work. Like a conventional day care, Urban Fauna provides structured activities for its kids, including agility training, walks and snack time. Day-care workers even use music to help set the dogs' mood--ocean sounds during nap time, Gregorian chants at night.

Five years ago, doggie day care did not exist in Portland. Today there are five such centers--complete with entrance requirements and waiting lists.

"There's a lot of people who have decided not to have children," says Suzanne Losh, a former veterinary technician who started Urban Fauna six months ago. "So their dogs become their children."

Sci-fi writers in back in the '50s used to imagine love affairs between humans and other species, but none of them ever predicted day care for dogs. Nor could any futurist have foreseen sports drinks for dogs, Prozac for dogs, Muzak for dogs, health food for dogs, homeopathy for dogs, hydrotherapy for dogs, aromatherapy for dogs, acupuncture for dogs, or all-natural organic shampoo for dogs--with conditioner.

Doggie reiki. Doggie root canals. Doggie hip replacement. Doggie health insurance. Doggie horoscopes. Doggie therapists. Doggie dermatologists. Doggie surgeons. Doggie orthopedic surgeons.

In 1998, the amount of money Americans spent on dog food totaled $5.9 billion, equivalent to the gross domestic product of Mongolia. America's hottest new publication? The Bark, a sort of Atlantic Monthly for dog owners. Companies from Taco Bell to the Helmsley Hotel chain have adopted hounds as their mascots, while Judge Wapner, who once presided over The People's Court, now metes out justice on Judge Wapner's Animal Court.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of our evolving attitudes toward dogs are "neuticles"--rubber testicles, designed to look and feel like the real thing, which are inserted into Fido's scrotum after the Big Snip, ensuring that neither he nor his owner will endure any locker-room snickering.

Dog has been man's (and woman's) best friend since before the dawn of recorded history, and people have always included dogs in their families. But in recent years, urban Americans--especially Portlanders--have begun to take a certain kind of four-legged logic to its logical, if somewhat surreal, extreme. If Elvis sang "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog" today, it would likely be taken as a compliment. It's as if two parallel universes, the human universe and the dog universe, are somehow converging: Dog owners are increasingly treating their dogs as they would their children. Dogs aren't just part of the family any more--in some cases, they have become the family.

Any list of Portland's movers and shakers would include Paige Powell. Formerly the associate publisher of Interview magazine, she hung out with Andy Warhol and held showings by Jean-Michel Basquiat in her New York apartment. As the executive director of the Pearl Arts Foundation, she is bringing artists such as Kenny Scharf to install totem poles in Jamison Park, discussing murals with filmmaker Gus Van Sant and playgrounds with artist Maya Lin.

Rubbing shoulders with the big dogs of the art world is all very well, but Powell's eyes really light up when she talks about Sherlock, a black-and-tan coon-hound-shepherd mix (don't say "mutt") whom she rescued from the streets of Queens 10 years ago. "She's my daughter," says Powell, who has no human children. "I would do anything for her."

Each morning, Powell takes Sherlock for a walk in the park, then feeds her a gourmet meal of organic brown rice, peas, broccoli, edamame and organic chicken breasts from Strohecker's (Powell herself is vegan, but does not impose her views on her beloved carnivore). Powell has installed a cage in her Volvo so she can safely transport Sherlock wherever she goes. She has commissioned five different paintings of Sherlock, including one of her reading a biography of Anthony Trollope, and another where she poses before a Scottish castle clad in a jeweled collar.

"I'm just giving her the attention all canine children deserve," says Powell, who is currently holding discussions with artist William Wegman about installing a public drinking fountain--strictly for dogs, of course--in the Pearl District.

Another bastion of dog power in the Pearl is ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, which recently gave employee Jeff Selis a four-month leave of absence to produce Dog Bless America, a coffeetable book profiling dogs from every state in the union. Selis, whose first book (Cat Spelled Backwards Doesn't Spell God) focused on Portland hounds, admits that his 4-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier, Otis, sneaks into bed with him every night. "If that's considered spoiled, then so be it," he says. "And if spoiling Otis is wrong, then I don't want to be right."

It is tempting to dismiss the Paige Powells and Jeff Selises of the world as eccentrics. But truth be told, their attitude is increasingly common.

"People are different about their pets than they used to be," says Laurie Morton, the editor and publisher of Dog Nose News, a local newspaper she describes as a Just Out for dogs, which debuts next month. "Dogs have come to play a bigger role in families, especially in the city. It's wonderful and it's silly. We now have interspecies families."

Paradoxically, doggy-mania has taken over America at a time when the dog population is relatively stable, or even falling, depending on which set of statistics you use. Ten years ago, 42 percent of all households in Oregon owned a dog, making the state's canine population 720,000, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. By 1996, the most recent year for which statistics were available, that figure had shrunk to 33 percent, making for a dog population of 700,000.

During roughly the same time, however, the number of people in the Portland metro area employed in veterinary services jumped 41 percent. In other words, more vets are looking after fewer dogs--and providing services hitherto unimaginable.

***

At the ripe old age of 14, Mac qualifies as a senior citizen in the canine world, and like many seniors, he's been acting a little strange recently. His doctor worries that he may have a brain tumor. Five years ago, even one year ago, his father might have opted for euthanasia. But today the black Lab is trotting into the waiting room of the Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging and Cytopathology Clinic in Clackamas, with its white walls and unfamiliar smells, for a $745 MRI scan. The clinic, which opened in April, boasts a brand-new million-dollar MRI scanner, a state-of-the-art Philips Gyroscan T5-NT that would be the envy of any local hospital.

As the techs inject Mac with an anesthetic and his breathing slows to a steady rhythm, the gigantic electromagnets begin to pulse. In the hallway, Mac's father--who prefers to remain anonymous--paces back and forth. "I'm sorry, I'm a little emotional right now," he says. "He's my baby."

Our growing attachment to our dogs--and our willingness to spend money on them--has unleashed a virtual revolution in the animal health-care industry. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has developed the first lifestyle drug for dogs, Anipryl, which, for $175 a month, will combat Cushing's Disease, a common ailment among older hounds that causes lethargy, muscle weakness and excessive panting. Older dogs, particularly dachshunds, are prone to degenerative disk disease, which local vets can now treat with an operation known as fenestration ($800-$900). And the list goes on: surgery for hip dysplasia ($3,500-$4,000);
radiation therapy for leukemia ($3,000-$3,500); chemotherapy for lymphoma ($5,000).

And then there are the neuticles, synthetic testicle implants developed by the CTI Corporation of Buckner, Mo., to ease "post-neutering trauma." Ranging in cost from $90 to $140, the prosth-testes come in three models (plastic, solid silicone and "marshmallow soft" silicone) and five sizes to give Fido the appropriate degree of swagger, be he a Chihuahua or a Great Dane.

"Most pets are not only in pain after being neutered but are depressed because they are missing a familiar body part," explains a company fact sheet. "A pet neutered with neuticles does not know he's been altered because he looks and feels exactly the same."

Laugh all you want--CTI claims that more than 39,000 neuticled animals are now walking among us. "You know, if it's going to get people to neuter their dogs who otherwise would not neuter them, it's worthwhile," says Dr. Tracy Waechter of the Barbur Boulevard Veterinary Hospital, who has installed one pair of synthetic balls in a Boston terrier and has fielded several other inquiries.

Some local vets consider the concept of cosmetic testicles silly, to say the least. Dr. Rick White, a Cedar Mill vet, has never attached a pair and doesn't intend to. But White is familiar with the increasing tendency on the part of owners to identify with their dogs. Over the years he has watched his clientele shift from farmers who view animals as an economic resource to suburbanites who regard them as members of the family.

"Twenty years ago I was driving out to the farmer, pulling calves and fishing wild horses out of barbed-wire fences," he says. "Now I've got all small animals. I've seen the evolution from sows with ear tags to poodles with rhinestone-encrusted collars."

White is hardly immune to the trend. Two years ago, a forgetful delivery man left three doors open in the clinic. White's dog, a lab-springer puppy named Bubba, scampered out onto Cornell Road and was hit by a truck. The accident severed his spinal cord at the third lumbar and left him paralyzed below the waist. After several surgeries, Bubba now wanders through the clinic on his forepaws, nonchalantly dragging his back legs behind him, a paraplegic pup with an almost total disregard for his disability. White has even fashioned a wheelchair for Bubba so he can go jogging and play soccer with the family. "When this dog looks at me, it's absolute love and devotion," says White. "He rocks."

***

The shift in attitudes toward dogs, however, strays beyond the medical field. A new breed of lawyers are beginning to argue that dogs should no longer be treated as chattel, but as companions whose worth far exceeds their price tags.

Last July, brother and sister Seth Jensen and Stormi Speer brought their dachshund, Charlie, to the Tualatin Animal Clinic after he swallowed an unspecified "foreign object." According to a lawsuit they filed against the clinic, their vet, Dr. Anne Horne, said Charlie was fine and sent them home. A few days later, they brought Charlie back to the clinic, shaking and vomiting. This time, Horne performed surgery to remove the object, which was blocking Charlie's intestinal tract. Charlie continued to vomit, however, and was unable to move or eat. A week later Jensen and Speer decided to put him down, and filed a medical malpractice suit against Horne.

Malpractice suits are unusual in the animal world, in part because the monetary value of a pet seldom exceeds a few hundred dollars. But Jensen and Speer's attorney, Geordie Duckler, argued in court papers that Charlie maintained "a special and sentimental position and value to the plaintiffs similar to that of a human family member or relation," and sued for $20,000 in damages. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Duckler has not yet had a chance to stand before a jury and argue that losing a pet carries an emotional cost that should be compensated in dollars and cents--but he says he would jump at the chance. "People have told me I'm going to look like a fool," says the legal beagle. "That's OK. I'll never feel embarrassed to argue that."

No one knows whether local jurors would slap their thighs or break out their handkerchiefs. But there is a growing recognition, within the dog world at least, that losing a pet can be a wrenching experience for adults as well as kids.

"When you lose a loved one, you grieve their loss," says grief counselor Enid Traisman, who facilitates a regular pet-loss support group at the Dove-Lewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Northwest Portland. "It doesn't matter if they're four-legged or whatever."

Losing a pet can be so traumatic, in fact, that the Oregon Humane Society has installed a "grieving room" in its new shelter on Northeast Columbia Boulevard to give bereaved owners a chance to grapple with their grief before climbing into their cars. Shelter employees say it is not uncommon to observe parking lot fender-benders involving teary survivors who have just watched Fido close his eyes for the last time.

To cope with their loss, dog owners are now seeking closure by creating memorial services for their dearly departed. In the past two years, Moments in Time, a Milwaukie production company that specializes in memorial videos for funeral services, has created roughly 100 videos for dead dogs (and some cats). The videos feature photographs of the deceased companion superimposed over ocean scenery or forest landscape, set to classical music. Typically, the last shot is of the dog ascending into the clouds, followed by a final message from their grieving owner. "People are really attached to their animals," says producer Tom Fowler, who charges $75 per video. "Sometimes more than to their own siblings."

***

There's no denying the profound sense of companionship people derive from their dogs (don't even get us started on cats). For those at society's margins--abused children, homeless people, the elderly--having a dog can mean the difference between life and death. So strong is the bond between dog and master that Dove-Lewis has just started a Pet Fostering Network for abused women, citing a study that found seven out of 10 victims of domestic violence will remain in their abusive situation rather than leave their pet behind.

At the same time, there is something vaguely troubling about this collective case of Doggy Fever.

Last month, when aMcMinnville woman named Brandy Stroeder was denied a potentially life-saving lung-liver transplant by the Oregon Health Plan, Gov. John Kitzhaber received several hundred calls, faxes and emails.

Three years ago, when a dog named Nadas was sentenced to death for chasing a horse, Kitzhaber received more than 10,000 requests for clemency.

It's great that Portlanders now have access to an MRI scanner for their dogs. But 16 counties in rural Oregon have no MRI scanner at all--for dogs or people.

What explains our proclivity to sympathize with dogs at the expense of people? One theory is that our fellow human beings have a well-documented habit of letting us down, whereas the cardinal virtue of dogs is loyalty. "Every time you get up, they're there, gazing at you adoringly, despite your bed-head and bad breath," says Traisman, the grief counselor. "It's a relationship that is very stable. It's uncomplicated, unconditional love."

Many dog owners say that in an increasingly hectic, stressful, and distrustful society, their canine companions provide a sort of emotional safe harbor. "I do find my personal relationships more difficult than my relationships with dogs," agrees Selis, the author of Dog Bless America. "Dogs are just so simple and pure. They are the essence of what I aspire to be."

"People are becoming more distant from each other," says Dr. White of Cedar Mill. "Dogs fulfill a role in our society that the human-to-human bond does not fulfill, for one reason or another. So we look to our animals. Because in the end, they are honest. They are honest. The most your dog will work you for is a biscuit or a pat on the head."

Dogs do not disappoint us--and unlike our children, our spouses and our friends, they are never disappointed in us. At the end of the day, dogs are there for us, the ideal companion for a society that is once bitten, twice shy.

--WW reporter Chris Lydgate was a cat in a former life. Intern Kelly Clarke sniffed out several key facts and quotes for this report.

 

 


Shaggy Dog Stories

By Chris Lydgate

April 1993 Clatsop County authorities discover self-professed "animal collector" Vikki Kittles living in an old school bus with 115 dogs, four cats and two roosters. After firing nine court-appointed attorneys and challenging six judges, Kittles is sentenced to 15 months in jail for animal abuse. "Kittles is in my opinion one of the most dangerous, evil people I have ever encountered," says prosecutor Josh Marquis.

March 1995 Reed College installs dog drinking fountain.

April 1995 Pookie Atkins, a 4-year-old Rottweiler from Gresham, reaches through a chain link fence and sinks her teeth into the tender flesh of 2-year-old Alicia Phillips, who is playing in the yard next door. Pookie spends the next seven months--four dog years--on death row at Multnomah County Animal Control, despite howls of protest from local dog lovers and an anonymous handwritten death threat. After a dogged series of hearings, Lake Oswego lawyer Robert Babcock wins Pookie's freedom, and she winds up on the cover of WW ("Death Row Dog," WW, Oct. 25, 1995).

September 1996 A 3-year-old collie-malamute mix named Nadas is sentenced to death for chasing a horse in Jackson County. Thousands of outraged dog lovers--some from as far away as England--hound Gov. John Kitzhaber, asking him to commute the sentence (which he has no legal authority to do). The case goes to the Oregon Supreme Court, which grants Nadas a reprieve. Overall, the governor will have received more calls about the Nadas episode than about any other single issue of his six-year tenure. "There's an extraordinary level of compassion for dogs," says press secretary Bob Applegate. "When something doggy happens, we hear about it."

December 1997 Jogging down a neighborhood street in Hillsboro, off-duty Portland Police Officer John Hurlman encounters a 3-year-old, 100-pound yellow Labrador retriever named George. Thinking the dog is about to attack him, he pulls a 38-caliber revolver from his fanny pack and shoots and kills the dog. George's family's attorney compares the incident to "shooting and killing a small child." DA drops the case after Hurlman agrees to pay the family $10,000 and perform 32 hours of community service.

June 1999 Berbati's holds a benefit for local rockhound Tres Shannon, whose dog needs a $2,000 knee operation.

Summer 1999 Multnomah County Chairwoman Bev Stein proposes a 5 percent tax on all pet food sold in the county to pay for animal control. After a chorus of yelps from animal lovers, pet stores and the pet-food industry, Stein is brought to heel and retreats with her tail between her legs.

January 2001 The Dog Genome Project, an ambitious effort to map the genetic paw-print of the canine species, is finally complete, isolating for the first time the genes for whining, drooling and chasing one's tail.

April 2010 Following a nationwide campaign of chaining themselves to courthouses, dogs finally win the right to vote.

June 2036 Promising a fire hydrant in every garage and a rabbit in every pot, Wisconsin multimillionaire Spuds Mackenzie XXXII becomes the first dog to be elected president. His running mate is a cocker spaniel named Nixon.

April 1, 2100 Dogs rule the world. The first order of business is to beef up flea and tick research, slash funding for the U.S. Postal Service and quadruple world production of Milk-Bone treats.

 

 

 

    [[Originally published in Willamette Week, July 4, 2000]]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

feedbacksite mapsearch sitepersonalsclassifiedwebxtraculturenews