A FEW WEEKS AGO, while I stood in line at my favorite coffee shop, a scraggly poodle nuzzled its saliva-caked face against my pant leg, leaving behind a smear of slimy goo. On a better day, and with a different dog, I probably would have ignored the animal, but this pooch and I had had a similar encounter once before. With a smile, so as not to reveal the fear that might inspire the dog to bite me, I said to the dog: “Hey, mister poodle guy, I didn’t ask for that.” My goal, passive-aggressive as it may have been, was to indicate to the language-equipped owner that a modest pull on the leash (at least she had one of those) was now in order. After all, though I’ve heard that dogs’ mouths are cleaner than humans’, hygienic they’re not. They are vectors for scores of unhealthy bacteria, parasites and viruses, and those same mouths deliver 4.7 million bites to Americans every year.
Instead of removing her dog from my side, the owner, a petite thirtysomething, simply said with a chuckle, “You must smell good,” then turned her attention to her latte. Dejected, I retreated home feeling like an outcast, for I am, apparently, one of the few Portlanders who doesn’t revere dogs. It’s not that I don’t like them; I’m just not overly fond of them. As I sat on my couch sipping coffee with slobber still drying on my leg, I wondered: In Portland, where there’s one dog for every four humans, has pet-owner entitlement gotten out of hand?
Before depositing your used plastic bags on my doorstep in retaliation against such a sacrilegious utterance, consider a few facts. For starters, the state’s newspaper of record has a pet columnist. Why don’t we have a columnist for, say, human health care? That said, “Pet Talk” is flush with evidence for the absurdity of the treat-our-dogs-like-humans trend. Portland’s registered 136,332 canines can not only avail themselves of the city’s 31 off-leash areas at dog parks—we have more per capita than anywhere else in the country—but can also enjoy massages at $60 per hour. If that’s not sufficient, there are also doggy day cares filled with the latest toys and attended by on-call nail-care technicians, and gourmet pet bakeries, where you can buy a birthday cake decorated with a fire hydrant. According to a workforce analyst with the State of Oregon, employment in the pet care industry is 40 percent higher in Multnomah County than the national average.
Not that obsessing over pooches is unique to Oregon. In Boulder, Colo., dog owners aren’t even owners—they’re “dog guardians,” at least in the language of city ordinances. And last year the New York Times showcased what are essentially dating services for dogs—www.meetup.com, www.petster.com and www.datemypet.com all help humans arrange playdates for their animals. But while anyone from Los Angeles to Atlanta can find a pet psychic, leave it to Portland to up the ante with the “holistic intuitive animal communicator” who can talk to your dog in ways you, obviously, can’t.
In my nightmares, Portlanders will become so frenzied in their dog worship that our fair city will overtake Japan as the global epicenter of pooch mania. In Japan, consumers can buy pet-friendly minivans—with wood floors, no less—and contact lenses for their dogs, as well as Burberry raincoats, aromatherapy potions and “Bowlingual” translation collars (which “interpret” your pooch’s whines and barks). With Portland’s glut of doggy hotels, personal doggy photographers and doggy Halloween costume parties, we don’t seem far behind.
How did this happen? As recently as a few hundred years ago, humans viewed dogs the same way they viewed horses—tools to be used on farms and ranches, most often for fending off coyotes and other critters. In Portland, they were even lumped into the same category as pigs: An early city ordinance prohibited dogs and swine from wandering at large. We still don’t let dogs wander today, thankfully, but in the coddling department they have left swine behind. As we moved toward an increasingly urban and industrial civilization, the dog as farmhand became more and more irrelevant, and beloved Fido was relegated to the role of family pet. As Americans have fewer offspring, it seems that dogs have become our surrogate children. Today, 55 percent of American dog owners buy their pets holiday gifts, and 42 percent share their beds with their dogs.
Maybe it’s time we temper our adoration with a splash of renewed commitment to our fellow human beings. For example, state officials are currently deciding whether to allow dogs inside the Oregon State Parks system’s 250 or so yurts and cabins. These are communal, lottery-funded structures that range from $20 to $80 per night, and some guests, even if they’re not allergic to dog hair, might not enjoy snoozing where a dog once slept. Until pups start paying too, I’m not convinced they deserve to share our public sleeping quarters.
Worse yet are the little leftovers park-goers have to sidestep—not to mention the owners who bring their dogs to restaurants, only to leave them tied up and baying outside while other patrons grimace their way through three courses. And while we’re at it: Why is it that Oregon just opened the country’s first Animal Medical and Learning Center, for a mere $6.4 million—but nearly 20 percent of Oregonians still don’t have health insurance?
Looking for answers, I visited the off-leash area at Fernhill Park in Northeast Portland to square off with some dog owners. On the far side of the park, I found Karen Kyle, whose spastic brown labradoodle, Lulu, leapt up and down with frightening urgency, awaiting the next swing of the ubiquitous purple plastic Chuckit. As Lulu chased down the ball, Kyle told me that a few weeks ago at Fernhill, a dog had peed on her leg. Her horror story inspired me to share my frustration about barking, slobber on my pants and the overall feeling that I’m a pariah because I don’t embrace either.
Kyle was sympathetic. “People can’t presume that everyone loves their dog. Look, your dog has to have manners, just like your kid has to have manners,” she said, as Lulu yipped for another go with the Chuckit. Exactly, I agreed. Heck, some parents even keep their toddlers on leashes—and even those who don’t still don’t let their children pester strangers. If only dog owners had the same standards.
This article appeared in the January 2008 issue of Portland Monthly.