Not all that long ago in many parts of the country, dogs were just dogs. They slept outside or in the barn or a doghouse, and perhaps only occasionally came indoors. If they lived in the house, it was rare that they had their own bed, much less shared their owners’. Most were loved, but in a different way than they are now; not so much as kids, but as protectors, hunting companions, ratters, and pets who either had a job or could look like they did.
It wasn’t a bad life, and you could argue that in some cases, it was a lot more natural than the way some of today’s dogs live (stuck in apartments all day, maybe getting out to doggy day care or going to expensive dog hotels when their owners/parents go away). The dogs my daughter and I saw last year in our relatives’ small village in Italy lived this life, staying outside their owners’ house or in a little shed, eating fresh (and by virtue of the rural life, organic) leftovers from their owners or their neighbors. They weren’t coddled, but they co-existed well enough, and generally seemed to enjoy their long days reposing in the grass in the spring sun.
There are still some parts of the U.S. where dogs live like this, but for the most part, there’s been a tremendous shift in the way dogs are treated here. A recent survey shows 81 percent of Americans consider their dogs as family members — a far cry from the backyard dogs of the not-so-distant past.
No one really knows the official dates when dogs started making the transition to being considered real family members, but from my experience in the dog-travel world, I can tell you that it was quickly picking up steam in the late 1980s. I’d gotten my first dog as an adult in 1989, when I was a reporter for USA Today. I was single and had to travel quite a bit. Back then, there were no pet hotels, no doggy daycares, and most of my friends weren’t allowed to have dogs. I wouldn’t leave Joe in a regular kennel, so I’d usually pack him along.
But as it turned out, there were so few places that allowed dogs that on a few occasions, I had to sneak him into motel rooms. There were no guides to dog-friendly lodgings, and certainly no Internet with dog-friendly sites, so it was a blind crapshoot. If you showed up and asked if dogs were allowed and they weren’t, you couldn’t very well stay. But if you didn’t, you took your chances with being kicked out. That happened to me once, and it wasn’t anything I cared to repeat.
Those were the Dark Ages of dog-friendly businesses. But little did I know that was all about to change.
Many Baby Boomers were delaying having children, so dogs often played important roles in their lives. On the other end of the generation, some older Boomers who’d started families young were done raising their kids, and longing for something to fill their empty nests. What better than a loyal, loving, non-college-tuition-needing dog?
As this generation grew up and out with their dogs at their sides, more businesses started allowing dogs. Lodgings found that people given the privilege of a nice room with their dog were among their best customers. Ditto for al fresco restaurants and other businesses. And so began the age of Canine Enlightenment.
While I was still grousing about how few places allowed dogs, I wrote a book on great places to take a dog in California. I really had to scrounge around, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see a guide like this. It sold very well, and became the basis of the Dog Lover’s Companion guidebook series. The book is in its seventh edition, and weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. There are so many dog-friendly venues that I have to be pretty choosy about what makes the grade.
Over the years, other businesses started catering to the people who treated their dogs as family members. Some Boomers will spare no expense for their dogs. Among the results: High-end dog food and treats; state-of-the-art medical diagnostics and treatments; super-swank boarding facilities; loads of boutique pet stores offering the choicest beds, collars, and fancy duds; and even canine massage therapists and doggy “psychologists.”
As Boomers age, dogs are becoming more empty-nest fillers than “first kids.” The fiscal result is a record $52 billion we’ll be spending on our pets (mostly dogs) this year.
“Boomers are different, for the most part,” according to Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “What did they call us? Helicopter parents, because we were constantly hovering over the kids. The kids left home and now we’re looking to hover over something else. And so we wind up doing it over pets.”
But pet ownership tends to drop as people retire — which includes the leading edge of Boomers. It’s causing the pet industry to wonder what this means for its future as this massive generation ages, gets into fixed-income mode, and doesn’t have the money to expend on its four-legged family members. Sure, Generation X-ers, behind it, are also mad about their pets (whew), but the Boomer generation is so huge that the effects of its aging could shake up the industry.
The pet industry is trying to prevent a downturn in pet ownership by promoting the benefits of pets for seniors. The APPA is a founding sponsor (with Petco and Pfizer Animal Health) of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes the positive role pets play in our health. And what older person doesn’t want to do what it takes to keep their health up? Dogs help blood pressure? Bring on Fido!
Of course, even Boomers are not immortal. The pet association can do only so much, and as Boomers start to die off, there may not be the dollars to keep alive all the businesses that support our love of dogs.
The future of dogs-as-family could go many ways. My hope is that our love of dogs will be so engrained that there’s no returning to the Doggy Dark Ages; that even though dog owners will be fewer in number, they’ll be just as passionate about their dogs. Maybe there will be fewer businesses to support this relationship, but there will be more than enough of them to nurture it without any jarring changes.
And who knows? A whole new industry of pet services could come from this. Mobile vets are already on the increase, and dog-walkers continue to grow in number. As Boomers age, businesses that make it easier for older people to keep their pets with them could have a heyday.
It will be interesting to watch this unfold. As David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, notes, “Boomers have traditionally been rule-breakers, and pet product marketers are counting on this group to buck the historical trend of sharply lower pet ownership rates among seniors.”
Do you think dogs will maintain their beloved status as we grow older? Are you a Baby Boomer? Do you plan to have dogs in your life as long as possible? We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know in the comments. We have something of a dog in this fight ourselves.