The other day, I took my Shetland sheepdog to a groomer. In all my years as a pet owner, I had never been to a groomer, but Teenie is a furry puffball of a sheltie who attracts twigs and bracken the way magnets attract iron shavings. Give him five minutes at the cottage and he’s trailing around twice his own weight in foliage.
So off we went to the ‘doggie spa’ down the street. To my surprise, the grooming room was decorated like a spa for humans, with white flowers and seashells and smooth pebbles in pretty bowls. Teenie’s prospective beauty accessories included nail polish, conditioner and a perfume-type product called Fur Breeze, described as a ‘spa mist.’ Afterwards, upstairs in the shop, he could avail himself of hair clips, a hat, a dress, some socks, a backpack and a disposable diaper, among other items.
If he were thus suited up, my sheltie’a shepherding breed originally from the hardscrabble Shetland Islands of Scotland’might then snack on freeze-dried ice cream and gourmet biscuits before playing with an $18 squeeze toy shaped like a top-hatted frog.
Or not. When I picked him up after his twig-removal session, I merely admired his new aquamarine-coloured toenails (painted at my 12-year-old daughter’s request) and took him home, where he proceeded to get into the garbage bin in our garage and chew on raw, decaying strips of bacon.
Teenie doesn’t care for squeeze toys. He enjoys herding the broom when I sweep the kitchen, and barking at the blender when it’s whirring, and neither costs $18. Mostly what Teenie enjoys is being himself: a dog.
Does he really need bling-bling and a hat? The thing about dogs is that because they are fun loving, affectionate, emotionally sensitive, high energy and’as America’s Funniest Home Videos often shows’completely amusing, hanging out with them is good for our health. Studies show that living with a dog (and walking and romping with one in the fresh air) leads to ‘significant reductions in the frequency of minor physical ailments’ such as ‘headaches, colds, hay fever and dizziness.’ Dogs lower our risk of heart disease, and facilitate faster recovery when we do fall ill.
Of course, dogs are excellent as guides for the blind and the hearing impaired. But there is even evidence to suggest that dogs can detect cancer through their prodigious sense of smell, as well as alert their humans to an oncoming seizure. So whenever I come across all this paraphernalia for sale that seems to aim to turn dogs into miniature humans, I wonder if we humans are doing as right by them as they are by us.
I recently visited a pet products trade show. There were strollers on display, and toothbrushes and vitamins and bottled water (I’m not making this up: PetQuench ‘Improves Life All Around’). The food products were trending raw and organic, like Grain-Free Grilled Wild Boar with Pearsauce Glaze. Alternative treatments abounded: homeopathy for brontophobia (the fear of thunder), Chinese herbs for generalized anxiety.
But where were the good old-fashioned rubber balls? Sticks in the park are free, which doesn’t do much for the pet toy industry, but it’s frankly more fun for the dogs. And there are activities we can do that are good for our dogs as well as for us. Clubs and associations across Canada let dogs race, play Frisbee, compete in agility trials and obedience contests, and learn to do recreational herding (of real ducks and sheep, instead of kitchen brooms and skateboarders).
Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend our money on these outings? According to a survey done by the American Animal Hospital Association, 94 percent of pet owners believe their animal companions have human-like traits, and 93 percent claim they would risk their own lives for their pets. Why not extend this love outward toward the other animals and people who need our compassion?
As I write, the American writer Jon Katz has a book out describing how he and his border collie Izzy began volunteering at hospices. Izzy turned out to be a natural at eliciting smiles and lifting the spirits of the terminally ill. Here in Canada, St. John Ambulance offers courses at some of its chapters to train you and your dog on what to do when visiting seniors, schools and chronic-care facilities. Other organizations have similar programs’some even visit prisons. Teenie, who invariably attracts coos and cuddles on the street due to his resemblance to the iconic Lassie, might be great at this sort of volunteer work.
I could buy Teenie a duck-yellow raincoat and throw him a costly birthday party, but I’m pretty sure he’d be as happy if I donated that money to the local humane society, and just took him out for the day to herd ducks.
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