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Pantops Pet Salon & Spa
Charlottesville's Professional Dog Grooming

It's what we do -- it's all we do.

(434) 293-2424
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504 Pantops Center
Charlottesville, VA 22911

Our Evolving Relationship

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 by Mike Cronk

~ Not “Just a Dog” ~

As society has progressed so has our relationship with dogs. For over a thousand years dogs were kept and trained to hunt, guard, rescue, find and retrieve. While technology has developed to fulfill some of those tasks and others are no longer essential for our survival, the dog has not become obsolete. We’ve grown from a communal society to an individualistic society. Families may live on opposite sides of the country and children move out often to live alone, at least at first. This leaves us with a need for companionship that the dog has stepped in to fill throughout the length of our lifespan. This endearment with dogs is getting deeper with every passing year. Breeders are breeding for friendliness just as they do a sense of smell or sight. With effort, Pit Bulls will have their aggressive nature bred out of them as only the most gentle are bred in the future.

It is not unusual to get a Christmas card signed by parents, children and Fido. Even the President of the United States had to decide on a “First Dog” within short order of raising his right hand. That event alone has raised the Portuguese Water Dog to such notoriety that breeding is lagging far behind demand. Remember when Eddie Murphy starred in Dr. Doolittle years ago and we were treated to the animals talking? Now movies and commercials regularly use anthropomorphic (anthro-human, morph-shape) dogs as a critical part of their entertainment and message. The more we humanize dogs, the more we expect and yes, demand that they be treated “humanely.”

~ Endearment through our Life Stages ~

I.  Single

With marriage happening later in life, young single people may take a dog in for company. With nothing else to compete with, the dog is the reliable go-to partner in everything from exercise to lazing around on the couch. A requirement for future relationships quickly becomes “love me, love my dog.” Rather than being a farm dog sleeping outside with the fleas, the dog may find himself welcome on the bed. As a partner in so much, the dog early on establishes a relationship of companionship that blurs the line between pet and friend. When the dog comes first, he often remains #1 or close to it. When I was starting out as a captain in the army, I got my pick of dogs and started with a German Shepard named Duke–macho guy, macho career, macho dog.

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II.  Marriage

The first thing my wife and I did upon returning from our honeymoon was get a dog. We were planning on starting our family right away, but the dog came first. Without any other demands on us outside our jobs, he was the child substitute and thus the focus of our affection. We behaved similarly to young couples I meet today during the grooming process who do trips to the park, running, hiking, couch sitting, and even bed sharing. Anything the dog wants, he gets–almost to a fault. And all we want in return is some basic obedience–and a lick in the face. As long as there are no children, this bond remains strong and increases with time.

Jenna adds: For those who take on a dog before a spouse or with a fiance, the answer to “should my best friend be included in my wedding” is more and more frequently becoming an emphatic “yes!” As you can see in the picture, my friend Ruxandra and her husband included their dogs not just at the wedding but as part of their wedding party. A picture of their dogs was even used as the cover of their invitations. “The Associated Press” recently published an article that includes tips for owners who want to include their dog in their wedding.

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Stage III.  Family

The only competition your dog has before kids is either a partner or demanding job but then comes child #1. Having kids tends to put our dogs back in perspective as pets rather than human substitutes. Over the years, Scruffy the Cairn Terrier, Sugar the Cocker and Margaret our Scottie joined us–all great family dogs but more a side show to raising and trying to feed four children. When the kids were in their teens I switched to my “impression making” breed and gentle giant, the Great Dane.

When my young lady customers get pregnant, I congratulate them but I can’t help teasing them a little bit that their dog will soon get bumped down the ladder of priorities. This is adamantly denied–not their Fifi! But more often than not that’s exactly what happens. Baby is number one and Fifi competes for attention. Fifi goes from the expensive hand scissored haircut, aromatherapy and satin pillow to a short utility cut for easy maintenance and cleanliness around Baby. Fifi better watch out or she’ll be staying in the kitchen behind a child’s gate. Then the barking begins and the demand for the attention we craved from the dog a year ago becomes a pain in the butt!

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Stage IV. Seniors

Hey all you Baby Boomers, remember when you were in your 40s and your parents in their 60s were called “senior citizens” and you thought that was appropriate because, after all, they did look older. How about that medicine cabinet–my folks both looked like they had stock in pharmaceutical companies–pills galore! Well hello grey hair, sore joints and age spots. By the time I finish taking my pills in the morning, there’s no room for breakfast! My favorite song since I turned 63 is Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” Without the kids around, we come back to the dog to be our companion and help us through life.

So comes my relationship with Lizzie, my Golden. Boy do I like that dog! As you can imagine, I’ve always had a strong fondness for dogs, hence the career. The better behaved, the closer the relationship. She is certainly the best mannered dog I have ever owned; no barking, heels well on and off lead, gentle and loving with everyone. The key to her endearment to me? An intense desire to please. When it comes to training, I never had to use treats or coax her to learn–she wanted to make me happy so much she learned quickly and was exceptionally happy with her reward of praise and a good petting. Bottom line is this dog is nothing but pure fun and both my wife and I are increasingly crazy about her. When you combine this with the absence of our children, I find myself getting way too attached–this one’s got me “hook, line and sinker.” Not having experienced “Stage IV” before or understood how these little old couples walking their dog in the park seemed so enamored with them, now I know. It is a predicted course when you get the right dog at the right time and if you happen to hit a home run, dog ownership provides great pleasure. Stage IV is a ball!

~What does this mean for us Financially?~

You wouldn’t give a squirrel a flea bath, or would you? As you can see in our Over-accessorizing article, we’ve gone far beyond supplying dogs their basic necessities. The retail industry has capitalized on our complex relationship in order to sell us raincoats, booties (can you imagine a farmer worrying whether his Border Collie might get rained on?) and all manner of toys geared more toward us than toward our dogs. In 1994 it is estimated that consumers spent $17 billion on their pets. In 2008? $43 billion with an estimate of $45 for 2009. There is a lot of social pressure urging us to give our dogs the best of the best if we really love them as companions and not “just dogs.”

This leads to the question of medical care. A farmer had no need to keep a dog around if he couldn’t work and while we might have some sympathy for a wild animal that appears sick there are few people who would spend their family’s money to take every raccoon in to see a veterinarian. But our dogs are our family members and the veterinary profession has evolved to accommodate our emotional attachment to them. Not too long ago, a dog just received a rabies shot and only got a check up when very sick. Now you have annual shots and office visits, heart worm medication, preventative flea and tick treatments–the list goes on and on, growing every year. Just last week I saw in the nightly news that dogs are now receiving MRIs.

Instead of veterinarians having a general practice, there are now specialists in orthopedics, oncology, urology, etc. Veterinary clinics have become veterinary hospitals. Treatment for cancer or a hip replacement is no longer out of the realm of possible treatment but will sometimes be an expectation. Just a few years ago, we complained about vet visits that cost up to $100. Now we’re lucky to get out having spent only $200-300. And the grooming profession is not far behind. Brushed your dog’s teeth lately? Does Fifi come in for an aromatherapy treatment, pedicure and mud wrap to boot? And, oh by the way, we can color your poodle pink and paint her nails too! Nothing a groomer, vet or pet store owner would like more than to make you feel guilty if you didn’t spent the time and money lining their pockets paying for products and services your dog just can’t live without. Where do we draw the line?

When it comes to things as outlandish as diamond ring shaped squeaky toys and multi-level luxury dog houses, it’s easier to say no than when dealing with health care expenses. No one wants their companion to suffer. But the cost for treatment has risen dramatically. Having enough cash on hand to cover treatment costing several thousand dollars is going to be a struggle for most of us, especially in these hard economic times. Hello pet health insurance. While it’s not a new industry, its purchase and use is not that common but it soon will be. Choices involving general treatment, major medical and deductible amount can cause prices to vary but by and large $50/month is the magic number. That is $600 more you would need to put in your annual budget. I don’t have pet insurance but if I had been paying it, I would have spent $1500 since Lizzie is now two and a half years old. If she stays healthy for another two and a half years the cost of insurance would be $3,000. What to do? Nothing and run the risk of early injury that I can’t afford, saving $50 a month in hope that she will be a healthy dog and in five years have $3000 to use for her or the rest of the family? Or pay $50 a month for insurance just as we do for our own health, a car, our home, etc. If things keep going as they are, no doubt I will opt for insurance in the near future-after all, we are talking about Lizzie here! Then again, maybe Obama can put universal health care for dogs on his to-do list. Was that a collective sigh of disgust I just heard from the Republicans and a “right on” on behalf of the Democrats? It’s nice to be an Independent.

~ What does this mean for us Morally? ~

We have a lot of difficult choices to make. If our relationship with dogs is equal to human companionship, should we be making them home-cooked meals or is kibble still “good enough”? Do you want your dog to have a salon style hair cut for her birthday? Is she going to be dressed to the nines at your side on your wedding day? How many children can you afford once you’ve budgeted for your dog? How many toys do we buy to make up for spending time at work? Is preventive treatment necessary and if not, what’s more important than the comfort of our family members? What if your dog falls short of expectations either mentally or physically, is it right for owners to be subjugated to their care and well being regardless of the return?

This confusion revolves around one main idea–what value do we place on dogs?

Are they less than human, equal to, or better than us? Do all God’s creatures really have a soul? Do they go to Heaven? Shouldn’t we spend time and money on them just as we would ourselves and maybe more since they are dependent on us? It’s bad enough I have to debate whether there is a God, Heaven or everlasting life for me, but now I wonder just what’s in store for my dog, Lizzie. As much as we may not like it today, not too many years ago the working dog was “gotten rid of” if they failed to learn quickly and do their job. Do we really think the sheepherder would keep a bad dog who failed at his work? It was hard enough feeding a family, much less a worthless dog. It would be replaced. Fast forward to the Michael Vick Saga. We bent over backwards to save the fifty or so Pit Bulls he trained for fighting in an effort to find them new homes and spent hours and lots of money on rehabilitating them. PETA would say “right on”-others would want the money spent on homeless children in Africa. But now our dog is no longer a mutt who sleeps under the house and is fed scraps. The dog is a family member and we really hope that “all dogs go to Heaven.”

So we’re caught in a period of transition and deciding what moral path to choose won’t be easy. We wouldn’t let a dog suffer in old age without “putting them to sleep,” but we allow our eighty-five year old parents to suffer from lung cancer for days and weeks, hyped up on morphine to ease the pain until they finally succumb to their last breath. Been there, done that, and it wasn’t fun. The answers won’t come easy and they will be accompanied with ever increasing costs.

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