Let Spoiled Dogs Thrive

By Bonnie Long

Word on the street is our sweet 16-pound, black-and-tan terrier-mix is spoiled.
Outwardly, my responses to this aspersion vary, depending on who happens to be casting the stone. If I value my relationship with the friend or neighbor, I smile tolerantly – with teeth on edge — and change the subject. Sometimes I may even concede, in a back-handed way, “Yes, he’s a lucky dog.” But all the while, on the inside? I bristle with indignation.

What, exactly, does “spoiled” mean? My dictionary approaches the word from three angles, none of which paints a pretty picture. First, it’s what happens to hamburger when it gets shoved to the back of the refrigerator and is left, forgotten, to putrefy. Obviously, this is not what folks are thinking when they label a vigorous, healthy bundle of energy like our Charlie “spoiled.”

Neither is he particularly “damaged, impaired, wrecked, blemished,” as set forth in the second definition. Sure, he was dropped off at the shelter without apology, where we found him harboring some issues that suggested bad experiences with men in baseball hats carrying long-handled tools. But after a couple years in our loving household, where we avoid brandishing brooms and rakes in his presence, he seems to have unpacked that baggage and moved on.

So that leaves the third meaning, which I suspect is what folks intend when they invoke the s-word in Charlie’s name. It’s understandable that they might judge him “indulged,” or “babied.” But honestly — are not these terms arbitrary and subjective? I mean, one person’s pampered pooch is another person’s well-adjusted canine soulmate. For every high-strung handbag-hitchhiker, there is an independent, free-spirited best friend, who’s quite capable of standing on his own four paws. Besides, definition #3 obviously applies to dogs far less often than to some biped children.

We’ve all known spoiled children — those small, self-absorbed, imperious humans who are victims of a form of parental malpractice that keeps them overly mindful of how precious they are. Compared to 3-year-old Tiffany, granddaughter of some friends of a friend, our 3-year-old Charlie is downright self-effacing and magnanimous.
First, consider their contrasting origins. Princess Tiffany comes from a long line of “only” children. For her entire life, she has reigned as epicenter of her small universe. Charlie, we surmise, is the runt of a large litter. His heritage is sketchy at best, and he suffers no illusions of royalty.

Spoiled children are notoriously narrow-minded eaters. In her current culinary phase, Tiffany renounces all offerings except jelly sandwiches, raisins, and three-cheese pizza. Finding a spoonful of something as repugnant as cooked carrots on her dinner plate is enough to send her storming from the table. Charlie, in his early months, had to fight for every bite of kibble he scored. Nothing was handed to him in a silver dog dish. Since we’ve been serving him his meals, he’s become admirably eclectic in his tastes. He doesn’t mind that we don’t cook his food ourselves. He’s just fine with off-the-shelf, out-of-the-can cuisine — whether it’s a breakfast of Organic Grain-Free Venison with Sweet Potatoes or a dinner of Free-Range Chicken and Brown Rice Stew. When his palate is ready for something new, he politely backs away from his untouched meal and waits for us to open another can. No tantrums, no tears.

When it comes to couture, Tiffany is quick to put her dainty patent-leathered foot down. She prefers pink — period. She’s a Hanna Andersson girl, all the way. It goes without saying that hand-me-downs from her older cousins are out of the question. Charlie, on the other hand, proudly sports his predecessor’s collar on neighborhood strolls. When the wind blows and the rain pelts, he’s confident — whether he wears his green wrap-around parka or his blue fleece hoodie. Pampered? I think not. Without question, he’d rather rough it and get his feet wet than risk mussing up the set of four lovely slip-on rubber boots that languish in his closet.

I must allow that Charlie, at age three, has a developmental advantage over Tiffany at age three. Emotionally, she is still a baby, while Charlie — in so-called “dog years” — is well into young adulthood. It makes perfect sense that he’s more socially mature and has slightly better judgment. We do get some teen-age backtalk from him on occasion, but is he spoiled? Of course not.

To “spoil” someone — be they child or dog — you do for them without question, and give them things they do not deserve. Charlie has overcome a puppyhood marked by neglect and ill-treatment. He’s growing into a loving, caring dog who is generous in spirit and humble at heart — regardless of (and perhaps thanks to) our indulging him. His jackets keep him warm and dry. His gourmet food encourages him to stand relaxed at his bowl to eat, instead of grabbing a bite and scurrying into the hallway to gulp it down unchallenged. While Tiffany has been known to assume all the presents are hers, regardless of whose birthday it is, Charlie delights in sharing his toys with his friends — two- and four-footed alike. He makes humans smile and other dogs bow in the universal “play with me” gesture. He earns his keep — as posh and comfortable as that “keep” may be.

May Tiffany turn out as well.

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