Generally speaking, my boyfriend's a keeper. He's the kind of guy who'll rent a chick flick with minimal arm-twisting, hold my purse without complaining, and spend hours tolerating my drunken relatives at family gatherings. He'll even buy tampons, provided I supply him with detailed (i.e., written) specifications.
But for all his Sensitive-New-Age-Guy charm, there's one line my boyfriend will not cross. Despite my repeated requests, he refuses to put a jacket on our dog.
At first, I thought he was kidding. Surely his masculinity couldn't be threatened by something so trivial. Weighing in at 85 pounds, our Lab-Shepherd cross, Sooke, isn't exactly the kind of dog you carry around in a purse. (A hockey bag, maybe.) And I'm not talking about a hot pink PVC tutu here-just a plain, water resistant shell in a solid, gender-neutral colour.
Besides, my motivation is purely practical. Here in Vancouver, one of the rainiest cities in Canada, you could stage mud-wrestling tournaments at our local dog parks six months of the year. This isn't about making a fashion statement. It's about trying to keep the whiterthan- white walls of our apartment from looking like a Jackson Pollock painting.
And yet, he won't budge. In his words, "It's bad enough I have to walk her in a collar that's covered in ladybugs." A collar that, I'd like to point out, was suggested by a trainer to serve the pragmatic purpose of making our very large, very loud dog seem less threatening to dog-fearing members of the general public.
But there's just no reasoning with him, and clearly, he's not alone in his canine fashion phobia. One doesn't have to travel too far down the information superhighway to find someone claiming that the rise of dog couture marks the demise of Western civilization.
So what exactly is it about a well-dressed dog that makes so many guys uncomfortable?
Undeniably a guy's guy, 36-year-old Mike Howatson is pretty much the last person you'd expect to see walking a three-and-a-half-pound Yorkshire Terrier bling'd out in a pink velvet tracksuit with the word "DIVA" emblazoned across her back in Swarovski crystals. Until, that is, you realize Mike's wife, Nancy, owns Barking BabiesTM, a Vancouver-based lifestyle boutique specializing in high-end canine couture.
Not surprisingly, the Howatsons' dog daughter, Tallulah, spends most of her time looking like a canine supermodel, laying claim to a wardrobe that boasts over 200 outfits and includes Italian cashmere sweaters, chiffon cocktail dresses, a fur coat valued at $1,200, Juicy Couture tracksuits, faux fur-trimmed hoodies, jean skirts, Japanese punk glam ensembles, boots, bags, necklaces and other jewelry-even a pair of pajamas.
By comparison, Mike, like most men, prefers a subtler, more understated style, which may go some distance in explaining why certain guys are uncomfortable with canine couture. Since we typically view our dogs as extensions of ourselves, it may be the case that guys like my boyfriend are uneasy simply because an accessorized dog feels incongruous with their sense of style, not to mention their sense of self.
So how does a guy maintain his manly pride while walking a dog that's wearing nail polish and a backpack? According to Mike, it's all about setting boundaries.
Since his wife, in his words, "clearly has no limits," Mike draws the line at anything he considers "too incredibly over-the-top blingtastic girlie" and, if need be, kindly asks Nancy to change Tallulah into something more "me-friendly" whenever he takes her out on his own. When he and Nancy are together, Mike admits that he's fine with Tallulah wearing pretty much anything-provided he's not holding the leash.
But depending on a guy's objectives, holding the leash may not be such a bad idea. Macho dog owners take note: it's not the muzzled, choke-chained, stud-collared muscle dogs that melt the ladies' hearts. It's the well-dressed little guys.
"Steve," whose name has been changed to protect the embarrassed, was reluctant to walk his girlfriend's three-pound, sweater-sporting teacup Poodle until he discovered what a total chick magnet the dog made him. And who's really all that surprised? Most women love it when men show their sensitive, vulnerable sides; just look at how some of us react to men holding babies.
At her boutique, Nancy confides that she has at least one young male customer who she's convinced accessorizes his Chihuahua to help him meet women. His first purchase, a $300 jewel-encrusted collar, snowballed into several purchases over the past year and a half. He and his friend, a Pomeranian owner, admitted to Nancy that their dogs were a great icebreaker, with women approaching them constantly whenever they took them out.
But perhaps the most compelling reason for guys-or anyone for that matter-to keep an open mind about canine couture is a phenomenon I'll call the Happy Bubble. If you've ever walked a puppy, you've probably experienced this first hand.
"It's not the clothing itself that gets you hooked, it's the way that other people respond," explains Mike. "They smile at your dog. They smile at you. You smile back. It actually causes this weird little happy vibe as you walk along...a positive reaction all around you. It's really noticeable...and you feel the difference when you don't have your dog. People go back to being just strangers on the street."
But despite the positive energy Tallulah inevitably attracts, Mike realizes there will always be some people who just don't get it.
"It's a real hot-button topic and some guys react viscerally and angrily for some reason to something that's cute and trite and not harming the dog and is, in the case of small dogs, actually needed. They have no body fat. There's no wolf left in this animal really, not physically anyway. Why would you feel this is challenging your masculinity?"
Bad vibes notwithstanding, Mike admits that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the way he feels about Tallulah, stating simply, "The thing is, I really love this little dog."
And so it would seem that when it comes to guys and canine clothing, it all comes down to attitude, and in the end, I'd like to think that love for that special dog in his life-not to mention, that special girl-conquers all.
Which is why my dog, Sooke, will be getting a new raincoat for her fifth birthday in April. But don't tell my boyfriend-I haven't explained the Happy Bubble to him yet. ■
Melanie Carson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC.