Tom Leonard

Bone idols

In pottiness about their pets, Americans are now way ahead of the British

Bone idols
Dog spa|Dog spa
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New York

The Manhattan tattoo artist Craig Dershowitz had already spent $60,000 fighting a desperate legal battle with his ex-girlfriend for custody of their ‘son’ before he appealed to the public a few weeks ago. He needed another $20,000 so he can keep going, he said. Had the helpless victim at the centre of this tug-of-love been a real boy, Mr Dershowitz could have kissed his campaign goodbye. But Dershowitz junior is actually a puppy, Knuckles, part pug, part beagle, all ‘puggle’ — so Craig’s in with a chance of getting the cash. A $25 donation will get you a Save Knux T-shirt, $10 will buy you a ‘virtual smooch’ with the puggle.

But Knuckles is not alone. His is just one crazy tale in a city that has become crazily obsessed with its dogs. We British may pride ourselves on being a nation of canophiles, but New Yorkers are in a league of their own. 

What’s behind it all? Well, like Mr Dershowitz, more and more dog owners are single or childless and see their pets as surrogate children — to be in turns spoilt rotten, obsessed over and neglected.

Not for nothing does the US pet industry nowadays insist on talking about pet ‘parents’ rather than ‘owners’. Swallow that distinction and the assault on your wallet — and intelligence — comes relatively easily. After all, once a dog becomes a child, what parents could resist spoiling it with some of the lovely treats on offer: luxury dog spas, dog dating agencies, dog acupuncture? You can even buy your pooch a blueberry facial. 

And what if your pride and joy falls for a piece of tail in Central Park? What parent would begrudge him or her a nice dog wedding? There was one at an expensive Greenwich Village restaurant last month at which Boo the Pomeranian and Piper the Chihuahua ‘exchanged collars’. The wretched little creatures were stuffed into a miniaturised dinner jacket and a custom-made wedding ‘dress’ with veil. The wedding night might have been a disappointment, though, as both bride and groom were neutered. The Wall Street Journal covered the ‘petrimony’ without even a twinge of ridicule.

It’s not just New Yorkers — all Americans are putty in the paws of the pet industry. It’s a traditionally ‘recession-resistant’ sector of the American economy (not immune but quick to recover) and so producers of pet products are ramping up the pressure. US pet owners spent a hefty $57 billion last year, two thirds of that on the country’s 50 million dogs. An increasingly large amount is spent on the luxury end of the market, or what they call in the business ‘super-premium’ or ‘pet pampering’.

Part of the pet pampering package is DogTV, a new 24-hour US television channel to entertain and inform your dog. The channel is designed to provide company for America’s growing army of lonesome dogs who might suffer from ‘separation anxiety’ or boredom whilst their owners are at work. DogTV shows dogs running after balls, having play-fights and sniffing other dogs in post-watershed places. There are plans to add smells, via a box next to the set which will waft out the odour of flowers, biscuits or grass when the image comes on screen. 

There are no plans, however, to add the smell of decaying fox, horseshit or urine — smells your pet might actually enjoy. This is because the idea underlying all this pampering is that what dogs really want is to be treated like humans. 

The Sopranos’ stomping ground of northern New Jersey heaves with dog spas and luxury dog hotels where rich Manhattanites can leave their loved ones for a weekend of pampering and grooming. Your pooch can and should expect some or all of the following: in-kennel flat-screen TV, electrically operated leather beds, soft music, chiropractors, facial scrubs and heated swimming pools. Colour-enhancing shampoos, mud baths, bottled water and ‘charming mutt cut’ hairdos are usually optional extras, as is ‘personal cuddle time’, which at around $1 a minute suggests lap dancers may be in the wrong business.

When he isn’t sticking pins in puggles, the leading New York dogupuncturist Jeffrey Levy is the lead singer of Pet Rox, a group of ‘pet professionals’ who write and perform rock songs about the joys of pet ownership. The band got together six years ago after meeting at New York’s annual Barking Beauty pageant, a puppy dressing-up event and talent show.

If even vets can sink to this sort of disgusting cutesiness, what chance do ordinary owners have of keeping their animals in perspective? Not much, apparently. One in ten pets now has its own social media profile and Americans on the East and West coasts are already on to the inevitable next stage — online dating services for dogs. New York’s Matchpuppy pairs up dogs by age, breed and energy level as a potential breeding partner or, if your dog wants to take it slowly, just a play-date.


David Lummis, a US pet industry analyst, says that the way pets have become ensconced as full family members isn’t just a trend but a long-term societal shift. ‘In the past ten years, it’s become socially acceptable to spend fairly extravagantly on your pet without people thinking you’re crazy,’ he said. And, he added, those spending most extravagantly tend to be people with no children and so little experience of domestic chaos. For them, there’s a quid pro quo for treating Fluffles as a well-adjusted child, and that is that they expect the dog to behave like one too.

This is where we get into a troubling question about dog ‘spoiling’. Who is it primarily intended to benefit — pet or owner? Nicholas Dodman, a British veterinary behaviourist who is the front man of DogTV, moved to the US 30 years ago. In those days, it was the British who were the gooey animal lovers and the Americans the hard-headed pragmatists. The situation has now ‘flipped’, he says. He sees DogTV as a crucial way of tackling separation anxiety, which he insists afflicts 17 per cent of America’s dogs. 

A few years ago, he gave the same reason for backing a dog version of the anti-depressant Prozac for dogs. The drug — which was recently given approval for the UK — can, he believes, combat the destructive and compulsive behaviour that afflicts many dogs left alone all day in city apartments. But other experts strenuously disagree. American office workers are now starting to stay in touch with home-alone dogs by ringing them on the online video call service Skype. One can imagine Wallace doing the same for Gromit, but will other British man and dog partnerships have to follow the American way? Don’t be too sure that the answer is no. A recent British study found that a third of pet owners would rather holiday with their animals than with their family and 13 per cent would even take their dogs in preference to their partners.

Roger Mugford in Britain dismisses separation anxiety as a ‘lifestyle’ illness cynically pushed by drug companies so they can market treatments to gullible owners. Ian Dunbar, another British vet who now advises Americans on pet behaviour, believes owners who ply their dogs with designer drugs or doggy TV are not really trying to sort out their anxiety issues — they just want to stop them barking, chewing up the furniture and disrupting their neat little lives. David Lummis, the American expert, agrees. He wonders whether paranoid owners don’t simply need to spend a bit more time with their dogs, letting them do normal, doggy things. Or maybe, he says, people who are going to be at work all week and away at weekends should not have a dog at all and should stick to Facebook instead.