The social rank of dogs is on the rise, and canines in southern Maine are reaping the rewards.
They have a standing invitation to sunbathe on decks along Portland’s waterfront. They can further their education with circus classes at Pet Quarters in Windham. And an overnight stay at The Doggie Cottage in Gray comes complete with a turn-down service.
But with greater privileges also has come a backlash from those who want dogs – and their owners – to remember their place.
When dog owners in Scarborough fought this past fall against a summertime leash requirement on local beaches, the Town Council countered with an all-out, year-round ban of unleashed dogs on town property.
In the end, the dogs and their doting owners proved their political power. They overturned the ordinance in a townwide vote last month that drew the highest turnout at a special election in Scarborough’s history.
The flap was the latest evidence of how far faithful dog owners will go on behalf of their pets.
Any gain in influence is not a result of strength in numbers. The proportion of Maine households with dogs declined from 38 percent in 2001 to 35 percent in 2011, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Rather, experts say, it’s the result of a shift in attitude about a dog’s place in the home, which has literally gone from the doghouse out back to into bed with the owners.
“The transition socially is that the pet has become a family member,” said Dr. Gail Mason, co-owner of Bath-Brunswick Veterinary Associates and Portland Veterinary Specialists.
Her hypothesis is backed up by a different figure from the American Veterinary Medical Association. In 2001, just over half of survey respondents said they viewed their dogs as family members, rather than pets or property. That number shot up to two-thirds in 2011.
Nancy Freedman-Smith, owner of Gooddogz Training in Portland, remembers her parents being the only people 30 years ago to buy a station wagon so they had enough room for their dog.
“Everyone made fun of us,” she said, but now it’s the norm.
As far as training goes, Freedman-Smith has seen an expansion of educational options over her 20-year career. Once focused on teaching manners, like how to sit and not to nip, the field includes classes synced to music, nose-work and barn hunts. She said it reflects the changing relationship between dogs and their owners, who used to command their pets and now see them as living partners.
“They know things about us. They’re there for everything,” she said.
HIGHER LEVEL OF FOOD, CARE
From dressing them in clothes to buying birthday presents, more than ever, dog owners treat their pets like children. The explosion in doggy day-care services is more evidence of that.
When Sean Kelley was building his first dog resort and day care in 2000, even the contractors working on the facility in Gray told him he was crazy, he said. Within four years, he opened a second Doggie Cottage in Scarborough to accommodate the demand.
Since then, doggy day cares have cropped up all over, Kelley said, including a couple opened by his former clients.
“I think they had more dog day cares at one time than they did restaurants,” he said about the town of Gray.
The American Pet Products Association’s 2013-2014 survey shows 14 percent of dog owners have used pet day care in the past six months, up from 3 percent in 2006.
Although The Doggie Cottage has always catered to spoiled pets, Kelley said, since opening he’s noticed an even higher standard among them.
When owners brought food for their dogs, he said, “it used to be kibble from the store.” Now, dogs are coming in on raw-food and gluten-free diets, he said.
In all areas of health care, dog owners are going to greater lengths, not hesitating to pay for CT scans or chemotherapy, said Mason, the veterinarian.
“There was always a select percentage of people who would go that distance,” she said. But they’re not just wealthy people anymore. Broken bones that were once treated with casts are now fixed with surgery, and total hip replacements aren’t unheard of, Mason said.
Veterinary visits and expenses rose moderately from 2006 to 2011, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Trips to the vet went up 9 percent and the mean amount spent increased by $22 – to $378.
The American Pet Products Association reports that overall annual expenditures in the industry last year were up to $55.5 billion, a 68 percent increase, accounting for inflation, from 15 years ago – when Westbrook-based Planet Dog was founded.
Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for the eco-friendly toy company, said dog owners were more likely to buy vinyl products a decade ago, but now look for the same qualities in dog toys as they do their own merchandise: nontoxic, recycled, made in the U.S.A.
“They like to know where the products come from and what’s in them,” she said.
There’s also been a trend toward more interactive toys, like a ball filled with treats that dogs have to work to get out, or, as Smith said, “toys that make dogs kind of think.”
There’s no question that some of them were under Christmas trees last month. Although the statistics aren’t broken down by animal, the Harris Poll showed that in 2011, 60 percent of pet owners bought a holiday present for their furry friends and 36 percent bought a birthday present.
OUT IN PUBLIC, A MIXED DOGGIE BAG
In those respects, pet-pampering can be kept within the privacy of home. But when dog owners want their animals to go everywhere they do, there can be consequences.
In Scarborough, the town is facing the threat of a $12,000 federal fine for not requiring that dogs on town beaches be leashed so they can’t kill or harass protected shorebirds, like the piping plover killed last July by an unleashed dog on Pine Point Beach.
Now that politically energized dog owners have overturned a townwide leash law, a committee of Scarborough residents is working to come up with new beach regulations that balance the interests of dog owners and the town.
Similar dogfights have erupted in other towns, including Portland and South Portland, where leash laws have kept dogs from having free rein.
But offices and shop owners can make their own rules – to the chagrin of dog lovers and haters alike.
Technically, The Snug pub on Portland’s Munjoy Hill never allowed dogs, said owner Margaret Lyons. But the bar got a reputation for letting them in anyway. That came to an end a couple of months ago when a bench got chewed up. “That was sort of the last straw,” she said.
Despite some destructive tendencies, there are benefits to keeping dogs close by. Mason, the veterinarian, said they’ve proven to reduce stress, depression and blood pressure in their humans.
About 17 percent of offices allow dogs, according to the American Pet Products Association.
In a video on the Tom’s of Maine website, administrative assistant Lori Smith talks about the positive effects on employees of the personal care products company in Kennebunk.
“You can’t have a bad day when there’s a dog around,” she said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: