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A time comes in a parent’s life when you find yourself living with an invisible dog. Every time you are making dinner or getting dressed, your children point out, “If we had a dog he would be lying on my lap,” or ,“If we had a dog, he would be chewing my socks.” It has got to the point in my household where I put the kids to bed and gaze affectionately down at the invisible pug dozing on one of their blankets.
Out of guilt, I have on occasion thought of pulling myself together and getting a real flesh-and-blood dog but several people have scared me off with tales of the daunting rigours of dog care in New York life. People tell me about hiring dog sitters whose job it is to play with the dog during the day, and sending their dogs to doggy daycare. Apparently, if you leave your dog alone in your house for several hours he will be understimulated or depressed or manic or bored.
I talked to one high-end dog sitter on the Upper East Side who said that you can’t leave a dog alone for even an hour, especially a young dog. They will chew phone cords or damage the house or just be miserable or nervous. When she is sitting for a dog, she says, she takes them to the park and makes sure they are playing, getting attention and exercise, and are fully engaged at all times. Here my heart sort of sinks. You can’t leave a dog alone for an hour? I have so far managed two children on my own but, I begin to wonder, am I truly up for the awesome responsibility of a dog?
There are also those who turn to dog spas and hotels, where you can safely and stylishly leave your dog for an afternoon or a week. One website commenter noted of the New York Dog Spa & Hotel: “My baby stayed here for five nights while we were out of town. I went in a few days prior to ensure that my needs were communicated. Felt comfortable that they were addressed as requested and was VERY impressed that after I inadvertently left Bella’s carrots at home, the owner had someone pick up a bag so Bella could have her favourite snacks.” If you are thinking why does a dog need to eat carrots or why is she calling her dog her baby, you are not fully apprehending the benefit of being a dog in certain neighbourhoods in Manhattan (and by the way, the term pet owner has apparently been supplanted by the term “pet parent”).
At Wiggly Pups, which describes itself as a “pet concierge”, near Gramercy Park, there is a similarly uplifting and civilised environment: “Designer ‘Bowser’ and ‘Crypton’ beds are brought out each night and the lights are dimmed, transforming the club from an active playroom to a dog’s den of peace and tranquillity. Dinner time and turn-down service is accompanied by pet music, specifically designed for pups to hear.” They also offer dog sitters who will spend the night in your house with your dog if it prefers to stay at home, as well as transportation by a “vintage Rolls-Royce” which is “adapted for pup safety”. By this point, part of me is thinking if you can spend $1,500 a month on doggy daycare and dog sitters, who needs kids?
A friend of mine from the Upper East Side said, with only slight exaggeration: “When we went on trips the dog would go away to a dog spa that was more expensive than the hotel we were staying at. It’s like he would go to the Plaza and we would be going to the Holiday Inn.” Someone else tells me about hiring a dog sitter to stay with her dog at home when she and her husband go away for the weekend. I’m noticing that all the dog owners tell me I can’t use their names when mentioning their dog-care practices. There is in these descriptions both a hint of pride and a hint, somewhere buried in here, of shame, or at least the knowledge that dog excesses might not play well in other parts of the world, or even town.
A place called Town & Country Canine offers a country escape, complete with activities such as swims in the pond and scavenger hunts. I am not sure about all dogs but the dogs I have known in my life might find a scavenger hunt somehow beside the point.
A quick perusal of the dog-biscuit selection on a ubiquitous home-grocery delivery service, FreshDirect.com, reveals the following varieties: “Beef Bourguignon” (hormone-free beef, fresh carrots and parsley), “Chicken Cordon Bleu” (antibiotic-free chicken), “Green Juice” (spinach, kale, apples, spirulina, mint and flax seed) and “Truffle Mac & Cheese”. As an experiment, I offered the least ridiculous-sounding of these, the Truffle Mac & Cheese biscuits, to two actual dogs, both of whom would go nowhere near them. When I gave them the regular downmarket Milk-Bones from the grocery store, however, they devoured them happily.
There are also fancy interactive bowls, which challenge your dog and develop his mind rather than just keeping his food off the floor. They can cost about $50, and have curves or compartments or ridges that keep the dog engaged and involved in the pursuit of his food.
Someone I know sends her dogs to doggy daycare while she works so that they can socialise with other dogs and be stimulated. She could hire a dog walker but then the Yorkies might be bored in the hours when the dog walker wasn’t there. Like many of the posher doggy-daycare centres, hers has webcams so that you can watch your dog at play on your phone. This makes me think of those Japanese digital pets, Tamagotchis, that were all the rage for a while. You had to feed them and walk them, and they existed on a screen. You had a happy meter and a hunger meter and you had to keep them happy. Is that categorically different from getting pleasure out of your actual dog via iPhone? Like, would it be so bad if your dog lived in your phone?
One point of having a dog might seem to be hanging out with the dog but maybe I am being a little prosaic. Perhaps there is a point in paying someone who mostly hangs out with the dog, in creating a very beautiful and warmly nurturing environment for the dog that doesn’t include some of the perils of human life such as boredom or restlessness or loneliness.
I begin to hear stories about someone paid to jog in the park with a dog, about a dog walker who takes only Cavalier King Charles spaniels so that they can walk in a pack but only with their own kind. I hear about a man who keeps his housekeeper around mostly to cut up roast beef for his giant poodle. I hear about a family with a live-in dog walker. I hear of dogs so exquisitely cosseted, so elegantly and thoughtfully cared for, even if that care is largely outsourced, that one wonders if this is the new frontier of luxe; if having a dog who goes to a hotel with turn-down service (which, by the way, sounds like it might make an excellent children’s book) is not the newest and flashiest sign of a good life.
All of this brings to mind JK Huysmans’ famous exploration of decadence, A rebours. Its main character, Des Esseintes, wants to draw out the colours of an expensive oriental carpet with a turtle that he takes to the jeweller to cover in a layer of blazing gold. “At first, [he] was enchanted with the effect; but soon came to the conclusion that this gigantic jewel was only half finished, that it would not be really complete and perfect till it was encrusted with precious stones.” He carefully selects sapphires and other jewels and has them set into its shell. When he calls a servant to bring the bejewelled turtle to him to walk across the carpet, the glorious creature won’t move, but simply sits there and glimmers.
Some of this dog stuff is like the jewels on the turtle, a way to reflect back our own glory, to revel in our excess, to steep ourselves in the outlandish glittering possibilities of luxury, the lavish improbable ideal. The absurdity kind of becomes the point.
Of course, one wouldn’t want this account to fall into Marxist hands, because it would provide pretty damning evidence of the lurid late-capitalist decline of New York. Its dogs have sitters to entertain them and doggy daycare with good lighting, and imported beds with turn-down service, and antibiotic-free beef bourguignon biscuits, while, you know, 22,000 children in the city are homeless.
A satire remains to be written, a novel, maybe, from the point of view of a dog in a doorman building on Park Avenue, capturing that chilling moneyed combination of attention and neglect, the outsourcing of love, the great slobbering irony of man’s best friend with a nanny.
After my brief descent into the world of designer pet beds and webcammed pet spas, I find myself feeling pretty content with my invisible dog. He seems admirably self-sufficient, along with being relatively gentle and quiet, not to mention a remarkably good listener who disrupts our life minimally. Sure he may never ride to doggy daycare in a vintage Rolls-Royce but life is full of disappointments.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is “In Praise of Messy Lives” (Canongate, £12.99).
Illustrations by Kate Sutton
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