Dog Mommy Wars

Do you place your puppy's needs above of your own?
Do you place your puppy's needs above your own?
Do you place your puppy's needs above your own?

The Mommy Wars flared up again last week over Democratic party strategist Hilary Rosen’s ham-handed quip that stay-at-home-mother-of-five Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” I don’t have a dog in that fight anymore (the youngest of my three kids is about to graduate high school), but lately I’ve pricked an ear to the politics of doggie daycare. Think I’m joking? Read on.

When I decided to get a puppy last spring, I called several cockapoo breeders to ask about litters in the pipeline. I was a little taken aback when, right off the bat, one of them them pointedly inquired, “Who will be with the puppy during the day?”

“I’m between jobs right now, so I’ll be home with him when he’s little,” I replied, confident that my flexibility to take a “paw-ternity” leave would allay her concerns.

But she persisted. “Are you planning to go back to work? Full time?” she pressed.

“Well, yes, I’ve been looking for a job, but I don’t have one lined up yet. So it’ll probably be a few months until I do.” Recently laid off and brimming with optimism about my career prospects, I never imagined that I’d still be “between jobs” a whole year later. I was clueless in more ways than one.

Silence from the other end of the phone line.

“My husband only works part time, so he’s always home by early afternoon,” I hastened to add. Surely, this would reassure the breeder that we didn’t plan to leave our puppy alone for more than a few hours at a stretch. “And if we need more help, there’s a nice doggie daycare place right down the street.”

“I don’t think that will work,” she said flatly. “Someone needs to be home with your puppy all day.”

What?! Working outside the home was going to make me an unfit dog mother?

Eddie doesn't like his crate, but our cat does.
Eddie doesn't like his crate, but our cat does.

Welcome to dog parenting in the 21st century, where apparently the Mommy Wars are being waged on a second (canine) front. Honestly, how many more ways can we find to make women feel guilty about working outside the home? I was stunned to have my desire to be a working dog mom second-guessed by a cockapoo breeder — someone who, I might add, was making a bundle selling mixed breed puppies (formerly known as mutts) for several hundred dollars each. Have we really reached the point where we’re divided by our doggie daycare choices? And by “we,” I mean women, because caring for the family dog usually winds up being primarily our responsibility. If you doubt me, talk to my friend Cathy (not her real name), a stay-at-home mom whose husband reneged on his agreement to split dogcare duties 50-50, so she made him return the puppy, much to their four young children’s disappointment. Cathy’s no fool; she knew she’d be left holding the (poop) bag for years to come otherwise.

I ended up getting a puppy from another breeder, one who didn’t even ask about my (or my husband’s) employment status. Just as I didn’t ask him whether my puppy’s birth mother had been following an organic diet and doing yoga (“doga”) during her pregnancy. Family members and I visited our puppy five times before we finally brought him home, at 8 weeks old; surely, there was no question we would give “Eddie” a loving home.

Don't leave me!
Don't leave me!

And now, after almost a year as a stay-at-home dog mother, one of my biggest apprehensions about going back to work is finding an appropriate caregiver for Eddie, especially since it turns out he loathes visiting that nice doggie daycare place down the street. I know that once I find a job I’ll face my own challenges adjusting to a new daily routine, but will Eddie ever understand why I’m no longer at his beck and call 24/7? Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to land a job in a dog-friendly office. After all, research shows that spending time with a dog reduces stress in the workplace, so Eddie’s presence would benefit my co-workers, too. (To any potential employers who might be reading this: Eddie is small, non-shedding and reasonably well behaved for his age.)

How times have changed. When I was a child back in the Mad Men era, my mother and most of her friends were stay-at-home moms, but none of them gave more than a passing thought to planning enrichment activities for the family dog. In my suburban neighborhood, some dogs were let outside in the morning and only called home again at dusk; no one accused their owners of neglect. Back then, those free-range dogs enjoyed the same liberty we children did to roam the neighborhood and play pick-up games with pals. Some of them even chased cars and bikes for sport, but no one called the dog police. When my family went out of town, we dropped off our dog at a kennel and didn’t feel guilty about leaving him behind or lose sleep wondering if he was getting enough individual attention. We loved him, of course, but at the end of the day he was just a dog.

Of course, that era’s casual indifference sometimes crossed the line to outright abuse. Remember the heartbreaking scene on Mad Men’s second season when Duck Phillips, having gotten custody of the dog but not the kids in his divorce, callously abandoned his Irish setter on the streets of midtown Manhattan? And more than enough has been written about how the Romneys’ dog rode to Canada on the roof of the family’s station wagon; maybe they were simply trying to save him from having to sleep behind bars on the concrete floor of a kennel? The Romneys could have easily afforded to hire a dog sitter, if such a thing had existed back then.

Riley (Eddie's sister) really wants to come inside. (Photo by Karl Baden)
Riley (Eddie's sister) really wants to come inside. (Photo by Karl Baden)

Nowadays we treat our dogs more like children, spending ever-increasing sums on their care, and worrying about their mental health and socialization — if not their SAT scores (yet). The percentage of U.S. households owning dogs keeps inching up (to just under 40% in 2010), even as the majority of women now work outside the home and more people than ever live alone — creating the potential for tens of millions of American dogs to be left home alone for a substantial portion of each day. No wonder business is booming for doggie daycare, pet-sitting and dog-walking services (even DOGTV), despite the sizable bite this new category of no-longer-a-luxury expenses takes out of our paychecks. Given these demographics and my continued unemployment, the thought has crossed my mind (more than once) that I should start some kind of dog-related business (is “dog-trepreneur” a word?).

More on that idea in a future post. It’s time to walk my dog, a job for which I can impute an hourly rate of about $20.

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