Puppy Love

As published in Woman Around Town:

Last month, Jennifer Aniston tattooed her ankle in memory of Norman. Our headlines were speckled with short blurbs stating that Aniston tearfully recounted some of her fond memories with her beloved friend as she explained her reasoning for getting the tattoo. Aniston told People magazine in May, “He’s my baby boy.”

Norman was Aniston’s cohort, her companion, her furry friend—he was her dog. Jennifer Aniston’s feelings are no exception to the American sentiment when it comes to pets. Families deliver to friends and family holiday photos with their pets, vacation schedules are dictated around Rudy’s vet visits, lest he miss his annual checkup for worms, and the family doesn’t eat until Indigo has had her bowl of Kibbles N Bits. Spending almost $51 billion in the pet market alone, people might be worried about the current debt crisis, but this industry surely won’t see cuts. Americans love their pets.

In reality, both men and women share in their adoration of pets. Yet the media paints a slightly different picture of our pet relationships. If our experience with pets was merely seen through the TV or computer screen, we would think it stylish for ladies to carry around teacup dogs with pink bows and matching handbags. We would see the quintessential American man in the film Sweet Home Alabama, Jake Perry, because he carries with him the memory of his old dog as he wins back his high school sweetheart. Though these characteristics might have some truths rooted in the real world, they are only one part of the pet picture.

While Jennifer Aniston’s relationship with Norman was largely a private one, some women expose their pets, putting the creatures in the media’s lens as festooned accessories. Paris Hilton, her former side kick Nicole Richie, and Legally Blonde’s character, Elle Woods, all accessorized their canine companions with name brand bows and designer pet-totes. Though they don’t have tattoos, or so we are led to believe, they are often seen in public with their pea-sized dogs. The American public perceives these ladies as inseparable from their pets.

Whether comforting cohorts, or pretty-in-pink picturesque pups, it is not unusual for public ladies’ furry friends to be by their female owner’s side at all times. They are sometimes friends, sometimes pseudo-children, and sometimes matching creatures of couture. Regardless of the dog’s appearance, female public figures are shown to have pet companions because it is assumed that these women are fulfilling their need for an emotional connection through their companionship with their pups.

Unlike the accessorized companions of celebrity women, famous dogs associated with famous men are often painted as characters of importance to the men’s families. When the Obamas entered the White House, the President took a key step towards fulfilling his family’s American dream by promising his daughters that he would get them a dog. Morning talk shows and news banners informed viewers that America was about to get its new “First Dog.” Even voting polls were opened to the public so individuals could give their opinion on the breed of dog the Obamas should get. President Obama’s selection of dog was of utmost importance not because he would be the one to take daily jogs or play Frisbee with the canine, but because he promised his children they would have a dog. Mr. President would be Mr. America by getting a dog to complete the picture next to his (big) white picket fence. He followed through on his promise and adopted a Portuguese water dog. Bo, the Obama Family’s dog, hit headlines with a vengeance.

In 1952, Richard Nixon refused to have his wife and children’s dog taken away from them when admitting that it was, in fact, a gift. When Nixon was running for Vice President with Eisenhower, he gave what came to be known as “The Checkers Speech.” His words speak for themselves:

“A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us….It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl-Tricia, the 6-year old-named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

When it comes to celebrities demonstrating their love for their canines to the paparazzi and public, women and men are shown as having very different relationships with their pets. Women supposedly embrace their puppy love out of a need for an emotional connection and personal companionship. Meanwhile, a man’s relationship with his dog demonstrates his enthusiasm to share in the true American dream and be a good family man; that is, one who owns and protects a dog. The good news is that the image projected to the public through mass media does not tell the whole story. Our puppy love is more nuanced than we might be led to believe as we witness Aniston and Obamas with their pets. And though the complexities of pet ownership may vary from person-to-person and from pet-to-pet, what may be said most assuredly is that dogs are certainly man’s, and woman’s, best friend.

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