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Unconditional Love

Once hunters and protectors, today's dogs have been promoted to family members. here's how to choose, train and love a dog
Stacey C. Rivera
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Their eyes sparkle and a weary yet broad smile emerges as they tell you that, no, he isn't sleeping through the night yet, but yes, he is digesting food, finally. Then come the stories, which all seem to begin with the same excited "He did the cutest thing yesterday..." There are pictures and toys; stories of family squabbles over the name choice and whether he is going to sleep in the bed. You nod in agreement, smile at the stories, coo over the photos. After all, he really is a cute puppy.  

Although the human-canine bond can be traced back to the Old Testament, the reasons for the partnership have changed dramatically over the centuries. Once bred for specific functions, such as hunting, protection or herding, today's dogs are bred for personality traits befitting a companion and family member. The family purchasing a dog today typically does not require that its new pup herd sheep or hunt vermin, but that it interact well with children and be a playful yet obedient companion.  

According to a study by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, there were 57.6 million dogs in the United States in 1998. An estimated 37.8 percent of American households (38,099,000) owned dogs in 1998 (not including households that contained both dogs and cats, which is estimated at 16,020,000 homes). More than 60 percent of the American population own a pet of some kind, which is higher than the percentage of households with children.  

During the 1990s, pet owners increasingly began to see their pets, and to spend on them, as if they were family members. "The overall trend is that animals are more integrated into people's lives," says Andrea Reisman, chief executive officer of Petopia.com, a Web site that offers a wide range of pet products. "Ten years ago you would have seen a lot of dogs relegated to the backyard. Now dogs have basically migrated from the backyard to the living room and are continuing to be welcomed into other parts of people's lives."

According to the 1999/2000 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 38 percent of dog owners share their bed with their dog, an increase from 29 percent in 1992. Likewise, 80 percent of owners buy their dog gifts as compared with 67 percent in 1994. Last year, Petopia.com had to restock its four lines of Halloween costumes for dogs after selling out of its original gross.  

"Seventy percent of pet owners view their pet as a child," says Reisman, the owner of a soft-coated wheaten terrier named Jack who accompanies Reisman to work, where his official title is Petopian product tester. "People who have pets, especially dogs, are absolutely, in the best sense of the word, fanatic about them," continues Reisman. "The amount of premium food being sold has seen a dramatic increase. So have lifestyle products such as apparel, beds and bowls that are more like human products in terms of quality. All of these things indicate that pets are being viewed more as family."

Reisman believes the drive to own and lavish pets, dogs in particular, is attributable not only to the current economic boom but also to two trends: baby boomers experiencing empty-nest syndrome who make their pets their surrogate kids, and young couples who are waiting longer to have children.  

Yet with all of the statistics pointing to a healthy, well-loved, well-cared-for dog population, 5 million dogs are abandoned each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and of those, 60 percent are euthanized. A disturbingly low 5 to 10 percent of dogs are rescued from shelters each year. According to ASPCA president and veterinarian Larry Hawk, dogs are predominantly given up for behavioral problems that could be controlled with proper training and owner knowledge. He also points out that many people buy dogs on an impulse, before taking into account that owning a dog is a long-term commitment and that a dog needs to be properly trained, walked, fed and loved every day.  

Every time you walk past the dog run at your local park, you begin to feel the pangs of jealousy. You want the unconditional love and unfailing companionship of an unopinionated listener. You want a truly loyal friend. You want a dog.  

What you don't want is the dog constantly begging to go for a walk or ignoring the Frisbee you throw to him. You don't want to find that what was supposed to be your loyal companion has taken over your life because he requires all of your free time. Or that the dog that was supposed to give you unconditional love and an overall sense of calm tries to bite you when you pick him up and barely tolerates being petted.  


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