what do I have in common with Julia Roberts? how being a dog owner is like being a celebrity

by nikki meredith

I have never been, nor will I ever be, a celebrity — not even for Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes.  But I maintain that having a dog shares some of the features of celebrityhood and if you walk around with two dogs, you’re on your way to being a super celebrity.

When our dog Alice was a puppy, I was astonished by how many people stopped to ask about her. And it wasn’t only people I encountered on the sidewalk or the hiking trail. People in cars would pull over, roll down their windows and shout out questions. Some actually parked and got out of their cars to ask about her.  Well, I thought, everyone loves a puppy.

But when Alice grew out of her puppyhood, the flow continued.  “Is that a Labradoodle? A Wheaten Terrier? An uncoifed Poodle?”   When I replied, “Goldendoodle” a new set of questions followed: “Does she shed? Does she have hair or fur? Good temperament?  Good with kids? Easy to train?”

After I dutifully answered each question (no to shedding; yes to good temperament; yes to hair; no to fur; easy to train? sort of) the questioner moved on to a string of queries having to do with the breeder.  Name? Location? Cost? This part was always stressful because I could never remember the exact address of the breeder’s website nor where the breeder currently lives – she recently moved – and I don’t like talking about how much we paid because it was way too much. Mutts aren’t as cheap at they used to be.

I continued to believe that all of this attention had to do with the fact that her particular combo is in vogue right now, and, of course, because she’s uniquely adorable.  But then our neighbors, who have a miniature Dachshund, mentioned that people stop them on the street to comment how cute he is. And when we took care of another neighbor’s rescue dog – he’s a mix of breeds and has some random hanks of hair poking out of his head —  he also garnered his share of attention. And some friends living in France who have a dog of unknown pedigree – cute enough but not cute enough to write home about – kept telling us how much attention he gets on the street. And sure enough, when we went out to dinner with them in Paris, the restaurant owner, the wait staff and the other diners made a huge fuss about their petite chien.

About that time I realized something I hadn’t focused on before. Almost always, after people ask me about Alice, they talk about their own dogs – dogs currently owned; dogs owned as kids; dogs owned by fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, lovers. (One woman, on a wintry day in San Francisco, had me standing on a street corner, the wind whipping around me and Alice, while she thumbed through dozens of photos in her iPhone to find the image of her dearly departed Corgi.) And that’s when I got it:  people are asking about Alice because they want to talk about their dogs.  Their dogs aren’t the  afterthought, they’re the point.

This was again highlighted when my husband and I took care of our daughter’s dog for two months while she was in South Sudan.   When I was out and about with her dog Lefty, another Goldendoodle, and Alice, the two of them together attracted double the attention. It always started out the same way – “Are they Wheaten Terriers?” “Are they related?” but inevitably we got around to stories about the questioners’ experience with two dogs: two dogs who fought; two dogs who protected each other; two who loved each other and the mourning that ensued when one of a pair died; how their two dogs were like lovers, or old married couples or siblings or all of the above.

The problem is – and here’s the commonality with celebrities – it’s not always convenient to stop and talk about dogs — mine, yours or ours.  If I’m on my way to meet a friend for lunch and if I’m running late, and I’m always running late, being detained to talk about dogs makes me even later because I find it impossible to be abrupt with someone who is expressing an interest in my dog. I know that’s not precisely the same as Cameron Diaz not wanting to rebuke an adoring fan when she’s on her way to the Academy Awards but isn’t it in the same ballpark?

I’ve always wondered why fans so often insist on telling movie stars they come across – usually on a talk show, though I’m sure it happens in person too — not only how much they love them but how much they loved them in a particular role. “I was going through a divorce at the time, and your character meant so much to me.” Or, “My father had just died, and your character reflected exactly what I was feeling.”  Fans are also curious about the private lives of celebrities too, of course. But when it goes deeper, a fan’s interest often has more to do with his or her own life than it does with the celebrity’s.

This epiphany has changed my whole approach when people want to talk about dogs. For one thing, I’m much more relaxed when I can’t remember the name of the breeder’s web site. If they ask, I give them my e-mail address. In the last year, only one person has e-mailed me for more information. And I’ve streamlined the exchange. I try to cut out the preliminaries and go directly to talk about their dogs, past, present and future.

I’m still late to meet my friends and when Lefty was with us I was twice as late. But my conversations about dogs often provide a much needed bright spot in my day. In this most contentious of political seasons, it’s a reliable area of common ground. Who knows if we agree about Obamacare? Or whether the stimulus package was too big or too little.  Or whether Romney is a cynical, heartless robot.  We all love our dogs – the ones we remember and the ones we have now – and some days it may be the only thing I share with some of my fellow Americans.

So while it isn’t always convenient, I’ve decided to surrender to the attention. It might come in handy some day. If my husband ever runs off with a 22-year old yoga teacher, I know exactly what to do. Alice and I will move to a place where men of a certain age want to meet women of a certain age and their age appropriate Goldendoodles. I’m sure I will relish the opportunity to hear about his childhood dog Butch.

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