Are Dogs The New Grandchildren?
Like every proud grandmother, Donna McCabe of Whidbey Island, Washington, carries a brag book of photographs of her grandchild, Audrey, in her handbag, and is always swapping news of her escapades with friends and other family members. McCabe isn't the slightest bit fazed that her grandchild happens to have four paws and a tail.
Audrey is an exquisite Italian Greyhound, with delicate features just like her namesake actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her "grandmother" dotes on her.
Family dynamics today are more complex than just Mom plus Dad plus two children. Many people are divorced or opt for a single lifestyle. Others remain childless, by chance or by choice. It is a lifestyle that makes close family relationships the exception rather than the norm. Into this void step our dogs, ready and willing to accept all offers of adoration and spoiling.
More than simply companions, dogs are considered children in many households. So it follows that a fur kid's family tree branches out to include aunties, uncles, cousins, and, of course, the ultimate dispenser of spoiled affection-grandparents.
Audrey lives with her "parents" in New York, where her "mom," Allison McCabe, has a high-powered job in the publishing world.
"She's a real city dog," says Donna proudly. "She expects someone on duty in the elevator and she knows how to hail a cab. But, best of all, when the doorman has a bunch of packages at the front desk of their apartment building, she knows exactly which one is from me!"
Donna spoils her granddog on a regular basis. "Allison hates squeaky toys because they make such a noise, but Audrey absolutely adores them. As her granny, it's my prerogative to get her what she wants," she adds with a mischievous giggle. "The one time I listened to Allison, Audrey was extremely disappointed with her gift and simply refused to play with it."
Audrey travels "cabin class" to Seattle en route to Donna's home and visits regularly, never missing family occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving.
"Where I live, Audrey is considered a very unusual breed, so people are always stopping to talk and admire her," Donna says proudly. "I never miss the opportunity to tell them that she also has a career-she's been featured in several published books. She's even had a book signing and handed out pawtigraphs."
Typically, grandmoms seem to take center stage in talking about their granddogs, but Al Cartwright of Nassau in the Bahamas was quick to step up to the plate and talk about his amazing bonding experience with his granddog, Quinn, a 10- year-old chocolate Labrador.
"We rode out a bad hurricane on the island together," he says fondly. "Both my wife, Carol, and Quinn's pet parents, Kelly and Robert, were away when the storm warning became a reality. Quinn and I took care of each other. He was wonderful company. He's a gentle dog and I love being around him. He loves to show off his toys and never forgets our birthdays, sending presents and cards. I treat him just like I would a grandson."
"My parents are very loving people," says Kelly Meister. "I am sure if there was a real grandchild in the family, it would inch up above the Crown Prince but Quinn would be none the wiser."
The Cartwrights have their other granddog, Benny Cake, to thank for helping them cope with Empty Nest Syndrome. They look after him while their daughter Tracy is away at school in New York. Although Benny Cake is very different from Quinn, like grandparents everywhere, the Cartwrights love each granddog for his own sake.
"Quinn is a real gentleman," says Al. "Benny Cake is our little wild child."
Dale Gegerson of Miami Beach is another self-confessed besotted granny.
"When my daughter Kara Kono brings her Pomeranian Rizzo to stay, she really comes with baggage-matching bags, I might add, "says Gegerson with a laugh. "There's all her clothes and coordinated collars, leashes, and carriers. Not to mention spa products, favourite toys, and the car seat."
That seems to suit Gegerson just fine. "I just want to spoil her every opportunit I get," she says. "I love to buy her favourite biscuits and gourmet treats."
"South Beach is very dog-friendly, so we get to go lots of places together. Shopping at the mall is our favourite outing. Kara insists that my clothes are also coordinated with Rizzo's, so we ar a real grandmother and granddog team. We even use some of the same spa products. My son is a herbologist and recommends oils and vitamins for her and tells us what to add to the shampoos and conditioners. They work for me too!"
Gegerson says that Rizzo is very polite and appreciative of all her attention.
"She always brings a gift when she comes to stay and she spoils me at every opportunity too."
And what would happen if she ever had a "real" grandchild?
"That's a really tough call. I am so partial to these little dogs. They are s cute. I think granddogs have a couple of advantages over real grandchildren. Firstly, you don't have to carry them everywhere. When you get tired, you can simply put them on a leash and let them walk by themselves. They never grow up, which is fun. And most importantly, they don't get colicky and vomit over your shoulder." If some grandparents do yearn for human grandchildren, it seems that many are not keen to vent publicly.
"If Allison and her husband decide to have children, it's entirely their decision. Either way, I won't be disappointed," says Donna McCabe. Carol Rawle of Charleston, South Carolina, warns that grandparents wh express negative feelings about their children's pets may run the risk of alienating family members.
"My mom respects the fact that my husband, David, and I are parents t Harry [a Sheltie] and Josephine [a Briard]," says Rawle. "I think parents have to respect their children's lifestyle choices. If they do voice their opinions, they stand the chance of being labeled nosey and, at worst, interfering in-laws!"
Rawle's parents, Charles and Audrey Perkins, who live in Longboat Key, Florida, have several granddogs and great-granddogs and regularly receive gifts and cards from their canine relatives.
"I have more than 18 doggie photographs on my desk," says Audrey Perkins proudly. "They never forget our birthdays and holidays. My daughter Cindy lives close by and she regularly brings her Jack Russell, Pucci, to visit us. My husband gets very jealous when Pucci is around because I give her all my attention. I love to spoil her with her favourite foods."
Pucci is a trained therapy dog and Cindy Perkins feels the terrier is great therapy for Audrey.
"She's a very compassionate dog and I know my parents enjoy focusing love and attention on her," says Cindy. "She loves going for walks, which is excellent exercise for my mom. My mom gets to spoil her and enjoy her without having to worry about the responsibilities of having a pet."
While many grandparents obviously enjoy indulging "the little ones," there are still some old-fashioned, no-nonsense grannies who are firm about rules of conduct for granddogs-and their parents.
"I expect my son, Dale, to call me in advance and check if its okay for us to babysit his Beagle, Winston," says Janine Hersowitz of Irvine, California. "It's the correct petiquette. I would expect the same if he was married and had children, too. The first time we babysat, he brought the crate and bedding and favourite toys but not enough food for the entire stay. I gently pointed this out because I think it's his responsibility to see to Winston's needs."
Hersowitz says that when the dog visits, he has to abide by her house rules.
"Dale and his girlfriend give him free rein in their home. He's allowed on the furniture and sleeps on the bed. But when he comes to granny, he's not allowed on the couches and he knows his place."
Hersowitz admits that she has been the one to teach the pup his good manners, as her son is very laid back with his fur kid.
"I take him out and about with me, which is a lot of fun," she says. "But before I visit a friend, I always call to inquire if Winston will be welcome. I respect that some people don't like strange animals in their home."
"And just like a two-legged tyke," she points out, "the advantage of a granddog is when he gets too exuberant or starts destroying the household, I can send him home!" ■
Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle writer based in California. Her work appears regularly on MSNBC.com and in various national and international publications. She is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America and is a besotted pet parent.