By Venetia Sherson
'Rena' (not her real name) sleeps on silk pillows between her owners' heads, laps from their water glasses and destroys household items such as pot plants and cushions if they leave her too long on her own. She often joins the family at the dinner table; if she lies on the couch, they bunch up to give her more room. Her vegan, grain-based food bill (plus treats) rivals the weekly supermarket shop, her vet bill has already run into thousands of dollars (dodgy hips) and her trips to the groomer cost more than a human haircut. She has a wardrobe of clothes.
By any measure, the four-year-old black cockapoo (cocker spaniel/miniature poodle cross) is a pampered pooch. But she is by no means alone.
The privileging of pets is a worldwide phenomenon, inflated during the pandemic as lockdowns led lonely folk to acquire canines as companions, and exacerbated by the trend to breed designer dogs with neonate qualities (big eyes, short noses, round faces) designed to win the hearts of humans. Add to that an increasing lack of faith in humans, and doggy friends seem infinitely preferable. Dogs are loyal, they don't judge us, and studies show they improve their owners' physical and emotional health and the wellbeing.
Surely, then, it follows they should be pampered in return.
Not so, says Matamata-based dog behaviourist and author Selina McIntyre, who has worked with dogs and their owners for nearly 20 years and seen every variation of the human/canine relationship. McIntyre adores dogs and has owned many in her lifetime including her current border terriers, Trev, and Lily ("real characters that can become border terrorists if they don't get enough exercise"). She wholeheartedly agrees that dogs are part of families and humans have an emotional investment in them. But that is where it ends.
"Dogs are animals. They are a different species. No matter how many cute costumes they wear to go out, they are still dogs. By not treating them as dogs we are doing them a disservice," she says.
"If we assume they think and act like us, we are seeing them only through our own perspective. Believing you are making your dog happy by buying every treat under the sun and having them sleep on your bed is treating them as a human, which they definitely are not."
She says when owners talk about their dogs' needs ("Look at those eyes, how could you resist him?") they can be reflecting their own needs. They might be lonely, anxious or seek affection or protection. Some may be empty nesters or one partner may work long hours so there is greater dependence on a furry companion. If the dog never leaves their side, they might say things like, 'She's very clingy' or 'He's a Velcro dog'."
But dogs should never be ascribed human forms, behaviours, and emotions or afforded the same rights and privileges as people, she says.
"When a dog's every need is catered for on demand their social status is raised to that above their human owners. A dog that eats at the table with humans, sleeps on their bed or positions itself on the back of the couch above their owner's head will see itself as privileged and more like the king and the queen of the castle. Physical elevation can equate to social elevation. The dog then believes it is the most important creature in the home."
With high status comes a burden of responsibility. McIntyre says that can make dogs over anxious.
"Pampered dogs may sleep with one ear cocked for threats. They feel responsible for their owners at all times. They may experience huge separation anxiety when their human leaves the room or house. That anxiety may result in incessant barking, whining, destruction of property or fence-pacing waiting for their owners to return."
Dogs need affection, not adulation, she says.
"Dogs need to know their place in the house is secure but not feel they have to be responsible for their owners. You can't keep looking at an animal through a human lens. A dog is a different species They are animals we care for, not babies that we parent."
Pampered pooches are not new, of course. Ever since the Victorians changed attitudes towards domestic animals, pets have been seen as a normal part of family life. Victorians saw dogs as steadfast, loyal, plucky, and courageous reflecting the morals of that time. In paintings from that era, dogs often lay on the laps of the elite or stood at their side. King Frederick II of Prussia's comment in 1786 that a dog is 'man's best friend' still holds (except among cat lovers).
But the trend towards pampered pets has rocketed in recent years, witnessed by the industries that have sprouted around them. Gourmet dog foods abound (one New Zealand brand features dogs dressed as humans); there are dog cafes (puppucinos from Starbucks), doggy daycare centres, breed specific dog furniture, dog yoga and even fitness trackers (10,000 paw prints a day?). In a New Zealand survey published this year the majority of dog owners said their pets were free to use the family furniture and sleep on or in their owners' bed. Another survey by Animates and Afterpay found more than half the respondents would forego their own self-care to afford essential care and treats for their pets.
New Zealand has a high rate of dog ownership. More than a third of households own at least one dog and the number of registered dogs is growing faster than the human population in all major cities apart from Auckland (Dunedin and Hamilton have the highest rates of ownership). During the pandemic, numbers surged by 25 per cent as more people turned to pets for comfort and companionship. Owners reported their dogs helped in times of stress and loneliness during lockdowns.
But, while people (and petfood companies) may have benefited from the relationship, there was a downside for the dogs.
McIntyre says pups bought or adopted during that time (she calls them 'Covid Puppies') missed out on essential experiences which have led to behavioural issues.
"The pups had a very a very different existence from the get-go. Their world was diminished in the same way humans' worlds were diminished. They didn't go out and experience 'novel' because their owners weren't experiencing novel. They didn't learn how to deal with experiences of meeting new people and new environments."
The first 16 weeks of a puppies' life are critical for socialisation, she says.
"During this time, puppies form associations from their experiences, which help them to deal with change. But, during lockdowns, people didn't go out and about. Puppy training classes were cancelled so they may not have learned about proper dog interactions nor learned basic commands. They may not have been exposed to different noises or different humans.
"Some owners will say to me, 'My dog is racist or my dog hates fireworks'. But if they haven't been exposed to people with different skin colour, facial hair, different voice tones in those formative weeks, that may be because they have not experienced it before and they are fearful. Dogs react to difference, just as all animals do. It's smell or different practices of different types of people. They haven't experienced difference."
She says the response of dogs afraid by new experiences ranges from apprehension to fear to reactivity, which can then lead to aggression.
Some blame an increase in dog attacks in recent years directly on lack of socialisation during lockdowns. In Auckland dog attacks on other dogs rose by 31.5 per cent and on people by 26.1 per cent from 2021-22. "Many young dogs that hadn't been adequately socialised during the pandemic or dogs over-stimulated through high human interaction during lockdowns, increased territorial behaviour," said Animal Management manager Elly Waitoa.
McIntyre works with owners whose dogs have become aggressive. She says these responses can be changed, but it takes a lot of work.
Selina McIntyre's tips for what a dog needs
- Twice daily walks (even small dogs) beyond your property
- Socialisation (crucially in the first 16 weeks) to experience 'novel' situations and a range of different people and environments
- Mental stimulation, including through play
- Affection, not adulation
- Security (to feel it is not responsible for its owners' every move)
- Understanding and appreciation of the canine world, including how dogs communicate and behave in different situations
- Boundaries (what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour)
- Freedom to engage in dog-specific behaviours such as foraging and exploring
- Time and patience to learn new behaviours, especially older dogs
- To be appreciated as a dog.