Today’s New Dog Culture

I saw one of those memes the other day that talk about how different everything was back when we were kids. People of a certain age get these on a fairly regular basis and the memes are designed  to create nostalgia about their childhoods in the fifties and sixties. This one started, “There were no purebred dogs.”

stray dogs, dogs in road, mutts

Dog Culture Back in the Day

It got me thinking, not for the first time, about how differently we treat dogs these days than we did when I was a kid. Also, the different place dogs had in our homes and in the American culture. Back then Americans were closer to the farm, only a few years from WWII and just two decades from the Great Depression.

Those connections made people a great deal more pragmatic. They owned dogs to perform functions like protecting the house or herding sheep. The dogs did their jobs and were “paid” with food and a warm place to sleep. Sure, people had pets but those animals occupied a different rung on the family ladder—one far down from the human members. And when the dog became too sick or too old, it was put down.

Here are seven of the changes that occurred to me.

  1. Buying a Purebred Dog

While I get the point of that meme, it isn’t really true. Where I grew up in Somerset, MA, most of the neighborhood pooches we saw were mutts, but three purebreds lived right around us. To the north was a Spitz, Fluffy, who spent a lot of time in our house. My parents wouldn’t get a dog, so my sister and I befriended Fluffy. When it thundered, he would run to our house and hide under the bed in our room.

To the west was a house with a short-haired mutt and a purebred Cocker Spaniel. Unfortunately, Lucky’s people never groomed him so his long fur got matted and turned into muddy clumps that dragged on the ground.

On the other side lived a purebred German Shepherd, whose name escapes me. A gift from a friend, he was the runt of the litter and dumb as a stump, but purebred.

Still, few people back then would have shelled out some big bucks for a purebred dog. What on earth for? Dogs could be had for nothing, mostly from people with a bitch that had whelped and gifted them with puppies he didn’t want and couldn’t feed.Even people who valued their hounds and beagles for hunting mostly bred them. Pay a month’s salary for a dog? Not likely.

  1. Grooming Your Dog

dog grooming, dog spaWhy didn’t Lucky’s owners take him to a groomer? A what?

Dog grooming shops, if they existed at all back then, must have been few and far between because I don’t remember ever seeing one. Besides, the idea of paying someone to wash, clip and trim your dog would never have occurred to most middle-class folks.You want to get your dog clean? There’s the bathtub—or the hose. Have at it.

  1. Walking Your Dog

City people might have walked dogs on leashes but that didn’t apply in a small town. If your dog wanted to go out, you opened the door.  Your dog was then able to roam freely all day. We often saw unfamiliar dogs in the yard and they may or may not have had a collar and a tag. If they did, well, they belonged to someone and were probably okay.

If not, they were most likely strays and possibly dangerous. My sister and I, the dog lovers in the family, would often try to pat or feed these beasts in the hope of taming (and possibly keeping) one. This did not end well on the day when the hungry dog lunged for the food in my sister’s hand and sent her to the hospital for stitches.

  1. Picking Up After Your Dog

See #3 above. Dog went out, dog pooped, dog moved on. The poop stayed where it was. The idea of actually picking up your pet’s waste as a public service would have elicited incredulity. Anyone suggesting it might have heard (at best), “Just watch your step, buddy.”

When I lived in New York City, people would take their dogs out on leashes, watch while they fouled the sidewalk, and then keep going as if the mess had nothing to do with them. The sidewalks were smudged and stained with dog poop everywhere, especially the better neighborhoods where they did own fancy dogs, and you watched your step to avoid it—or else.

  1. Scheduling Major Surgery

A dog with major health problems was more likely to be put down without ceremony than booked into the veterinary hospital for surgery. As I mentioned in a previous post, “Biker Cat Meets Overbred Dog,” defects have been bred into many purebred strains resulting in physical or mental weaknesses or a propensity to suffer from certain diseases.

dog, surgery, cone of shame, veterinarianNowadays, it’s common to hear of people who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to handle defects like hip dysplasia, kidney failure, dislocated kneecaps, herniated discs, hypertension, and cancer.

Our neighbors in a previous home had a Golden Lab that lost the use of his hind legs. When I was a kid, that would have been cause to put the dog down. Instead, my neighbor built a little cart that Shiloh could pull around with his front legs. My neighbor wasn’t the only one: you can actually buy carts like this online.

American dogs receive better healthcare than do children in most of the developing world. Millions of children would envy the vaccinations, regular checkups, de-worming, medication, special diets and other care we give our dogs.

  1. Taking Your Pet to the Dog Park

The what? See Item #3 above. Parks were for people, although dogs might run around in them. But no town created parks just for dogs.

  1. Dropping at Doggie Daycare

People didn’t worry about whether the family dog got enough exercise or “play time” with other dogs.  (Farm dogs worked out all day long, of course.) Doggie daycare consisted of a stay-at-home mom talking to the dog while she did housework or the kids playing with him when they got home from school. For play time, see item #3. You opened the door and the dog went out to play, just like your kids. No one had time to worry about the dog’s mental health or money to spend keeping Fido entertained.

Doggie daycare, exercise, socializing

Doing a Double Take

I understand loving your dog, wanting to keep him healthy, and treating her like a member of the family. I confess, however, that growing up in somewhat harsher times means that I look askance at today’s dog culture.

dog stroller, doggie stroller, dog cultureYes, I spent more money on our cat’s healthcare than I prefer to think about. But when she was in pain and became incontinent, we took her to the vet and stayed with her while she crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

To me, being a member of the family doesn’t mean treating the dog on an equal level with your children. I sometimes do doubletakes when I see people pushing their pet in a doggie stroller or pulling him in a bicycle trailer. Sure, some of them are old and infirm but others look perfectly healthy. I wonder how long it will be before dogs start wearing glasses.

Fur Children

Is it wrong? Not for the owners. I sometimes have to push down the voice in my head that tsk-tsks about wasted money or misplaced priorities. People do what works for them. The reality is that, for some people, a dog takes the place of children in their lives, either because they didn’t have kids or because the children are now adults who have moved out.

If there is a demand, a supply will follow. People who want to pamper their dogs or treat them like fur children have driven the development of the products and services above as well as many more.

Still, I can’t help thinking about how far we’ve come and how different dog culture is now. My neighbors walk their dogs and pick up the waste as a matter of course.To do otherwise is impolite. Dogs no longer run freely through back yards and down streets. Often dogs are neutered to prevent unwanted offspring.They get treated for rabies and heartworm.

I think those are real improvements. If some owners go overboard, well, that’s none of my business. When I was a kid, though, I never saw anyone wear a shirt that said, “Dog Mom.”

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