Around the time that scoopable litter was invented back in the ’80s, cats as pets in America began to outnumber dogs. And our attitude toward dogs began to change. We started to get a bit more finicky.
We don’t want dogs with long hair because we have allergies. We don’t want dogs who shed because we hate to clean house. We don’t want dogs who bark because it’s annoying. We don’t want dogs who growl at strangers because we might get sued. We certainly don’t want dogs who bite.
We’re looking for something playful, but not something that knocks over furniture. No scratching, please. Come when I call you, but don’t be needy.
A hundred years ago, all we looked for in a dog was the ability to herd hooved animals and ward off cougars. Now we want a dog, you know, like the one Sandra Bullock had in that movie? The one with Keanu Reeves?
We’re starting to buy hybrid dogs. Labradoodles (Labrador and Poodle), Puggles (Beagle and Pug), Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle). Boggles, and Bichonpoos, and Schnoodles.
And once we have designed our dream dog and taken her home, we put her in little pink hoodies and canine crinolines.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc., Americans spent close to $40 billion last year on pets. Custom-made birthday cakes. Faux chinchilla cuddle cups. Beer for dogs, nonalcoholic: It can be yours. Burberry outfits for pooches? Not a problem. Pet psychics! Pet psychologists!
I found myself depressed recently by a press release that read, in part: “Now the 74 million dogs … in the United States can begin enjoying the sweet life with the launch of a new therapeutic comfort bed specifically designed to meet the health and wellness needs of our four-legged friends. ColdHeat™ … introduces Dolce Vita™ Therabed™ pet beds, a complete line of heated pet beds in a variety of shapes and sizes…”
I mean, really, for dogs? Why can’t I get a heated bed designed for my wellness needs? I’d even be willing to fetch a Frisbee or two.
Then there was the story, issued on a very slow news day by Universal Press Syndicate, which included the following: “Many designers believe pet accessories and furniture should complement home decor. ‘It makes sense,’ says Eileen Chanin, founder of Calling All Dogs … ‘I'm surprised when you go into beautiful, million-dollar homes and walk into the mudroom where the dog stuff sits, and there are plastic bowls … Pet stuff needs to be beautiful, too.”
This depressed me. I don’t even have a mudroom, for one thing. In a truly just society, I’d have a mudroom stacked to the ceiling with Labradoodles wearing outfits that match the wallpaper.
And all of this consumer activity is for dogs, some of whom could no longer survive without human intervention. The Pekingese, for instance, has been bred to the point that it is difficult for a mother to give birth naturally to her pups because their heads are too big to fit through the birth canal.
In article about canine hybridization in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jeff Riedel wrote: “Mark Neff, a canine geneticist at the University of California at Davis, says … ‘You’ve removed natural selection and replaced it with artificial selection … Dogs are now subject to the whims of humans. And as soon as humans get involved, all hell breaks loose.’”
Which reminds me of Gladiator. At the top of the movie, you’ll recall, a battle is about to commence between the Romans and the German barbarians. Roman general Russell Crowe shouts, “At my signal, unleash Hell!” When he gives the signal, Hell is indeed unleashed, along with his dog, to run rampant among the barbarians.
We never see the dog again. Whether the barbarians got him or the dog decided he had better things to do than bite ancient Germans, or whether the screenwriters just plain forgot about him, I don’t know.
Watching the scene, however, I found myself wondering: Was there Hell and a dog, or was the dog in fact, named “Hell?” The way the scene was cut, it seems possible. But that’s not a very good name for a dog, not even a dog of war. Test it yourself: “Here, Hell.” “Heel, Hell!” “Walkies, Hell?” I think not.