Becoming a Dogster: For Me, It Started With Poodles

Dogster columnist Julia Szabo began her lifelong love of dogs with an armful of adorable stuffed toy dogs. How about you?


Can you pinpoint the exact moment that you became a Dogster? I can.

It happened when I was around three years old, shopping with my Mother at Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship store. My little eyes spied a display of plush poodle toys. They were called “Hugniks” because their arms were wired in a permanent, embraceable-you position. I was enraptured. In a gesture of pure, naked consumerismo, I reached out and grabbed several of these stuffed dogs, held them close in my vise-like grip, and refused to let go. Mortified, Mommy was compelled to buy the lot.

A pack of poodles came home with us that day. There were four or five of them. They became known as the “pudli,” which is the plural of Poodle in Hungarian, the language of my ancestors. Happily for my parents, these dogs – at once real and imaginary – were very low-maintenance. Also happily for my parents, thanks to the poodles’ presence, I became a somewhat less high-maintenance only child than I might have been without my real, imaginary pets.

I was reminded of this defining moment in my personal history just the other day. My Mother was in high clean-out-the-closets mode, and – mindful of my sentimental attachment to my first canine companions – asked me what I wanted to do with the Pudli. Here’s what the survivors look like today.

Over the years, as you can see, they changed a lot, falling apart and losing definition from my constant pawing at them (I distinctly recall falling asleep every night while stroking the nearest Pudli’s long, floppy ear). With needle, thread, and scraps of fabric, my Mother would patiently perform face-lifts and miscellaneous other cosmetic procedures on my pack-mates, stitching them back together and patching them up. They were my constant companions.

Today, many years later, I live with five large, rescued dogs. Not Poodles this time around, but pit bulls, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. These dogs are nice enough to sleep with me every night, and to let me hug them when I’m sad. Whenever necessary, I take them to the vet, where they are stitched and patched up for maximum longevity. They are my constant companions.

Coincidence? I think not.

So, is it reasonable to think that those real-imaginary dogs made a Dogster out of me? Can caring for inanimate animals help a child to show compassion for the real things later on, and to develop a gentle touch with them?

For an expert opinion, I consulted Allen and Linda Anderson, co-founders of Angel Animals Network and authors of Animals and the Kids Who Love Them: Extraordinary True Stories of Hope, Healing, and Compassion (New World Library). Here’s what they had to say:

“Childhood is all about imagination,” the Andersons explain. “Children and animals use play to prepare them for life situations. It’s understandable that when children relate to toy animals and animals in literature, their imaginations free them to feel a connection that they carry into adulthood. This is also the reason why it’s important for parents and educators to teach children about kindness toward animals and to participate in humane education. The generosity and compassion children learn early in life instill those qualities in them and help them relate well to other people and pets when they grow up.”

Dr. Laurie Nadel, author, psychologist, and animal reiki practitioner, agrees – and sums up the subject beautifully with a personal anecdote:

The Velveteen Rabbit tells the story of a stuffed animal that was loved so deeply that it became real. Whether it is a puppy, a lamb, or a kitten toy, your first love opens your heart so that you and your pets can give and receive unconditional love. For her 9th birthday, my daughter wanted a stuffed mama dog that had a pouch with puppies inside. When she opened the pouch for the first time with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ her kitten Lucky got jealous. He thought that he was being replaced. I pointed that out to her, and explained that she needed to show her affection to Lucky and give him extra attention, so that he wouldn’t feel threatened. And she did.”

So, Dogsters – what would you do with a bunch of vintage dog toys you spent your childhood with, now that you’re a “grownup”? Please let me know in the comments.

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