Portland's Puppy Love

By Lisa Baker

It’s raining cats and dogs in Portland.

Well, mostly dogs.

In fact, you could say the dog days of summer are all year ’round now.

Call it a four-footed invasion if you like. Dogs are everywhere. On street corners with bandanas tied around their necks, peeking out of ladies’ handbags as they shop at trendy stores, straining at the end of leashes in The Home Depot, playing with doggie friends at an alfresco café, or tearing around the off-leash area at a Portland park.

They’ve become so ubiquitous that an entire industry has grown up to serve them — and their accompanying wallet-holders — all in an urban environment once considered the last place you’d want to harbor a dog.

In the olden days (the 1990s), people who worked full time and lived in the city didn’t have dogs. Leaving the pet cooped up in a condo all day wasn’t palatable and often resulted in the loss of a good pair of shoes. Or the sofa.

Now, dogs whose wallet-holders must work to supply the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed arrive at doggie day care centers, such as LexiDog Boutique and Social Club in the Pearl, just as the mists rise off the pavement in the early mornings. And the pampered pups go home at night after spending the day socializing, dining and even napping with other “club” members. Owners at any time can, with a computer, click into the club’s doggie cam to catch a glimpse of their dogs cruising the local scene.

Dogs go clothes shopping at Bowser Boutique in Southeast Portland, a store that specializes in canine fashion, and enjoy hand-made doggie delectables from one of at least 10 bakeries in the Portland-metro area, such as Cheeky Kiki in Portland proper or Dog Yums in Gresham or All Pooches Bakery in Beaverton.

Business-minded dogs have their own PACC, specifically the People’s Animal Chamber of Commerce, which represents not just dog-centric businesses but also those serving other members of the animal kingdom.

Dogs who are finding themselves conflicted with life, over-scheduled or stressed over family relationships can go to doggie psychics. Who can blame them? The pressure to join their human families, where they are sometimes treated like “children,” can take all the fun out of just being a dog.

It’s Portland, paws down

Portland is not alone in its love for dogs. Nationwide, a surge in dog-obsession is fueling traffic for books and websites offering advice on how to take your dog everywhere. Exhaustive lists of dog-friendly hotels, motels and tourist attractions have flooded the tourism sites.

Observers noted that after the torrent took New Orleans, it was the story of homeless and wandering dogs that elicited some of the most emotional response from television news viewers.

And while other cities, most notably New York, are becoming known for more dog-friendly policies and ambience, it is Portland — always keeping it weird — that wears Dog Fancy’s DogTown USA title.

The magazine based its award on adoption rates, anti-cruelty laws and enforcement, the availability of outdoor recreational areas — trails and parks — that accommodate dogs, and the burgeoning number of dog-centered businesses and events.

Portland, the editors say, has it all, paws down.

Even non-pet businesses have gotten into the puppy-loving frenzy: Banks in Portland’s suburbs that once provided lollipops for children now provide milk bones for dog-owning patrons. In fact, one observer commented, her Tigard bank stopped offering treats for children altogether and now offers only dog treats.

The local evening news shows routinely pander to their dwindling audiences by featuring cuddly animal — most often dog — stories, and the statewide newspaper runs a once-a-week section on pets.

To keep DogTown organized, there’s PortlandPooch.com, which keeps a running list of new businesses and events for dogs. Events include the Doggie Dash, a fun run for dogs and their escorts, and the Pug Crawl, an Oregon Humane Society fundraiser where dogs and their humans travel from vendor to vendor to enjoy food and drink and to socialize.

In June, a pageant called “Portland’s Next Top Dog Model” brought the specter of pugs in skirts and fans from out of state to root for their favorite A-list canine. Prizes included a year’s supply of dog food (a prize scorned in any other contest) and a glamour-dog photo shoot.

David Lytle, spokesman for Humane Society of Portland, says dog fever in the area is unsurpassed. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities. No city comes close to Portland” in its love for dogs, he says. “As a friend of mine once said, ‘Portland’s drug of choice is fur.’”

Dogs on film

As a volunteer for the Humane Society, Alicia Dickerson has served as a foster care provider for dogs that don’t cope well in the shelter. This year, she decided to extend her dogged devotion to her photography business. The result is her new venture, Four-Legged Photo.

These aren’t your puppies-in-a-basket snapshots, either. It is fine portraiture — art whose subject just happens to be the family dog, or the family dog with its attendant humans.

“In the past, when you looked at other pet photography, it’s been a lot of contrived things where you’re not going after the realness of an animal,” she says.

In photos where dog and human are together, Dickerson says she tries to capture the essence of the relationship rather than toss in cutesy props. “I don’t say, ‘let’s do three poses.’ I sit down for an hour and we figure out what you two are like together.”

Dickerson says the “crazy number” of pet businesses in the area makes her venture viable. “We all support each other and validate each other. You make it okay for someone to, say, have a life- sized portrait of their 170-pound mastiff in their office,” she says.

“For some of us, dogs are a big part of the family. At my old job, I used to take my dog to work. They would allow me to have her in my office, but I worked on a university campus and you can’t have a dog on the campus itself, so I had to smuggle her in in my backpack.”

And while the dog art business is going well, Dickerson says she’s not ready to completely abandon traditional bread-and-butter photography. “I still do weddings.”

One dog; one vote

Along with their successful advances in so many arenas, dogs are becoming a force in politics — a major feat given that there are no canines in the Oregon Legislature.

A bill launched with great fanfare in May would have permitted dogs inside restaurants where, previously, only bona fide service dogs were allowed. Unlike many bills introduced during the session, this one had bipartisan sponsorship, massive media coverage, and a persuasive pitch that provided a business-friendly rationale for the change.

Sponsors argued that dog owners, in particular those whose dogs are paramount in their lives, are such a significant population that failing to accommodate them with canine-friendly policies could disqualify Oregon from gaining market share in the new dog-service economy.

They pointed to the popularity of websites that index dog-friendly hotels and motels, something used frequently by out-of-state tourists deciding where to spend their vacation, and to businesses like Beaverton’s Iron Mutt, a coffee joint that provides an outside patio area so that dog owners can have “quality time” with their pets and still enjoy a professionally-made latte. The state, sponsors said, should get out of the way and let Oregon businesses roll out the red carpet for pets. In the end, cooler, and presumably smarter, human heads prevailed. The bill failed.

When was the last time a Wal-Mart greeter licked your hand?

But businesses that have made the decision to allow dogs into their establishments say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Amy Todd, manager of The Home Depot’s Tigard branch, says the store is simply attempting to be in step with consumers in the region, which she says is not like anyplace else that The Home Depot serves. “Let’s put it this way: I’m from Texas, and the Home Depot in Texas does not allow dogs.”

While the policy was never announced, “word of mouth” has brought dog lovers to the store from miles around. “We are really big with dog owners and their dogs: Dogs come in and they know where they are. They know we have dog biscuits in the Returns department.”

She says the practice is not without controversy. While many people go out of their way to thank the store for allowing pets, negative commentary is also significant. “I’d say it runs 60-40 for and against,” Todd says. “But mostly we hear the good things — that people whose dogs are part of their families think of it as bringing their families with them to the store.”

And there have been occasional lapses in decorum arising from dogs that aren’t yet retail ready, but Todd says owners have been conscientious about cleaning up after their pets. If they’re not, she says, the store has no qualms about uninviting the offender.

She’s friendly, really

At The Whole Nine Yards, a fabric emporium on East Burnside, it is Gussie who reigns supreme. The Rotweiller/German Shepherd mix serves as ambassador for the store, as did her predecessor, Daisy, who died last year.

Amy Estrin and Jamie Eoff, who together own the store and the dog, say that the dog goes with them wherever they are and that most customers find her charming. “She’s perfect at the store,” Estrin says. “She sits by the door and greets everyone who comes in. When she’s not there, people always ask for her. She’s got her own fan club.”

Even so, they post a heads-up message on the front door letting customers know that if they’re uncomfortable with dogs, they’re happy enough to “send her on some errands” while the patron shops.

At the same time, just because Gussie is allowed to roam the bolts doesn’t mean all dogs are. “I’ve had people come in with dogs, take them off-leash and let them run around the store and other customers have complained because they don’t know the dog the way they do Gussie, and they’re uncomfortable,” Estrin says. Male dogs are especially troublesome given their propensity for marking territory. One leg lift on the right bolt of fabric and hundreds of dollars in damages could result.

Estrin, who says Portland is “amazingly” dog-friendly, says she’s had a dog in the store, beginning with Daisy, for the past 12 years and in all that time, only two patrons have asked that the dog be removed while they shopped. Estrin says she also tells people with dog phobias that getting acquainted with one as friendly and “mellow” as Gussie could go a long way toward making them more comfortable with dogs in general.

At the end of a long day, Gussie releases a bit of pent-up energy with a barrel race around the bolts and a maybe a chew session with her “rubber squirrel dude,” Estrin says.

White collar canines

What’s more cutting edge than dogs-in-retail? How about office dogs?

It was a foreign idea until 1997 when news stories surfaced about a “bring-your-dog-to-work” policy at a California tech design company called Autodesk Inc. The Associated Press said the company was “doggedly exploring one of the last frontiers of the work-family balance.”

But not everyone was thrilled with the development.

One HR blogger put his concerns in question-answer format: “Q. John brings his dog to work. Pam brings her cat. Susan now wants to bring her rabbit, and Paul has been seriously asking about bringing his pot-bellied pig. Where does it stop? “A. When Joe’s boa swallows Kristy’s parakeet.”

Google Inc., noted for its casual, pets-welcome policy, found that its workers’ choice in best friends can lead to searches of the worst kind.

CBS News reported in April that a three-day search had been instigated for a Google employee’s pet python, which had escaped its master’s office and was AWOL somewhere in Google’s New York complex. In the end, the 3-foot-long pet was found and returned to the owner with its workplace privileges revoked.

While there are no snakes at Beaverton-based Litmus Design + Architecture, there are dogs. In fact, on many days, dogs in the office outnumber humans. A help-wanted ad for jobs at the company states: “Dog lovers encouraged to apply.”

On hand most days are Italian greyhounds Enzo and Zeppo, an Australian kelpie named Arrow, a chocolate labrador named Clooney, and a fifth dog, Hunter, a mid-size mix. Office policy: “We have one big open space and so, they have free reign,” says Nicole Fritz, office manager. “They run around for awhile and then they know it’s naptime.” She says the dogs have relieved employees’ worries about leaving their pets home all day, especially on days when the workload demands overtime. Moreover, she says, “They bring a playfulness to the office; they get us to take breaks and move around.”

Not to say that the experience has been completely trouble-free.

“Of course, there are accidents — and hair,” Fritz said. “We haven’t had any full-on fights, maybe some teeth-baring around bones, but that’s about it. We don’t consider them problems; they’re just part of having our best friends with us.”

Arrow, Fritz’s own dog, is new to the office and just getting used to the routine. “She likes to follow everyone around. She’s a herding dog, so once in awhile, someone will get a nip in the calf if they’re not going the right way,” Fritz says.

Clients who visit the Litmus office are notified about the dogs’ presence before they come in. So far, there have been no dustups over the dogs. “I’m pretty sure clients would let us know if they had an allergy to them and we would take them out of the office if necessary,” she said.

The dogs, not the clients, presumably.

Are they distracting? “They can be distracting, especially when you have two dogs that are playing keep-away running around the office,” Fritz says. “But it’s been good overall — they just make us more relaxed.”

At the same time, she says some dogs aren’t ready for the white-collar world. “I worked in an office in Seattle where the owner took a German shepherd to the office that would attack clients when they came in,” she says. “It was probably not the best impression: You’re saying, ‘Hello, welcome to our firm’ and there’s this dog running right at them.”

To help avoid such trouble, several pet advocacy organizations provide tips for those companies considering allowing pets in the workplace. Some examples: • Take only well-behaved pets that are comfortable and reliably safe around strangers. Leave pets that show aggressive tendencies towards people at home. • Make sure your dog understands the basic commands, such as sit, stay and down. • Three accidents and you’re out: Some companies allow only three bathroom accidents per dog and then they must stay at home until potty-trained.

Dog Fights

Despite all efforts, there are indications that Portland’s obsession with dogs is resulting in some friction.

At Portland’s REI, the outdoor store that for years allowed owners to bring their dogs along while shopping, the dog policy has raised hackles on both sides of the fence. This spring, a memo on the front door of the establishment informed dog-owning customers that the days of browsing with Bowser were soon to be over. Megan Behrbaum, spokeswoman for the chain, said the store attempted a gradual implementation of the no-dogs rule so that customers would have time to adjust. Nevertheless, the change was met with anger from the dog-advocacy community.

The PACC, for one, encouraged its members — presumably those with opposing thumbs rather than paws — to register their objections to the policy change by email.

While the new policy put the store in line with its other no-dogs-allowed branches, Behrbaum said the company did not expect the policy change in Portland to be that big a deal. “It’s a non- issue at our stores in other parts of the country,” she says.

“We just looked at it broadly. Some customers are allergic and some are not comfortable around animals. We also sell food items. People expect REI to be clean and safe and friendly whether they are an animal owner or not,” she says. “And, you know, we tried to introduce the change in a respectful way.”

Neil Andersen, who in an Oregonian letter-to-the-editor objected to a non-service dog brought into a local grocery store, said store employees refused to confront the owner because the dog could be considered a “comfort animal” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He called it a misuse of the ADA.

It wasn’t long until a counter-letter was published. The writer, Leslieann Butler, said it’s simply not fair that dogs aren’t allowed in some stores while children are. “Dogs don't stick their fingers in their mouths and noses and then touch the fruit, and they don’t sit in the cart in poopy diapers. If children are allowed in grocery stores, dogs should be allowed, too,” she wrote.

But for Andersen, it’s all so un-American. “I think that’s about as close to becoming French as we can get,” Andersen wrote: “(It’s) making it an entitlement to do whatever the individual wants regardless of how it affects anyone else.”

BrainstormNW - August 2007

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