Demigod With a Tail
By the time Blue was a year old, he had been taken to the emergency room for getting knocked out by a baseball, being stung by a swarm of bees, stepping on glass, eating a box of antihistamines, and getting shot in the chest by an intruder who fired a .22-caliber handgun at close range. Not to mention the Giardia he gulped while drinking lake water. "I felt this overwhelming pride that my baby lived," remembers Microsoft contractor Katie Merwick, who lives in Redmond, "so I gave Blue a birthday party when he turned 1." Since then, Blue has celebrated six birthdays, usually on the first Sunday of May, unless it's raining. And, because Blue is a black Labrador retriever, the parties usually take place at a park near water. "The first year I had a clown come; the dogs were terrified of him and bit the toes of his shoes. The clown had to leave right away, and I had to buy him new shoes." Otherwise, Merwick says, the parties follow a similar routine. "Every year I bake a bone-shaped cake out of cornbread, frost it with cream cheese, and decorate it with fresh flowers. I put up a pinata filled with dog bones -- they go insane jumping up for that. And they bob for apples. Then Blue meticulously unwraps his present. He puts his paws on each side of the box and rips the paper off with his teeth." Blue -- and Merwick -- has become famous for these parties. His fourth birthday, held in a park in Medina, was featured on Channel 5 news. At his party last May, held on Clyde Hill Beach, Evening Magazine was a guest. Merwick catered that event, serving mushrooms stuffed with liver, a fresh vegetable platter, homemade cookies, and popcorn -- to the dogs. "All the recipes," she says proudly, "were from my book. The dogs ate everything."Merwick is one of the new breed of American dog owners. There are no set demographics for this group, no handy psychological profile, no neat generalizations to be made about age, sex, race, or income. The new breed of dog owner could be anyone: the old man with the yipping Pomeranian who lives on Clyde Hill. The University of Washington graduate student trekking up Mount Si with a golden trotting by her side. Or the gay couple who live and work in Redmond, accompanied by two greyhounds. What sets these new dog owners a breed apart is that they do much more than simply own dogs: Their worlds revolve around their dogs. Merwick, for example, is a private dog trainer when she's not at Microsoft. Her Web site on Blue is www.mybluedog.com. She's just co-written and self-published a book on dog nutrition with assistance from Dr. Timothy Kraabel of Seattle, an internist who treated Blue when a stick punctured his throat. People Food for Dogs is due out this September. Merwick is hoping that the book will do well enough to allow her to make a career change ... involving dogs. When did your urge to sniff butts first start? It used to be that having a dog meant following three simple rules: 1) Housebreak it; 2) Feed it kibble and water; 3) Take it for a daily walk. Discipline meant a rolled-up newspaper, and when the family went on vacation, the dog got dropped off at the nearest kennel. If Spot got hit while chasing a car, the kids were told that he had gone to live on Uncle Chester's farm in Eastern Washington.Dogs are no longer so simple. Like everything else in our late-20th-century existence, their roles have been reexamined, re-invented, and repackaged -- in direct reflection of the way we live our lives. In the '50s, Lassie ran around the farmhouse with the boys. In the '90s Eddie hangs out on the couch in a Seattle psychiatrist's condo. We have always needed our dogs: Who can forget how many times Lassie saved little Timmy's life? But today we need our dogs to have needs: Why else would Frasier hire an animal psychiatrist for Eddie? And no one knows these needs better than the new breed of dog owner. The new breed of dog owner buys absorbent, pheromone-scented "puppy pads" that "motivate" the dog to go in a designated spot by stimulating its "natural instincts."Supermarket kibble is no longer kosher -- the new breed of dog owner cares deeply about his dog's nutrition, augmenting its diet with home-cooked food, vitamin supplements, and wheatgrass for easy digestion. At the very least, the new breed of dog owner buys dog food that's been specially formulated from human-grade and/or organic ingredients. After the dog eats, its teeth are brushed -- at least three times a week. The daily walk now takes place in leash-free parks where dogs hone their "socializing skills" by sniffing each other and sharing toys. The ultraresponsible new breed of dog owners comes armed with baggies to scoop up after their pets, who are more commonly referred to as "animal companions" or "babies." Dog owners who don't have the time to exercise their own hire dog walkers to do it for them. Discipline takes place in school; the rolled paper is bad. Puppies enroll in "puppy kindergarten"; older dogs can take remedial classes or certify their skills by becoming Canine Good Citizens (a status conferred by the Washington State Obedience Training Club). For the willful dog, extra motivation can be provided by electronic, radio-transmitter collars that gently "stimulate" (i.e., buzz) your pet. Extra advice is available from animal behaviorist Martha Norwalk, who hosts a question-and-answer show on KOMO-AM 1000 every Sunday afternoon 2-4. Come vacation time, every effort will be made to take the dog, who is now a welcomed guest in hotels as glitzy as the Four Seasons or the Alexis. If the baby must be left behind, pet-sitters provide the less stressful option of providing care at home. Barring that, there's always alternative cageless boarding options, like doggie camps and doggie bed-and-breakfasts. Dogs hit by cars can now, thanks to the advances of veterinary medicine, be given prosthetic hip replacements, paid for by pet insurance provided by outfits like Veterinary Pet Insurance, located in California. If Rover's wounds are mortal, his stricken owner can attend pet-loss grief therapy sessions hosted by your nearest Humane Society, veterinarian, or pet store. Should the family break up, the new breed of dog owner settles for joint custody of the dog or sues for pet support. These days, it's not just OK to love your dog. It's OK to love your dog. I now pronounce you dog and wife.Compared to loving people, loving a dog has certain advantages. Dogs provide a connection to the natural world; in this high-speed, technological age, they help those in the concrete jungle answer the call of the wild. Dogs also serve well as substitute children for people who can't or have chosen not to have children. In Dog Love (1996), Harvard professor and cultural critic Marjorie Garber offers this interpretation of our caninophilia: "In default of any consensus about social policy, family planning, and even what constitutes 'the family,' in a populace increasingly weary of economic struggle and social divisiveness, 'family values,' like other values, are ... now often passed on in popular culture not through human stories, but through stories of, and love for, dogs."On a more general level, dogs offer one of the easiest relationships out there: You choose the love object, you call the shots, and you can end it whenever you like.In a few cases, the new breed of dog owner will admit that a relationship with a dog can serve as a -- possibly superior -- substitute for a relationship with a person."It was either the dog or my husband. I chose her. He hated Fritzie," explains Christiane McConkey of Hunts Point, who divorced her second husband two years ago.McConkey, who looks like Ivana Trump and sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor, owns a clothing shop, Boutique Christiane, on Bellevue's Old Main Street. She says she's known for being a bit "outrageous," both in the way she dresses (think leopard print) and in her treatment of Fritzie, her 4-year-old Airedale terrier."I had to go to Salt Lake four weeks ago. Usually I board her at Paradise Pet Lodge, but I didn't make reservations in time. So I had to ask my kids and ex-husband to take care of the dog. Then Fritzie escaped. I had pre-paid for my hotel and everything, but when they called to tell me she was running free, I turned around and came right back." "Can you believe that?" Christiane laughs delightedly. "I know it's crazy. But do you know what? Dogs love their owners unconditionally. That's what I love about dogs. And you know what? The husbands never give us unconditional love." Blue's owner, Merwick, echoes McConkey. "If I could take every positive attribute of Blue and put it into a guy, I'd marry him. I wish I could marry him." Merwick is single and divorced. It's not just a woman thing: Said a Kirkland man visiting Luther Burbank Park recently with his Rottweiler mix, "What I love about him is I can take him anywhere and he always wants to go, as long as he's with me. I can do everything with him. He's the best dog in the world."Bloodhound Bed-and-BreakfastsDog lovers of yesteryear had status, wealth, and power, and their dogs symbolized those assets. Today's dog lovers are considered a growing consumer market, and their dogs symbolize one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities in America. Some of the moneymaking ideas make a certain tortured sense -- like doggie bed-and-breakfasts, with movies, popcorn, and swimming pool access in a cageless environment for $35 a day. Others schemes target the dog owner who would believe real estate options on Mars a viable long-range investment: consider Neuticles, last's year prosthetic testicle replacement for neutered male dogs. In LA, pets can pump up at the Total Dog, a canine fitness center complete with whirlpool and swimming pool that opened this year. Membership costs $800 a year. Starting in 1998 in Westhampton, New York, elderly dogs who outlive their wealthy owners can retire to a managed-care facility in the Hamptons. Professional coddling at the Golden Years home can be purchased with a lump sum, starting at $10,000.And should your dog expire before you, there's always the services of this Port Townsend, Washington, laboratory: Geneti-Pet (360-379-0105) cryogenically stores blood samples from household pets for that time when Rover, like this year's Dolly the sheep, can be cloned. Supposedly, processing the blood costs $75, yearly storage of that sample, $100; calls to confirm these rates, however, were not returned. Currently, the pet supplies industry does an estimated $25 billion in business a year selling everything needed for the care, feeding, education, and entertainment of pets. At megastores like Petco and Petsmart dog owners can buy every squeak toy under the sun -- while having Fifi clipped and vaccinated, all in one stop.Meanwhile, mail-order catalogs like Doctors Foster and Smith, and R.C. Steele offer bulk deals on such specialty items as Crazy Dog Pina Colada conditioning shampoo and aromatherapy spritzes. Does your dog's breath stink? Just feed him a Clear Breath tablet, which "works through your pet's system to provide all-day protection."On the other end of the retail spectrum are the smaller boutique shops, places like Raining Cats and Dogs in Bellevue, All the Best Pet Care in Kirkland and various Seattle locations, the Natural Pet Care Company and Bow Wow Meow Treatoria, both in Seattle. These stores sell natural foods, home-baked biscuits, homeopathic remedies, flower essences, and organic cotton toys that are safe for the environment as well as your dog. At Raining Cats and Dogs, McConkey is a regular. She's not only tried many of their products, but she's also their grooming salon's most adventurous customer. "We tried a poodle haircut, and Fritzie looked so funny with that puffball on her head. We even tried the Schnauzer cut, the one with the eyebrows. Now she gets a teddy bear cut; she looks cutest that way." Fritzie doesn't care how much it costs either, although for a different reason. McConkey explains: "She's shoplifting now. When we leave, she grabs things on the way out. Little toys or a cookie. Someone always catches her, so it's all right."Poodle With a PonytailLike children and lovers, dogs are an extension of ourselves. Unlike children, they will not grow up to disappoint you, and unlike lovers, they will always be true. You lead, the dog will follow. Why the new breed of dog owner goes to such great lengths to ensure their animal's well-being is not such a mystery: The dog's cause is really their own. No one knows this better than the caregivers. One professional sitter in Kirkland, Laurie Cox of Eastside Pet Companion, maintains that it's not unusual for owners to request home-cooked meals for their dogs. And then there's hair care. Says Bellevue groomer Carol Dawson of the Pet House: "A standard poodle we do regularly has a ponytail at the nape of its neck. Sometimes we braid it and do other things. It's very important to his owner, that ponytail." Vet technician Demery Shain, who sits for clients on Mercer Island, says she's been asked to feed ice cream to pets (she refuses on the grounds that it's unhealthy) as well as provide more specialized services. "One couple asked me to massage their dog's private parts if he went into epileptic fits." Dee Carlson of Avalon Pet Partners in Woodinville is a pet-sitter and professional dog trainer with 30 years of training history. "One lady wanted us to teach her collie mix to turn on and off lights. He loved doing it so much that he would go around turning on all the lights in the house. Then we had to teach him to do it only on command and in certain rooms." But the most memorable request Carlson has ever gotten was for a cat she was pet-sitting. "The owner asked us, if the cat died during our care, to please take her to the vet and have her frozen, for a proper goodbye. She died, so I took her to the vet, and he froze her till the client got back. That was a bit unusual."Most dogs are relinquished to a happy hunting ground before suffering any freezer burn. At Pethaven Cemetery, which has been cremating and burying pets in Kent since 1948, a full-service burial -- with viewing, minister, and poetry readings if you like -- costs about $500. Owner Louis Clarke says that more than 7,000 beasties rest in peace there, including a lion, race horses, a tarantula, and a rat. More dogs, however, have their bones buried there than any other creature.A Dog Has Wants And Needles TooTreating dogs like ourselves places them in the full context of our humanness -- and subsequently, in situations where they may not belong. Defending herself against the charge that "dogs can't understand it's their birthday," Merwick says simply, "Dogs are like an infants. Infants don't know it's their birthday, but you still celebrate it anyway. And Blue does know when it's his birthday."That's speaking as a mother; as a dog trainer even Merwick cautions that it's important not to go too far, like "dress them in little outfits all the time."Dogs need to be treated with respect, and treating a dog like a dog is the best thing you can do." (Blue, however, does own a faux-leather bomber jacket, which he wears when he's sitting at the wheel of his little Corvette. "The jacket is a toy; he likes getting out of it," Merwick explains.)But treating a dog like a dog, when it comes to veterinary care, is not good enough anymore. In response to demand, more veterinarians are turning into specialists -- internists, oncologists, orthopedists, even acupuncturists. Maybe an animal acupuncturist sounds like the ultimate quack, but the American Veterinary Medical Association formally recognizes acupuncture as a valid treatment for animals. "I used to think it worked through power of suggestion before I learned about it," admits Dr. Richard Panzer, an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist who makes house calls all over the Puget Sound area. He received his DVM from Cornell and his acupuncture training in China and Taiwan. "But if it works for animals, there's no power of suggestion."One of his patients, a 6-year-old female basset hound suffering from arthritis, calmly sniffs a needle he presents to her by way of explanation. She lies on her side on the floor, completely relaxed, and submits to Panzer's hands. He coos to her, while finding acupoints, tapping and spinning the needle into the fur with one deft motion. Meanwhile, her owner strokes her tummy. Needles sprout along the top of her back, in her hind legs, and on the top of her head. When this, her third treatment is over, she gets up and shakes herself. Her owner, who learned of Dr. Panzer through two acquaintances, can't say for sure if the treatments, which start at $50, are working. "But it doesn't hurt to try.""People who bring their pets to me have a certain lifestyle and do certain kinds of things for themselves," says Dr. Larry Siegler, who offers acupuncture, homeopathy, and herbal treatment in his Redmond clinic. "Holistic veterinary care is not easy; it's so much easier to give chemicals, for example, than to bathe the dog every week for a skin condition. People who do this are committed." Alternative medicine for animals is a burgeoning field on the Eastside, which is host to nine holistic vets. Last year, the first Washington chapter of the Holistic Veterinary Medical Association formed in Bellevue, with Dr. Tejinder Sodhi of the Animal Wellness Center as its president. "Twenty-five to 30 local vets are coming to our meetings. We get a lot of questions and referrals from traditional vets." Dogs, for both Panzer and Siegler, constitute a slight majority of their acupuncture patients. "Cats are harder to treat holistically," says Panzer. "They tend to resist acupuncture."Bark if You Are JesusThere's something very American about our affection for dogs. More than 56 percent of American households care for a pet, according to the American Humane Association, and more than 60 percent of those pet-owning households host dogs.Visit the legendary leash-free area in Redmond's Marymoor Park on a sunny weekend and you'll see many lucky Eastside dogs gamboling and sniffing about. Most likely, the majority of these dogs will be from Bellevue, which leads the pack with more than 5,459 licensed dogs (Kirkland and Redmond each have about 2,500). You'll probably see a lot of Labrador retreivers as well, the most popular dog in the country since 1995. Our fondness for dogs digs deeply into popular culture, history, and politics. Since George Washington (who had a dalmatian), dogs have sat in the laps of such presidents as Franklin D. Roosevelt (Fala, the Scottish terrier), Richard Nixon (Checkers, a cocker spaniel), and George Bush (Millie, the springer spaniel).On screen, both in the movies and on TV, dogs are everywhere, symbolizing all the admirable traits that a human being would be hard-pressed to convey convincingly. Dogs are noble (Lassie, Benji), clownish (Little Rascals), adventurous (Lady and the Tramp), morally superior (101 Dalmatians), and smarter (Snoopy). Dogs currently co-star in two top sitcoms, each presenting their own version of the '90s family unit, "Murray" on Mad About You and "Eddie" on Frasier.Anne Gordon of Anne's Animal Actors in Monroe has trained animals for more than 70 movies and hundreds of commercials, including Homeward Bound and the recent Southwest Airlines commercial starring a mutt. She has 11 dogs of her own and serves as a casting agent for "two file drawers full" of other hopefuls. Seventy percent of her clients ask for dogs. "They add the human touch. The dog usually symbolizes the more humane, caring side of a character. In commercials, animals soften the message; they make the product more real, less sterile. Most commercials using animals are for products that have nothing to do with dogs whatsoever." The new breed of dog owner not only believes in the intrinsic goodness of dogs, but wants to convince others that dogs do, in fact, benefit humanity. One major force in this drive is the Delta Society, which spearheads several programs that bring animals into our lives in healthful ways. Based in Renton, this 20-year-old national organization is responsible for the National Service Dog Center, which provides service dogs to people with disabilities. Through its Pet Partners program, the Delta Society trains volunteers and screens pets for participation in visiting programs at hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, and schools. It's become a pop-culture truism to claim that petting a dog or cat has been scientifically proven to reduce your blood pressure. The Delta Society is partly responsible for this belief, by helping to fund such studies. Most recently, researchers from SUNY at Buffalo reported in the The Journal of the American Medical Association that dogs and other pets are as effective as medication in reducing blood pressure in older women who live alone.Christi Dudzik, a member of the Delta Society who has been part of the Pet Partners Program for six years, works with a yellow lab, Bear, and Dutchess, a golden retriever. A counselor with a mental health degree, Dudzik has worked with stroke victims, the elderly, and patients in psychiatric wards.Dudzik remembers one elderly patient with dementia. "I was trying to get her to say my dog was a dog. I gave her choices between a dog and a cat. She wouldn't talk for the longest time. Then, suddenly, she said: 'He's a cute little pumpkin eater.' A little while later she looked at him, looked at me, and said: 'He's got kind eyes.' At that point, whether it was a dog or a cat or a camel became insignificant. Those comments gave me more insight into her condition than anything else. She was gone but not totally lost." A representative par excellence of the new breed of dog owner, Dudzik has held a Blessing of the Animals at a church in Kirkland for the past two years, "to celebrate and honor all the good they do in our lives." Dudzik hopes to hold another blessing this October. Last year, "some people brought pictures of their animals. One person wanted the fish food blessed. Another person brought her horse's halter." Of the 35 animals that were blessed, there were a few cats and a handful of other creatures. But "mostly, it was dogs."Sumi Hahn, the doting owner of a dalmatian, earns her kibble as an associate editor at Seattle Weekly.Sidebar OneDoggerel: The Poop on Dog FoodTen years ago, a study revealed that pet owners spend more on pet food than parents spend on baby food. Around the same time, a number of investigative articles on the pet food industry revealed what was really crunching in that cup of kibble: fecal matter, moldy grains, diseased flesh, hair, rancid fat, newspapers, and even euthanized dogs and cats. Writers Wendell O. Belfield, DVM, author of How to Have a Healthier Dog (1989; 1994), and Ann Martin, author of the forthcoming Food Pets Die For (NewSage Press, 1997), describe how rendering facilities process remains unfit for human consumption, from animals labeled with one of the "4-Ds": dead, dying, disabled, or diseased.These remains are chemically treated with toxic amounts of carbolic acid, creosote, or kerosene, and stabilized by preservatives before being sold to pet food manufacturers as "animal by-products" or "processed animal protein product."Sidebar TwoA Bitchin' Good ReadA dog lover's library should include these important volumes on a variety of vital topics. The Family That Prays Together, Bays TogetherHow to Be Your Dog's Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete (Little Brown, 1978) -- A best-selling cult classic on how to commune and communicate with your dog in a New-Agey, upstate New York monk kind of way. Mother Knows Best, by Carol Lea Benjamin (Howell, 1985) -- Train your puppy the natural way by pretending you're a bitch who's recently had a litter. Stop Wagging Your Tail And Eat Your Wheatgrass Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, by Dr. Richard Pitcairn, DVM, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn (Rodale, 1995) -- Learn how to cook organic, wholesome food for your dog and maintain its health in a holistic way. By one of the gurus in the field. Travels with Fifi The Seattle Dog Lover's Companion, by Steve Giordano (Foghorn Press, 1996) -- A Northwest Best Places for dogs. Training Your Dog for Sports, by Charlotte Schwartz (TFH, 1996) -- Teach your dog how to go boating, camping, hunting, and run obstacle courses. Old Yeller listens to Prozac The Dog Who Loved Too Much, by Nicholas H. Dodman (Bantam, 1995) -- Stories about dogs who need Prozac by the Oliver Sacks of the dog world. The Intelligence of Dogs, by Stanley Coren -- Decode your dog's tail wagging, improve your dog's human vocabulary, and apply a canine IQ test.