Imagine.  It’s a lovely autumn Sunday morning at a sidewalk café in New York. You sit down at a table for breakfast with a copy of Sports Illustrated. Twenty minutes into your favorite French toast, you look up from your reading to see a couple sitting down next to you. Along with them they have their dog.

SwingIt’s a puppy. A little sheep dog, as heartwarmingly sweet as its 40-something owners are successful looking. They’re all gorgeous, a trio who seem meant to spread cheer. The puppy bounds up, and licks your hand. You laugh as it tickles you. You think, “ah, puppies… the sun… September!” Feeling magnanimous, you pull the puppy into your lap, and as if you and him were old friends, it snuggles its wet little nose under your arm.

The couple smiles at you. You smile back. A young woman with sexy black eyes walks by and stops to look at you with the puppy. She pets the dog and her dark eyes melt as she looks at you. The whole world smiles at you. But then you notice a frown forming on her face. You look down.

The puppy has been chewing on your magazine. The young woman’s smile turns from warmth to pity. She turns and hails a cab. The dogs’ owners are still smiling, but with all the warmth of a stale meringue.

“He’s eating the Buffalo Bills,” you declare, less as an accusation as in surprise.

“We adopted him from a Romanian orphanage,” the woman says, as if that explains everything. “Sasha was abused. Now he’s a bit bi-polar.”

The dog looks at you and spits out a pieces of the article. You weren’t exactly big on Buffalo but still… suddenly the couple are looking at you defensively. The man, whose Armani tropics shirt suddenly looks more annoying than cool, grabs the dog without looking at you, while his wife dives into her New York Times. The man drops a five-spot “for the magazine.”

So, what would you do? Who do you blame? The dog? The owners? Your own idiotic ego that led you to pick him up in your lap? You find yourself cursing at the dog, then the couple. “I hope your dog is worse than bi-polar,” you yell.” “I hope the little bugger is bulemic. I hope he gets obese gorging on your magazines. Your New York Magazines! I hope he ends up chewing tobacco. Bulgarian tobacco!”

Boopie in the BathroomYour curses are off and running. Till all of a sudden you stop and realize that the puppy is staring at you in confusion. He looks a bit sad. In fact, he looks devastated. So does the couple. It’s like you just beat up their kid. Maybe you did. Because you just told told them Sasha wasn’t a rescued pup from Romania. It was a Russian spy dressed as a dog. And they were the reason the world hates Americans. But now… looking at little Sasha, his mouth open, your mouth exhausted, you realize that the dog is just… a pup. And you also realize that a whole new crowd of passer-byes, a diverse group of individuals from young to old, are all looking at you angrily, each of them holding their own pooch.

Suddenly you start to think maybe you’re nuts. Okay, so Sasha’s owners may be infuriatingly good-looking and simultaneously loopy, but they’re just a 40-something power-couple who probably decided they didn’t have quite enough power to afford kids (and how many couples in their forties can have kids?) but they have a dog and it loves them and they love it. So what if they believe it’s “bi-polar?” They’re just typical Manhattan bobos, a bit self-involved but who isn’t in this damn city?

More, why shouldn’t they and the other dog owners bring their pets in to public space? The nose-pierced teeny-bopper sitting to your left was already boring you with her long loud cell phone conversation. The past five stop-lights have brought cars booming ambulance-loud rap rhythms. Face it, you live in a city where conflict is known as rubbing elbows, part and parcel of the rental agreement.

If this couple found it fulfilling to give and get love from a dog adopted from Romania, and the other dog owners are you looking at them like you’re Satan, maybe they are just defending something worth their adoration. Maybe they have found something rare today… namely unconditional love.

What’s interesting about these relationships are they way they raise a range of disparate cultural issues, all of which may impact and be impacted by different brands or markets. These include opportunities for pet-related services (from travel to media), enormous social isolation (which is being served as much by online dating as it is via dog ownership), and an activist minded public whose desire for immediate impact on their lives was influenced by the so-called digital revolution and the customization it seemed to promise (the idea if you “dream it you can fly”), a public that is ever more hungry for ways and products that let them literally give life to the world in which the live.

To put it another way, the love upon which people are showering their dogs reflect identifiable needs. Not every business or brand can deliver products or services to those needs. But even if they can’t, they might want to understand the drivers and implications of those needs in order to see where their brand fits within the larger continuum. Fifty years ago, the advent of air conditioning seemed to satisfy a particular need: cooling off. But its introduction created an entire new economy in America, the new Southwest. Our changing relationships with dogs may not yield any booming state economies. But elements within these relationships may well suggest new ways of interaction much bigger than the individual Sashas or Spots who we so adore.

Well, for the inaugural issue of Fieldnotes, we look at the way increasing numbers of Americans are looking for their affection through relationships with dogs. And how it may effect all of us, non-dog owners as well. Our featured interview is with social critic and writer Jon Katz, whose recently published The New Work of Dogs inspired much of this research. Katz’ hilarious and brilliant book A Dog Year detailed his experience of training a rambunctious border collie. His latest book is a much more serious look at the way people “emotionalize” their pets. In the interview, Katz talks about what inspired him to write this book.

In our featured report, we surveyed a group of experts from different areas to get their response to some of the issues Katz raises. We also tried to guess how these features can potentially impact business as well as society. Finally, this issue’s article, we examine how this “emotionalization” fails to give dogs their “dogness,” (and the resulting problems) but also what it delivers us.

One last note. As each section was written so it could be read on its own, there are some redundancies in what’s covered. Regardless, whichever parts you choose to read (one or all three) we’d be interested in your responses. Even if all you want to do is just bark or bite. All the best.

Jonathan Field
October, 2003

Note: The photos in this issue of Fieldnotes come courtesy of Kim Levin, and her Web site, Bark and Smile.  Click on any of the pictures to visit her site.