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DONKS!

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.

In her 1991 Popcorn Report, marketing guru Faith Popcorn predicted that dogs would play an increasingly important role in Americans' lives as part of a trend she dubbed "Cocooning." By accepting the stresses of our go-go lives, we would be forced to retreat to the comforts of home, she said, suggesting specifically that dogs would make good company for our retreat. Popcorn also correctly predicted an increase in video rentals, grocery deliveries and home-decor magazine subscriptions, all offshoots of the trend.

Who better to curl up with on your Pottery Barn slipcovered sofa in front of a video, with takeout Chinese, than Fido? He doesn't judge you like your boss or your friends do, won't fight you for the remote control and would never nag you about the fat on that Peking duck.

And he never needs a diaper change.
Years before Popcorn put a name on it, the founders of PetsMart identified the cocooning trend and opened the first pet superstore, setting off a boom in the pet-products market that shows no signs of slowing.

Fido may not require burping or lullabies, but how about superpremium dog food, obedience school, veterinary services and a bath and brush? It's all for sale at PetsMart, and while you're there, try some fresh-baked treats from the Three Dog Bakery or a pig ear from the entire aisle devoted to dehydrated animal cartilage. It's all conveniently displayed at doggy-nose level.

Because it's difficult to play catch with your iguana or dress up your cat--and neither eats in bulk--much of the pet-product market has gone to the more recreationally minded dogs, with their lusty appetites.

PetsMart's success now has grocery-store chains and dog-food manufacturers scrambling to cash in on the market. That's where Betsy Funk comes in. Based in Phoenix, Funk is an independent marketing researcher for national and international pet-food manufacturers. She can't legally reveal her clients or her more detailed findings, but Funk says her years of conducting focus groups with dog and cat owners confirms both the cocooning and pet-as-child trends. She constantly hears pets referred to as "my baby" and "my child," and sees owners who wouldn't hesitate to buy a dog a $300 bomber jacket--just because it's cute.

"It's very anthropomorphic," Funk says. "Very very very."
And very very very profitable.
PetsMart was among the very first to sniff out the DONK trend, but others have capitalized on it since. Three Dog Bakery, based in Kansas City, made about $20,000 in 1990, its first year of operation. Last year, profits approached $3 million.

Locally, business people have unleashed lucrative dog amenities, as well.
Scottsdale writer Eileen Barish recently released the third edition of her pet travel guide Vacationing With Your Pet. She's been featured on CNN and in U.S. News and World Report.

Gary Wilkes, a professional dog behaviorist based in Chandler, has had such great success with his "Click and Treat" training method that he no longer accepts private clients; instead, he travels around the country lecturing on the program's benefits.

Wilkes sees nothing wrong with the trend toward pet pampering.
"Frankly," he says, "the environment for raising kids in this country is not all that hot. All of these things kind of add up, I think, to people adapting and exhibiting what is a very normal feeling of affectioned attention for animals."

Such affection led Wilkes' private clients to pay about $80 an hour for one-on-one training sessions.

Barish, Wilkes and others have been profiting from the DONK trend since the turn of the decade, but it wasn't until 1993 that pet-products executives saw quantitative data confirming the anecdotal information they were receiving.

Even as it was backing out of the growing pet market, Quaker Oats had researched pets and their owners. The results provided quantitative data confirming scientifically for the first time ever a piece of information that was bound to put marketing machines in motion. Almost every pet owner, said Quaker's work, has a strong emotional attachment to his animal.

Quaker honchos shoed PetsMart execs the research, and the rest is history. Promptly, PetsMart shifted its marketing slogan from "No one understands pets like we do" to "Where pets are family."

And they hadn't even met Tina and Rob Harter.

 

The Harters, recently married and in their early 30s, are the definitive DONKs. They waited to buy a dog until they had the right house (with a grassy yard and a pool resurfaced with a nonslippage pebble bottom) and the right car (a Toyota 4Runner). Then they "adopted" Blaze, a purebred golden retriever named with Rob's profession in mind. Rob is a Glendale firefighter; Tina is a scheduler for Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza.

Blaze is a conspicuous consumer.
In his 18 months, the dog has traveled more than some Americans journey in a lifetime. He's tagged along on the Harters' trips back East to see their families, to a riverboat on Lake Powell and to a Marriott Residence Inn in La Jolla that allows dogs.

"When Blaze turned 1 [last March], we were trying to think of what to buy him for his birthday," Tina says, "but we couldn't think of anything, because he already has everything, so we thought, 'Snow.' We had to find some snow."

So the Harters rented a cabin in Flagstaff for the weekend.
Blaze eats Flint River Ranch premium dog food, shipped from California to the Harters' home within three days of manufacture, guaranteed. The food is so fresh that often it's still warm when Tina opens the bag.

The Harters supplement Blaze's diet with chicken cooked on the grill, vegetables, rice and vitamins.

On the family's frequent outings to PetsMart, Blaze is allowed to choose one treat and one toy, which mom and dad hold onto until they are in the car. Blaze owns six collars.

No, the Harters don't think this behavior is odd at all. They love Blaze, so why shouldn't they want the best for him? Their friends think it's a little strange, they admit.

"He's just the focus of our attention," Rob says. "The guys at the fire station bust my chops all the time because they think I'm a little out there. But it's a conscious choice."

Sometimes dogs fill an empty nest. Judd Herberger--a Scottsdale businessman, and a DONK whose children have grown and moved away--has an office filled with tchotchkes devoted to the Airedale, his favorite breed. His favorite Airedale is 6-year-old Chelsea. He shops for her exclusively at pet superstores. She doesn't much care for toys--just an old blanket she totes around--but Herberger has taken special care to select just the right food. He talks about her preferences the way parents of humans discuss strained peaches.

"What I did when she was a baby, I just went to PetsMart and bought the little bag of every kind of food imaginable," he recalls. "Scissored off the top of 'em, and laid them around in the house . . . and the three that she ate were all the same brand."

Chelsea has eaten Waltham premium dog food ever since.
Herberger's devotion to Chelsea doesn't stop there. Like other DONKs, he doesn't just spend money on his dog. He showers her with affection that most reserve for fellow human beings.

But DONKs don't appear to know the difference.
Herberger shows off a scrapbook of snapshots of "Chelsea the Wonder Dog" dressed in various costumes--bunny ears for Easter; reindeer antlers for Christmas; Western wear; a scarf and sunglasses.

Chelsea accompanies Herberger to work daily, and can be spotted on the streets of Scottsdale riding shotgun in Herberger's convertible Cadillac.

Dad's as proud as any papa of Chelsea's skills as a passenger:
"On a long trip, I'll actually strap her in, but, unbelievably, I've had to hit the brakes--as a matter of fact, I did it this morning. I was coming down Hayden, had to stomp on the brakes. And the minute that she feels that, she puts her feet down on the floorboard and sort of turns her head, and braces.

"A lot of people, I'm sure, have looked at me thinking, 'That dog's gonna go right through the windshield as soon as he hits the brakes,' but she's never even touched the dashboard. And when we go around corners, she just leans, it's like a toboggan ride. She just loves that."

The Harters take Blaze along in their car, too. Even the most devoted of dog owners might find the practice strange: Blaze rides in the front passenger seat, next to Rob. Tina rides in back.

"He likes the front seat, because he's sitting next to dad and he likes to see where everything is," Tina explains. "But as soon as he starts getting tired and uncomfortable, he'll jump in the back and we'll switch."

The Harters' obsession is deep. They rearranged their work schedules so that during the first two weeks Blaze lived with them, he was never alone. Even after that, they planned around the dog, only eating at restaurants that had patios allowing dogs.

 

They didn't go to the movies for the first year they had Blaze. (Tina plans to launch a campaign to convince local movie mogul Dan Harkins to allow dogs into his theaters.)

"Really, we take him everywhere we go. He's as much our son as we could have ever imagined for a human child," Rob says.

And, no, again, that doesn't strike the Harters as out of the ordinary. "We treat him like a good kid," Rob says. For now, they say, they don't think they'll have human babies. They prefer the canine variety, or their "fur baby," as Tina calls him.

"The great thing," Rob says, "is so many of my married friends with kids, they're so tied down and confined, where we can get away . . . and take him with us."

The Harters had a formal family portrait taken by a professional photographer (even PetsMart's photo studio wasn't good enough). Tina, who has always wanted a tattoo but didn't know what to get, is now planning to get a dog paw penned on her hip.

Tina loves to watch Rob and Blaze together. For instance, the Harters were recently installing a new sprinkler system. While Rob toiled, Tina says, "Blaze was right out there alongside of him working and digging and carrying things. It's just like a father and son working next to each other."

Blaze prefers humans to other dogs, the Harters say, but he does have a few playmates, including Hannah and Noah, golden retrievers who belong to their neighbors, Lisa Maksym and David Schmidt.

Maksym and Schmidt are DONKs, too. Unlike the Harters, they definitely intend to have human children, Maksym says. That puts the "parents" of Hannah and Noah into a category of DONKs who are "practicing" their parenting skills on the canine variety.

"I always thought that I would graduate from college and get married and have kids," says Maksym, a 30-something account executive at a local advertising agency. "It's been a few years, now, since I've been out of college, and my life kind of took a different kind of path and I went more into a career, but it definitely adds so much to my life to have the dogs."

Maksym wears a silver locket inscribed "Top Dog" around her neck, with a picture of Noah in it. Her dogs go to the office with her; she grills bones on the barbecue for them; they sleep with her and Schmidt. When she has kids, Maksym figures Hannah and Noah will still receive the royal treatment.

"I don't think they'll ever become just dogs," she says. "I think they'll become the kids' best companions, and I don't think I'll ever change the way I treat them."

Mildred Gleason, a professional dog behaviorist and trainer based in Scottsdale, has been in the business since 1969. She's definitely witnessed the dawning of the age of the DONK.

A few years back, Gleason says, she noticed an increase in the number of her human clients whose children had grown and left home. Now, she says, empty nesters are joined by Gen Xers who also use dogs as child substitutes.

Don't get her wrong, Gleason is all in favor of puppy love, but she has little patience for excessive DONK expressions of affection.

"I used to dress my Boston terrier up in dog clothes," she says, seizing on a pet peeve, "but I was only 7 at the time."

Gleason says she can't imagine that a dog would enjoy it.
"When dogs are dressed in human clothes and we laugh at them, I think they're embarrassed," she says.

Even worse, she says, a dog like Sarafina the Dalmatian--who is spoken to like a person, and allowed excessive privileges--could be a danger to her owners or others, under certain circumstances, such as in a situation where she is in the care of a pet sitter unfamiliar with her quirks.

The truth, Gleason continues, is that dogs aren't nearly as needy as some owners think.

"A great many of them could survive quite handily in a reasonable climate with access to small prey that they would be able to learn to catch and eat," she says. "And people who don't accept the fact that these are carnivorous, preying animals . . . are in for a rude awakening one day."

Market researcher Betsy Funk agrees that there's a downside to anthropomorphizing one's dog. Of the owners she interviews, she says, "Whatever is true for themselves, they extend that to their animals. Like, I've had people say to me, 'Well, I'm a vegetarian, so I do not feed my dog any meat-related dog food.' Which is ridiculous, healthwise, because dogs are carnivores."

 

There may be a downside to loving your dog too much from Fido's point of view, but what about from the owner's perspective?

Judy Spiegel, a Scottsdale therapist who treats both individuals and couples (people, that is, not dogs), says not only is it okay to shower your dog with affection, it's understandable. When it comes to love, dogs offer immediate gratification; that's not always the case with kids, she says.

"Dogs are very loving," Spiegel explains. "They give you a lot of feedback. They're very unconditional. That's not true with children. Children are a lot of work. . . . You're giving and giving, and it's not as reciprocal, certainly, as a dog."

It is possible to go too far, Spiegel warns. "If somebody is that carried away that they find that they're unable to leave the dog, that they feel a lot of anxiety, that probably is not good," she says, "because people need to be able to leave dogs just like they need to be able to leave kids. So if they're having those kinds of problems, maybe they should talk to somebody.

"But other than that," Spiegel adds, "I don't think there's anything unhealthy about loving something."

The DONKs interviewed for this story say they only want the best for their canine companions, and aren't at all self-conscious about their often eccentric behavior.

We used to laugh at the little old lady who painted her poodle's toenails, but now such behavior is starting to look quite normal. And it's validated at every turn, whether by PetsMart or trainer Gary Wilkes or Martha Stewart.

But even the most DONKish DONK recognizes there are limits.
Tina and Rob Harter would never dress Blaze in leather, they say.
Lisa Maksym's brother-in-law scrambles eggs and prepares special gravies for his dog. She wouldn't do that. (Although, she quickly adds, she finds nothing wrong with it.)

Judd Herberger can't stand it when dogs ride on the laps of drivers.
Lyle Miller says, "There's cat and dog owners who buy the precious-gem collars. I think that's going a little bit extreme, because I can't even afford my own precious gems, let alone my dog's. I don't think I'd ever do that. It's not Sara."

But if it were Sara, and Miller were to win the lottery, would a certain Dalmatian be dripping in diamonds?


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