How Rover Took Over

Whether it’s a Prozac prescription or a kennel with cable, nothing is too good for today’s Philly pets. Just ask their disposable-income-laden, pooch-pampering owners (a.k.a. the DIPPies!), who may well be the perfect symbol of the new Philadelphia

I THINK I FIRST GOT THE SENSE that something amazing was going on one day last winter, when Wendy Whiting invited me along on her training session with Mike and Michelle Monreal and their two dogs. The couple had first called Whiting a few weeks earlier to help them get a handle on the out-of-control


I THINK I FIRST GOT THE SENSE that something amazing was going on one day last winter, when Wendy Whiting invited me along on her training session with Mike and Michelle Monreal and their two dogs. The couple had first called Whiting a few weeks earlier to help them get a handle on the out-of-control Rottweiler they’d just adopted. Whiting, who runs a Queen Village dog-training and pet-sitting business called Proper Paws, described it to me as one of her most challenging cases: The dog had bitten one of the owners, and was also wreaking havoc on the behavior of the otherwise agreeable Bernese mountain dog the Monreals had brought into their lives a year or so earlier.

But when we arrived, just after work on a Wednesday night, things had improved dramatically. In the wake of Whiting’s first two sessions with the couple and their errant brood, there was no more biting and no more intimidation.

So instead of some death-defying inter-species face-off, the ensuing session featured an odd sort of ballet on the sidewalk outside the couple’s Bensalem home. At Whiting’s direction, Mike, 24, a union carpenter, walked the lumbering Bernese up the block one way. And Michelle, also 24 and a bank branch manager, walked the snappish Rottweiler the other way. Whiting watched closely, peppering the owners with tips on ways to make the journey go more smoothly: Chin up! Hold the leash close, like a lady with a purse! If they pull ahead, turn right around — show ’em you’re leading the walk!

“You guys have to practice this stuff,” Whiting said as the session ended. “Five, 10 minutes a day. Every day. No excuses.” When we got back in the car, she seemed a bit apologetic, as if I’d been expecting some telegenic Cesar Millan spectacle — though she should have been pleased that her work had reduced the likelihood Michelle would have her hand chomped off by that nervous Rottweiler.

In fact, the outing was a perfect illustration of something a lot more novel than snarling animals. No, not the onetime advertising account executive’s preternatural skill at calming a savage beast. And not the fact that carpenters are willing to pay $400 to $600 for six sessions with her. Not even the related revelation that in the two years since she offered me pointers for handling my own dog, Whiting’s Proper Paws has grown from just her and her cell phone and a Xeroxed instruction sheet to include epic plans for national franchising and a local training academy.

No, it was the realization that for 10 minutes every day from now on, a perfectly normal young couple in suburban Philly would be forsaking their giant TV and first-floor pool table and heading out into the cold to practice their … dog-walking lessons.

Dog-walking lessons! Not to mention organic dog food, specialty-baked canine cupcakes, doggie day spas, veterinary acupuncturists, kennels featuring cable TV, and all the other amenities today’s Philly pets luxuriate in. It’s enough to set off your inner Bill O’Reilly: What in tarnation is wrong with this city if even our golden retrievers are taking on airs? But before you get too deep into that rant about how this old blue-collar town is surely going to hell in a handbasket if its puppies have owners so soft that they need to pay hundreds of dollars to a professional to teach them how to walk their dogs, consider this: Could those same overindulged animals actually represent Philadelphia’s salvation?

While the rest of us have been looking for clues about the city’s future in indicators like the condo market and the murder rate, the school system and the culinary scene, a major sign of our health, wealth and values might well be found in the four-legged companions sitting at our feet — the ones who might just live better-accessorized lives than a lot of Philadelphia’s humans.

In many ways, it’s the story of Philly in the 21st century: the lowbrow industrial city reinvented as service-driven playground for newcomers with a taste for the finer things. Abandoning dreary distant swatches of New Jersey, they descend on Center City and environs, taking up residence in spruced-up rowhouses and airy condos. Overnight, the abandoned warehouses turn into day spas, and the vacant lots become well-tended parks. Pretty soon, a whole new economy has sprouted to clothe and feed and pamper them.

Aw, sure, some old-timers may resent them, these new kings of the city. But how can we really be angry? The fancy newbies represent a $41 billion economy nationwide — and Philly has a nice chunk of it. So loosen up. Like it or not, Murphy, Lula, Iggy, Hazard, Oyster, Clem and Hank, among others, are what urban revival looks like.

Oh, and their owners have a little something to do with it, too.

IT’S AN IMPOSSIBLY BEAUTIFUL SPRING SUNDAY in Rittenhouse Square. Temperatures are in the mid-70s. The sun is high in the blue sky. It’s one of those days when all of Philadelphia — or at least those segments of it that live in or flock to the hoity-toitiest neighborhood in town — seems to be on display. And amidst the revelers, there are 15 dogs and only seven children.

The kids, for the most part, are toddling around the Square’s fountain, their parents watching absently. The pets are a different story: Some trot on leashes held by owners; others sprawl at their masters’ feet. One dog is being escorted through the Square by a uniformed walker, a staffer from the nearby Rittenhouse, which offers the service to guests. A handful of non-tourist pups sit right there in their owners’ laps, the four-legged princes and princesses of Philadelphia.

When historians tell the story of how the dogs captured upscale Philadelphia, a major component will involve noting that the city didn’t have any children to defend it. With their demands on parental time and wallets, kids are perhaps the ultimate restraint on pet-pampering: How much time and money do you have to spend on specialized doggie caricatures, after all, when there are dance recitals to go to and college tuitions to save for? On the other hand, without kids, all that free-floating love — not to mention the guilt and anxiety and competitiveness that also drive us to consume goods, services and canine-massage therapies — can hone right in on Fido.

Call them the DIPPies: Disposable Income, Pampered Pets. Or just call them the people who make you feel guilty every time your dog eats, you know, dog food.

In fact, Philadelphia’s residential renaissance and its pet-industrial complex have identical demographics at the root of their success: empty nesters and late wedders, the childless and shameless. In Center City, where only about a fifth of married couples have children, the real estate come-ons beckon young couples to new rowhouses, and urge older buyers to give up that oversize spread in Moorestown in order to live the high life in a converted Old City loft.

The same folks, says Maureen Chambly, who runs the Club Canine daycare facility near Fitler Square, are driving sales of mango-scented pet shampoo and $2.50 doggie cupcakes.

“We want love,” she says. “We’re not having babies. Or, if we’re empty nesters, the kids are grown. We can make it happen by having a dog. … [People] have the nurturing instinct; it’s natural. So now they brag about how they spoil their dogs.”

Chambly has her doubts about whether this is a good thing — although her business surely benefits from the guilt felt by dog owners who leave their surrogate children at home all day. “People bring dogs to daycare not because they think the dog needs the outlet, but because they feel guilty,” she says. “But you did this because you wanted love. So you give them treats. Which spoils them.”

The notion that some Philadelphia pooches get treated a lot better than many Philadelphia humans won’t get any argument from G-N Kang. Kang, a co-host of Chio in the Morning on WRDW-FM, owns a Yorkie puppy and a teacup poodle. Now, you might write off as drive-time self-promotion the fact that Sammie and Regina both have MySpace pages and photographs taken by professional photographers. After all, Kang talks about them on the air all the time. But back home, she keeps the pair’s clothes on baby hangers in a mahogany armoire (“a wardrobe bigger than most kids’, with a full line of Halloween costumes,” Kang says), custom-makes garments for them, and at mealtime pops open a pet cookbook that features biscuits, holiday food and “poochie pizzas.” (“I have no problem sharing a spoon with them,” she says).

It probably goes without saying that she has a $300 bag from Juicy Couture in which to carry them around. Kang, 25, estimates that since she adopted the two pets in January, she’s spent $4,500 on their care and feeding.

Spoiling, of course, is a raison d’être for the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), the industry’s trade association. According to the group’s statistics, we spoil to the tune of nearly twice what we spent a decade ago: $41 billion this year, up from $23 billion in 1998. Twice each year, that industry is on display in mammoth trade shows sponsored by H.H. Backer Associates, owners of Pet Age magazine. The gatherings showcase everything from the latest offerings from Purina to more obscure retail goodies like, say, Bobbi Panter canine spa products, or dresses by Ruff Ruff Couture. In the previous five years, the press kit for this spring’s show says, the number of product lines specifically positioned as “upscale” increased sixfold.

The trade association — which obviously has an interest in making animal-oriented spending sprees seem as reasonable as possible — says the boom in business has accompanied a cultural sea change that will seem obvious to anyone who’s ever, say, trotted a pup into a Commerce Bank location and received a free doggie biscuit along with his or her cash: “Treating animals like kids is no longer looked down on,” APPMA president Bob Vetere said at his association’s even larger trade show, held last winter at the sprawling Convention Center in Orlando. “It’s considered to be taking good care.”

It might as well be the DIPPie credo.

Of course, “taking good care” is an evolving concept — for two-legged creatures as well as their four-legged pals. Scan a Philadelphia phone book from a generation ago, and you’ll find precious few gyms, but plenty of butchers specializing in thick, fatty meat. Likewise, at around that same time, the notion of taking good care of a dog was limited to keeping its Alpo bowl full and letting it out for a leak every now and then. Today, as humans buy organic, treat their blues with antidepressants, train at the nearest health club, and await an old age eased by hip replacement and angioplasty, it’s no surprise that the concept of taking good care of a dog has grown a bit more generous, too.

“People care about how they look, and they’re looking to accessorize their pets, too,” says Meghan Dinneen, who works at Old City pet boutique BoneJour. “And they look for food that’s natural, no preservatives, no by-products. … They’re like, I shop at Whole Foods, and I want something just as good for my pets.” As the DIPPies live, so do their pets. Pass the gourmet doggie biscuits, sucker.

NOT THAT I JUDGE. Oh, no.

Murphy, a St. Bernard with big eyes and drooping jowls, had me by the short hairs from the moment we adopted him from a shelter in about the last rural place in all of New Jersey. On the drive up, my wife and I talked self-righteously about how we weren’t going to become like those people — the ones who shell out for the spa stints and agility training and homeopathic medicine for their animals, the ones who laugh it off when their puppies frighten actual kids away from the neighborhood playground, the ones who give up vacations and promotions and transfers in order to spare pooches with names like Baxter and Sonoma and Hamilton and Mordecai from having their lives disrupted. Not us.

But just as a dog’s genes lead him to romp and sniff and bark, mine apparently led me, inexorably, into DIPPiehood. Three years later, Murphy is a veritable four-legged community development corporation.

He has a professional walker and a standing playdate. He has visited a professional groomer and availed himself of Whiting, a professional trainer. He has boarded at two of the city’s most popular kennels — but only after undergoing half-day interviews that seemed weighted with college-entrance-type significance as they approached.

He is fed all-natural food from one boutique store in Old City, given treats made of desiccated bull penises from another closer to Rittenhouse, and dosed with nutritional supplements from the South Philadelphia PetSmart. He sups on snacks from Metropolitan Bakery, has lapped water alfresco from a bowl at Rittenhouse Square’s Rouge, and is welcomed like a captain of industry into Commerce Bank. Indeed, when Commerce had trouble with the suppliers who furnish the roughly two million doggie biscuits it gives out every year, no less a figure than the bank’s chairman, Vernon Hill — you may recognize him as the guy who leads his own dog, Sir Duffield, through the Dog Carnivale he sponsors in Rittenhouse Square each September — personally got involved to sort things out. The new treats, he told the Inquirer, are “all natural and small, so the little ones can eat them, too.”

Murphy has been dressed as an Arab sheik for Halloween.

He has waited in a long line of pets in a South Philadelphia PetSmart to have his picture taken with Santa.

And did I mention he’s on antidepressants? It turned out those plaintive barks he emitted from the minute we left the house in the morning to the time we returned at night — the yelps that had the folks on the other side of the rowhouse wall threatening grave consequences if Murphy didn’t clam up — were diagnosed as separation anxiety. The medication, Clomicalm, is an antidepressant made by Novartis, one that’s also consumed by humans as Anafranil.

Back home, my in-laws laugh: Is your dog still on Prozac? But around here, when we forget to refill Murphy’s prescription, we can always pop over to our neighbors’ for a couple days’ worth to get us by. Who wants to be the last dog on the block to get your own happy pills?

PHILADELPHIANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SUCKERS for that doggie in the window.

The city features prominently in Pets in America: A History, University of Delaware professor Katherine C. Grier’s engaging overview of our national relationship with domestic animals. As early as the 1870s, she notes, the Chester County firm of N.P. Boyer and Co. had expanded its trade in imported purebred livestock to include “dogs, fancy rabbits.” By 1900, Dr. J.J. Maher’s Veterinary Hospital for Horses, Dogs, and Small Animals offered a free ambulance service for stricken canines. A string of pet stores along 9th Street would attract customers by piling caged animals outside their doors. Further up the economic ladder, a store called Cugley and Mullen advertised its Market Street emporium as “germ-proof.” The store even provided written guarantees of its animals’ health and (alas, only for birds) their ability to sing.

Just as Cugley and Mullen’s fixation with germs was born of the grimy nature of life in the industrial-era metropolis, so is our contemporary pet culture a product of life in today’s Philadelphia — or as John Edwards might have it, today’s Philadelphias. No less a cultural critic than Murphy himself can discern the two Americas on display during his walk. Close to our home, in the fast-appreciating, professor-heavy Victoriana of University City, the average passerby sees him as sweet and friendly and evocative of the pup Charles Grodin made famous: Beethoven!

Venture a little further afield, though, and a lot of folks suddenly start to see the big guy as not so friendly after all. They venture out of our way as we walk, and more of the calls start referring to filmdom’s second most famous example of his breed: “Uh-oh, it’s Cujo.”

As with so much in the city’s new gilded age, it’s a study in contrasts. On the one hand, one of America’s most obese cities for humans. On the other, the popularity at boutiques like BoneJour of raw dog food, which includes bone and organ in an effort to replicate what Rover might eat if he were hunting for himself back in the wild. On the one hand, a crumbling old park system. On the other, the canine wonderland that is Schuylkill River Park’s dog run, with its snout-level water fountain and separate enclosures for small and big dogs.

On the one hand, a city with almost 140,000 residents who lack health insurance. On the other, Attorney Adrienne Piazza, 30, of Manayunk, pays about $300 a month for veterinary care for 26-pound French bulldog Jackson. The dog has had two eye surgeries, requires antibiotics and steroids for a condition that made his fur fall out and has him constantly itching, and also gets allergy shots. And Piazza suspects he has a vision problem that will require further interventions. Oh, and the dog has, ahem, “food aggression issues.” “We tried to get him trained and it didn’t work,” she says.

But Piazza would never consider giving up the animal her vet calls “the million-dollar dog.” She knows no one would take him, meaning the pooch would be destroyed. A generation back, plenty of animals were sent off to that great dog run in the sky for lesser inconveniences. But now, for folks like Piazza, the dog is family. So she muddles by.

“He’s a walking disaster,” she says. “You just kind of do what you can. Things are getting a little better.”

IF THE EPICENTER OF UPSCALE PHILADELPHIA is Rittenhouse Square, the epicenter of DIPPie Philadelphia lies just a few blocks east, in that dog run at Schuylkill River Park. The fenced-in space, hard by the CSX rails at the park’s edge, is hardly ornate (although it’s hard not to adore the park’s ornamental fire hydrant, the better for the pups to pee on). But what it lacks in boulevards and statues, it makes up in people.

“This is the most regular social experience of my life,” says Nicole Rodgers, a graduate student who has walked her “supermutt,” Clementine, at the park for three years. “I could write an entire ethnography on the people here.” She describes a complex social hierarchy involving dog-walkers, dog owners, the after-work group, the daytime group, the folks who go to the monthly pug meet-up, and even weekend interlopers. “People always know who isn’t a regular,” she says. The local pups avoid weekends, when the run is full of non-neighborhood dogs.

“Oh yeah, we’ve had romances, a couple of weddings,” says Arnie Zacharias, a dog-walker who arrives holding leashes for five different dogs and wearing a t-shirt that reads “I’d rather be line-dancing.” By virtue of a job that takes him into dozens of houses around the neighborhood, Zacharias is privy to all sorts of gossip. But all he’ll dish about are the dogs. “That one’s a poo-eater, and so is that one.”

Of course, there are parks full of dog-walking regulars all over town, small oases of ritualized daily conversations between people who would otherwise be strangers. Whiting, who can frequently be found in the park teaching new generations of clients her secrets of dog-walking, or the come-when-called, or the old sit-and-stay, or other skills that have only just become professionalized, says the intensely social nature of the human interactions in the park, and the resulting anxieties about everything from misbehavior to poor grooming to subpar nutrition, actually drive a lot of the local pet industry’s business.

“When the dog’s misbehaving in the park, that’s socially disastrous,” she says. “When people feel like they’re being scrutinized by their peers, that can be a big problem.”

In other words: Bring on the training — and the sweaters, and the mango-scented shampoo, and the dog-walking lessons, too. The DIPPies are watching. And so you’d better keep up with Fido.

Michael Schaffer is working on a book about pets and consumerism.

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