It's a dog's life: Confessions of a 'pampered pet' owner

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The Independent Online

Pampered pets are silly creatures who wear tiaras, sleep on waterbeds and eat salmon mousse. They're the last word in Western decadence, the height of cutesy anthropomorphism. Some of them live swankier lives than we do, for heaven's sake. There's even a dog from the Upper East Side who has a butler and won't fly economy. The butler follows him round carrying a plate of fennel strips. It's enough to make you sick. And what more demeaning sight can there be, I ask you, than a pug in the park wearing sun visor and bikini?

When it comes to one's own dog, however, it is a different story. Our Yorkshire terrier Deryk (pictured opposite) is not pampered. He is simply well cared for. A little fellow like him shouldn't have to go out in winter without a cosy tartan hoodie. He is such a joy to us, like a sunbeam on the end of a lead, that if he is treated it's only because he deserves it. He does, admittedly, dine at the table of his favourite restaurant, the Wells Tavern near London's Hampstead Heath, where the menu includes the Lily's Kitchen organic chicken-and-vegetable-bake dog bowl for £1.25 – but only on his birthday, and he always looks quite confused to be allowed to sit on a chair, almost as if he would rather be safely under the table in his carry bag. He is such a good dog, which is why my mother, who is his full-time owner, moved house to be near a park so he could get long fresh-air walks... Oh, heck. I see it now: we own a pampered pet.

At least we are bang on-trend. The last decade has been a boom-time for pet services and accessories, with the market increasing by 30 per cent in the past six years. Despite the recession, sales of dog coats last winter were up 70 per cent on the previous year. Pets At Home, the UK's largest pet emporium, has opened 20 new outlets a year since 2004. "The market expanded so quickly I gave up my law degree and went full-time," says one pet profiteer, Melody Lewis, now 29, who in 2002 founded petlondon.co.uk, a destination website for frilly dog frocks and cat costumes.

At her HQ, off Wigmore Street in central London, she sits behind a pink MacBook, cuddling Poppy, her terrier, and making calls to South Korea. These days, she tells me, Seoul is the world capital for canine apparel. They infamously used to dress dogs with parsley but now apparently it's fashion, fashion, fashion – and Melody imports a lot of products from there. "They're 10 years ahead of us," she says. "It's abnormal out there not to dress your dog." One of her bestsellers is the soft harness, an alternative collar that alleviates neck strain in small dogs (from £12), which she sells at a rate of roughly 300 per week. Other hits include "antique-look" cat-litter covers and doggy diapers. But who, exactly, are her customers?

"Mainly women aged from 20 to 50," says Melody. "They tend to choose blue for boys, and pink for girls." (In the world of the pampered pet, I notice, the word "bitch" is never used. It may be the correct term, but it doesn't help shift pink doggy togs, does it?) "We sell a special birthday package, which includes a T-shirt, a toy and a cupcake." A cupcake? "Made of carob and dog chews. We also do a larger birthday cake, if lots of doggy friends have been invited to the party."

You don't need a psychologist, I'd say, to join the dots: this is child-substitution. Some companies even refer cloyingly to "your furkids". The pink pound has long been invested in dog care, but as parenthood is increasingly delayed – since 2004, more women in the UK have been having children at 30-34 than at any other age – so a cohort of solvent, childless dog-pamperers has emerged, with their grandmothers-in-waiting, itching to buy toys. Neuroscience shows that when you cuddle a dog, oxytocin is released in dog and owner – the same hormone that bonds couples, or parents and children. It's a specifically touch-related hormone, a hit that you only get from cuddling. Put bluntly: it makes you want to parent that furball in your arms. Whether you see this relationship as a useful trial run for the responsibility of parenthood, a creepy act of substitution, or a brilliant merchandising opportunity, depends on your point of view.

One gets the feeling that things have gone too far when people buy their pets motorised gym equipment. The "Fit Fur Life" treadmill, available in four sizes (from £659-£1,865), is the brainchild of Sammy French, who conceived of it as a way of keeping her dogs fit while she was unwell. She might have done better to employ a dog walker for the money. It seems downright wrong for an invention to so conspire against a canine's right to sniff. The contraption, recommended as part of a balanced routine involving outdoors walks, has been very useful in rehabilitating injured dogs, developing specific muscle tone in gun dogs, and helping obese dogs lose weight. Penny, the welterweight black Labrador, apparently lost 4.8kg after being clipped in for 17 minutes at a stretch.

Grooming salons are springing up around the country, but is it right to indulge a dog in such primping? I tested .........  the signature "glam session" treatment offered at Purple Bone (£35, purplebone.co.uk), a new salon in the heart of west London's recession-struck Notting Hill Gate. "Uniformed staff drop a lot of dogs off for baths once a week," says Julian, the co-owner (sadly his friend is not called Sandy, but Jakob). When I visit, Stella McCartney is picking up two organic-hemp dog beds. Neve Campbell's pets come here, too, and another customer is "a real princess" (I'll bet she is). It is quite the smartest salon Deryk has ever visited. In fact, the only salon he has visited, having been home-groomed thus far in life.

First, the consultation, in the upstairs treatment room, where there are fresh flowers and calming candles burning. "Whoever did his cut last time hasn't left me much to work with across the back legs," says Jamie, the chief groomer, thoughtfully. He is the sweetest man, and preternaturally serene. He used to work with autistic children before retraining as a dog-groomer in Paris seven years ago. (Parisian dog-grooming is all about styling, he says.) "I think a generic teddy cut would suit the shape of his head. They also call it a puppy cut. Gives a more youthful look." Jamie tells us some dogs come in with their coats neglected and knotty, their owners asking for a buzz cut. "I won't do it. It's wrong to let their coats get in such a state, so I send them elsewhere."

Deryk does not seem to appreciate that the shampoo being used on him is Aroma Paws' Mandarin Green Tea and Ginger Root, imported from LA and specially selected for his sensitive skin. (Orange and Nutmeg is used "for dogs that have rolled in something"; Coconut and Papaya for wirehaired coats; while Geranium, Peony, Orchid, Rose and Clary Sage delivers shine.) Deryk shivers in the bath like a discomfited otter, just as he does at home, feet pounding the non-slip bath mat. "He's doing the doggy paddle, aren't you darlin'?" says Jamie. He usually sends the owners away, as this helps dogs relax, but I'm allowed to stay for the purposes of journalism. "Deryk too small for massaging air-vent treatment," I write in my notebook. "But Great Danes love it."

Hypnotised by Jamie's soothing manner, Deryk submits passively to trimming with an electric clipper, even in his most private places (known in the trade as a "dogzilian"). His rear end has never looked so smart. Then there is a "gland express" which – squeamish readers look away now – is a quick squeeze given to glands if they are impacted enough to resemble two peas. "If you imagine his bumhole as a clockface," says Jamie, "they sit at 7.20." Not in Deryk's case. There are no peas on his bottom, at any time of the clock. Finally Jamie cleans inside his ears, brushes his teeth, trims his paw-fur, clips his nails (a "pawdicure"), offers him a coat of black nail varnish (erm, no thanks) and delivers a dab of moisturising paw balm to each pad of each paw. "Because city dogs can get dry skin pounding pavements." Finally, a dab of Pawfume and an aromatic finishing spritz, all in the same Mandarin Green Tea range. "Ah, he looks five years younger," says Jamie.

The treatment leaves Deryk shellshocked, and no wonder: he has lost about a pound of his bodyweight in fur and he can now see the world without the aid of a topknot. The pawdicure means he hobbles slightly, as if en pointe. I am glad he has tried a "glam session" but I rather miss his biscuity, furry smell; so much nicer than Mandarin Green Tea. But a lot of knowledge and care has gone into the treatment, as well as some camp fun. Other places might go too far, with their detox washes made from real fruit and their colour-enhancing baths – yes, different treatments for brighter coloured dogs, white, red, black or gloss – but Purple Bone strikes a good balance. "Dogs are 99 per cent wolf," says Jakob, co-owner with Julian. "We never forget this. It's not about putting them in pink rhinestone jackets."

Still, some people try. Max and Margot ( maxandmargot.co.uk) is a website that offers a cornucopia of costumes, including a "red satin party frock – formal dress for four-legged ladies" and a "white satin bridal gown with veil and leash" (£47). Owner Alison Vumbaca admits that demand for these items is low, but says she has sold 653 doggy tuxedo sets (£28.50 including top hat and tails) in the past two years, and a staggering 1,952 doggy bow ties (£11). "People usually want the more formal wear for weddings, so their dogs can accompany them up the aisle," explains Alison.

Harriet Skinner, who is 23, has just had a tuxedo delivered for Oscar, her three-year-old French bulldog. "When I came home and saw the tuxedo I nearly cried, it's so cute! He's going to look really handsome in it, with his two little teeth showing..." Harriet and her boyfriend, Firat, are getting married in Cyprus in September, and Oscar, clad in his distinguished kit, "is going to stand with my fiancé as best man, bless him".

I've discovered nothing but friendly, doting owners in my journey into the world of "furkids", but the concept of the "pampered" dog still troubles me, somehow. I think it's because of the worry that guilty owners might substitute time and affection with gimmicks and gadgets. To Deryk, toys do not matter much, but play is everything. Company is vital; the sight of me putting on my shoes sends him into an ecstasy of anxiety. Am I coming too? Am I? I am? He can't rest till he knows. I take him with me as many places as I possibly can. He even once came with me to the opera, but only because he loves Verdi. Just kidding! It was because it was fireworks night and I couldn't leave him home alone whimpering under the sofa. So I tucked him in his carrybag and told him not to growl during the arias. I wouldn't do it again; he went to sleep but I spent the whole show terrified he would bark at a cymbal crash. The really pampered pooch isn't one who wears snowboots to the park (Deryk can't stand his snowboots anyway, and they're clearly designed more for our benefit than his). Nor is it the one who sleeps on a "Cleopatra" chaise longue (handcrafted in Milan). It's the one who spends lots of time with its owner, hanging out, and being part of its very own wolf pack.

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