DONKS!

They're dog-obsessed and they have no kids--but their pooches dress up like people, host birthday parties, go to puppy preschool and drive a multibillion-dollar pet industry

Brian Dickerson and Lyle Miller own a dog.
The two men moved in together four years ago, and the Dalmatian puppy was a birthday gift from Dickerson to Miller to anchor their new family. They named her Sarafina. The three share a small apartment in central Phoenix, where Sarafina has the typical food and water bowls on the kitchen floor, a favorite chair and a stocking at Christmas. While Dickerson and Miller are at work, Sarafina sleeps in the bedroom, in her kennel.

Strike that. "We don't call it a 'kennel,' because that's a nasty word. It's her room," Miller says, without irony.

The "room" has its own "doormat," embroidered with Sarafina's name and image--right down to her bubblegum-pink lips, a feature of the breed.

Sarafina doesn't like disruption in her routine. Each morning, she shares Dickerson's breakfast, a banana. She wears Miller's cologne, Polo. After her hysterectomy (her masters prefer that word over "spaying"), she gained weight, but with careful monitoring, now she's down to a svelte 58 pounds.

Dickerson says Sarafina expresses feelings. "With Sara," he says, "I can cite many, many circumstances where she actually does show emotions, where tears actually form in her eyes--"

"Or she gets violently angry," Miller interrupts, glancing sideways at the dog, who sits between the men on the living-room sofa. "Right now," he says, "I think she's just a little put off. We're talking about her, not to her."

Sarafina's mood change is not apparent to the untrained observer.
Instead of "good dog," Miller acknowledges Sarafina's obedience with "thank you."

"I always talk to her like she's a person," he explains. "Brian does, too. We don't demean her in any way."

To anyone else, Sarafina is a full-grown Dalmatian, but to Dickerson and Miller, she's the baby they'll never have.

"This is not extremism," Miller says. "We don't think it's cute, or different. To us, she is a member of the family. She is our child."

Used to be, dog was man's best friend. Slept in the laundry room. Ate Alpo. You didn't have to remember his birthday, and he knew his place--below your knees, more or less.

This is all a dog needed: a place to, er, dump, a place to sleep, a bowl of water and some kibble. A scratch behind the ears.

Not so today. These are the days--the dog days. Child, spouse and elder abuse have reached epidemic proportions but, meanwhile, Fido has the run of the house, the heart and the checkbook. In an expression of family values that might leave Dan Quayle beaming but scratching his head, a growing sector of the population seems convinced its dogs are children.

The demographic includes Gen Xers who are postponing or skipping children, baby boomers with empty nests, and gays and lesbians. Instead of kids, they have dogs.

Call them DONKs. Dog-Obsessed, No Kids.
DONKs have prompted a boom in the marketplace, as well as in popular culture. DONKs don't just spoil their dogs, they anthropomorphize them--they ascribe human traits to them. Not since the premiere of Mr. Ed have animals been treated so like people.

DONKs dress their dogs in costume. Throw birthday parties for them. Take them to puppy preschool and doggy day care and welcome them on family vacations. Milk Bone biscuits have given way to dog treats shaped like bacon strips and T-bone steaks, and to soy-based "ice cream," as if dogs were kids in a candy store.

Price is no object. In the past decade, the number of dogs owned in Maricopa County and nationwide has remained steady; but the amount of money spent per dog has increased dramatically.

National retail sales of pet products, food and services have risen a billion dollars a year in recent times, totaling $18 billion in 1995, the last year for which the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington, D.C., has figures. Figures for dog products aren't available, but industry experts say dogs account for the lion's share.

Mass media have helped along the trend.
Flip to CBS' This Morning, and Martha Stewart's demonstrating how to wash your dog's face. On NBC's Frasier, Eddie the Jack Russell terrier is depressed. And coming to lucky cable subscribers next month: a network devoted entirely to pets.

And, with scant exception, moviemakers have ceased to kill off dogs (à la Old Yeller), bowing to the pressures of adoring fans.

Fine art galleries sell photographer William Wegman's pricey portraits of his costumed Weimaraners. Upscale bookstores stock Unleashed, a volume of poetry "by" writers' dogs--including Max, the late Australian shepherd of ASU creative-writing professor Ron Carlson. Origins, a trendy women's cosmetics store, sells "Silky Coat Dog Shampoo with lavender and citronella."

Locally, entrepreneurs have cashed in on the trend--unleashing everything from doggy boutiques and doggy travel guides to doggy bags of homebaked treats.

But they are mere tag-alongs behind PetsMart, the Phoenix-based nationwide leader of the DONK-marketing juggernaut that nets more than $1 billion per year. The pet superstore--joined by competitors such as Petco--has done for kibble what the Home Depot did for tools.

Why are we awash in dogmania? Experts say it was bound to happen--and it's our own damned fault.

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