The rise of ‘fur babies’

Dogs are man's best friends. Picture: UNSPLASH.

By Maria Millers

Not that long ago whether on a walk in a park or at a shop or a cafe you would stop and admire someone’s baby. Today you may be doing the same, but instead of admiring a human baby, it’s more than likely to be someone’s ‘fur baby‘.

Dogs are increasingly becoming the alternative family for those who despair about the state of the environment and the world in general but still want to express love towards a living creature.

Our attitudes to dog ownership have changed. Whereas you may have grown up with a dog whose place was a kennel in the back yard or a designated spot on the verandah, today’s family pet is more likely to be inside the home sharing the couch and sometimes even the owner’s bed. And rather than gnawing on a bone from Sunday’s roast (Do people still cook Sunday roasts?) your dog is more likely snacking on some treat sourced from a specialist pet food outlet online.

Over centuries dogs from miniature Chihuahuas to Great Danes have all evolved from the Grey Wolf, their direct ancestor with whom all dogs share 98.9 per cent of their DNA.

One can imagine a scenario with an orphaned cub being adopted by a human tribe and given to a child to feed, play with and hold close for warmth at night. So the bond between humans and dogs deepened as dogs became integral to many aspects of human life. And as dogs became more domesticated they were selectively bred for certain traits and skills necessary for humans to survive: hunting, herding and guarding livestock. Now, dogs are also in services such as security, drug detection, as guide dogs for the visually impaired and as therapy dogs

In agrarian societies their contribution was invaluable and as the recent ABC program Muster Dogs showed is still so today. But over time there has been a shift towards dogs being regarded as companions and family members and most families now keep dogs primarily for emotional and social benefits.

Today, there is an increased awareness of animal welfare generally and towards dogs in particular, though this has not done away with egregious examples of neglect and cruelty as often reported in the media. Indiscriminate breeding in so called puppy farms resulted in inherited disorders and other genetic abnormalities. However, the loved pet now enjoys regular grooming, outings and vet visits for preventative care and medical treatments.

But dogs are not long lived. The average life span is between 10- 13 years with small dogs like the Chihuahua living longer into the high teens. It’s no wonder then that poet Rudyard Kipling in his poem The Power of the Dog warns ‘of giving your heart to a dog to tear’ and points out that you may eventually have to face putting down a beloved pet.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits

Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,

And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs

To lethal chambers or loaded guns,

Then you will find – it’s your own affair, –

But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

And it seems that there are still cultures where there lingers a less sentimental attitude to dogs. This week a law was introduced in South Korea to prohibit the breeding and slaughter of dog meat for human consumption. This has been greeted with a strong opposition from those who regard dog meat as a traditional source of protein and there are still 1600 restaurants that serve dog meat. Of course, there have been many instances where survival dictated what to eat: during polar expeditions, war time etc. dogs were consumed. But for many this may seem almost like eating a family member.

Dogs have been at our sides for thousands of years and appear in literature and of course film as symbols of bravery and loyalty. The following is an extract from Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog on the death of his dog, Boatswain:-

But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,

The first to welcome, foremost to defend,

Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,

Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,

Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,

Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth:

While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,

And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Today it seems there is a stronger connection between humans and dogs than ever before and often has precedence over human needs. There is a growing tendency for anthropomorphising dog behaviour, endowing dogs with human attributes .But one wonders for whose benefit and wellbeing is this?

And if you have a new pup in your life, enjoy it but heed Kipling’s warning

Buy a pup and your money will buy

Love unflinching that cannot lie

Perfect passion and worship fed

By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.

Nevertheless it is hardly fair

To risk your heart for a dog to tear.