R.S.V.P. (people only, please)
As pets become a bigger part of the family, when they’re left off the guest list, the party’s over.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and Emery Robinson, 23, and her black lab puppy, Moakley, were enjoying themselves in a South End dog park: Moakley tussling with peers, Robinson talking dog minutia with other owners. But a dark cloud loomed: a weekend barbecue at her boyfriend’s parents’ house, a party to which Moakley, 80 pounds of goofiness, was specifically not invited.
“It kind of hurts my feelings,’’ said Robinson, the communications director at a mental health facility, as Moakley cruised by for a pat, pink tongue lolling. “Your dog is an extension of yourself.’’
In other words, love me, love my pet. Or else.
At a time when owners are increasingly humanizing their animals — socializing together at “yappy hours,’’ vacationing at pet-friendly hotels, throwing “bark mitzvahs,’’ treating pooches to yoga, art classes, and designer wardrobes — humans have started feuding over something new: the pet snub.
“We did not get a dog to leave him alone on the weekends,’’ said Amy Duverger, a Cambridge massage therapist, after a host — or would-be host — ignored several texts from Duverger asking if Wrigley, a 7-month-old lab-hound mix, was welcome at a World Cup party in Jamaica Plain.
Wrigley, his owners finally understood, was not on the guest list, so Duverger and her partner sent a final text: “We have other plans.’’
Animal groups routinely tout studies showing that pets reduce stress, which is no doubt true, except when they increase it. After the texting exchange, the host “vented’’ that she was upset, Duverger said. Of course, she and her partner were not happy either.
And don’t get Lauren Weiner started on the friend who said she couldn’t bring her dog to a beach weekend on the Jersey shore. “She said the dogs would never stop playing and it would be annoying,’’ said Weiner, an event planner who was hanging out recently at the dog-friendly South End Buttery cafe and bakery.
But it was Weiner who got annoyed — and said no to the weekend. “What really bothers me is that she’s one of those people who brings her dog everywhere she goes.’’
No data has been collected, thus far, on the number of pet-related arguments. But numbers indicating signs of attachment between owners and their pets are growing. At the same time, there’s no reason to think that people who are not enamored with pets have changed their minds, said Nicholas Dodman, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Despite the recession, spending on pets hit $45.5 billion in 2009, according to the American Pet Products Association, up from $43.2 billion in 2008. A 2007 Harris Poll found that 93 percent of dog owners, and 89 percent of cat owners, consider their animals a member of the family. The poll didn’t pit human relatives against the pet “relatives,’’ but in many cases, the animal seems to be the preferred kin.
“There were situations where I didn’t go to family holidays because of the dogs,’’ said a marketing executive from Boston who was hanging out in a South End dog park with his three schnauzers. Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July picnics, he’s missed them all.
“My pets are my kids,’’ said the exec. “But it’s easier to say don’t bring your dog than don’t bring your pet.’’
His parents, he continued, fear the dogs will make a mess. He imitated them in a high-pitched voice: “ ‘The dogs will ruin the house!’ Please don’t use my name,’’ he said. “It would be World War III.’’
Of course, sometimes houses do get ruined by visiting pets.
“I have a terrible dog story,’’ Ed Comentale, an English professor, said as he shopped at Polk Dog Bakery in the South End recently. He and his wife and their dog, a papillon, were visiting his wife’s cousins in upstate New York. Moments after arriving, the dog defecated on the light-colored carpet, but no one noticed, most tragically not Comentale, who stepped in it and tracked it around the house.
He tried to clean it up surreptitiously, but the situation was detected. He apologized profusely, but even so, he said, the couples aren’t as close as they used to be. “I’m not sure if that’s why.’’
As bad as incidents like that are, they can have an upside, as Jay Stebbins points out. Stebbins, of Charlestown, is a pet-friendly real estate agent with the Warren Residential Group on Newbury Street, as well as the creator of the Fido Loves website and the owner of a beloved English pointer named Moose.
That is, Moose is beloved by Stebbins and his girlfriend, but not by all their friends, he said, recalling incidents where friends have yelled at Moose. Stebbins no longer visits people who freak out about the dog shedding or sniffing around. “If the dog’s not welcome you don’t want to go,’’ he said.
On the one hand, he misses some events. But on the other, the dog is “the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card,’’ he said. “You’ve got the greatest excuse in the world — I’d love to go, but I’ve got nowhere to put the dog.’’
Why do some pet owners become virtually unable to socialize without their animals? Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist who uses animals therapy with his patients, offers two reasons.
“We bond with the animal because we have a very strong need to be needed and be helpful, just like moms or dads do with their children,’’ said Fine, a professor at California State Polytechnic University.
“Another theory, which can equally explain this, is that animals act as a social support,’’ Fine said. “It’s a safety net. Some people are more comfortable with their animal companion.’’
And, in the end, who can blame them? A dog won’t walk away from you at a cocktail party because someone better looking or more successful comes along, nor, as a member of the family, will he make catty remarks about your much anticipated summer vacation.
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.