As King Yudhisthira traversed the pages and lands of the Mahabharata in search of his final resting place, his various companions fell along the way, deemed unworthy of making the journey. But by the king’s side remained a faithful dog, wagging and tagging along till the very end. Upon reaching the gates of paradise the king was welcomed inside, though without his canine companion. Yudhisthira, unable to betray his loyal ally, declared that he would rather remain on earth. And of course, as all good stories with a moral go, this was the king’s final test of virtue, and man, dog and god (the last two interchangeable), all lived happily ever after.
But today, as Siberian Huskies are led by paid dog-walkers through the streets of Mumbai’s wealthy suburbs, and Chihuahuas peek out of the handbags which are their homes, the loyalty between kings and dogs has long since been forgotten. India’s rising middle class scrambles to own every global indicator of wealth — from technology to fashion to holiday homes — and as it turns out, our four-legged friends are right in there within the mix. Research from Eurometer International shows that the number of people who own dogs in India has increased by 58% between 2007 and 2012, but with pariah dogs (also known as INDogs, the most common breed of dogs found in the subcontinent) still roaming the streets in droves, it’s only too clear that the dogs sitting at the feet of India’s upper classes — or peering out of their bags — are quite something else.
A trend beginning in the 90s with Pomeranians and moving through to Golden Retrievers, Pugs, and most recently, Huskies, Rottweilers and Great Danes, the progression of dog ownership in urban India is, as Mumbai-based animal activist Amit Pathak terms it, “a style statement”. From petite girls with Shih Tzus to gym trainers with Rottweilers — Pathak recalls one trainer who bought a Rottweiler puppy for his tiny family apartment on the pretext that it ‘mirrored his muscular physique’ — the popular saying that people start to look like their dogs is intentionally enforced by India’s elite. Dogs are purchased at exorbitant rates to complement their owners’ self-image. Starting at a minimum of thirty thousand rupees for a pug, some of the more ‘exotic’ breed dogs are priced at well over a lakh. The true cost, however, is more than simply monetary.
Picture that Siberian Husky out for her twice daily twenty minute excursion through the streets of Bandra. The first clue to the problem lies in her name: Siberian. A large, strong dog with a coat to protect herself from the Arctic winter, she goes from a (hopefully) air-conditioned (at the most) three bedroom apartment to a busy, humid street, and repeats this pattern for the rest of her life — or as long as her owners will have her. And from what Pathak says, her masters most likely aren’t helping her acclimatise at all. “The problem is that people want their dogs to look good,” he tells me. “So in the summer season, when we advice people to trim their dogs’ hair so they won’t feel the heat so much, they won’t do it.” Imagine wearing a parka all the time in the city’s October heat because it ‘looks good’. And then never being able to take it off.
Acquiring large, pure bred dogs is, as the economics of it suggests, a marker of wealth and a symbol of status. And for many owners, it is very literally a case of “mine is bigger than yours,” says animal rescuer, owner and lover Sneha Naik, who now lives with a menagerie of bred and adopted animals in Goa. She says, “These days, the puppy [someone is buying] has to be a part of a champion bloodline. The more awards the dog’s family has won, the better. So among people it’s a very big conversation [point] like, ‘Ha, your dog didn’t come from this champion bloodline; mine did.’ It makes me feel sick.”
What happens, though, when your cute, champion-winning Great Dane puppy grows into the large and intelligent dog it was always meant to be? Who cares, because the marker of any fashion is that it’s always changing. As the summer line turns into the fall or winter collection, out goes the old wardrobe and in comes the new. And it would seem that changing a dog, for the wealthy, is as easy as changing a wardrobe: toss it out into the street, forget about it, and console yourself by perhaps going out and buying a new one. This may seem like a far-fetched reality, but Pathak argues that it’s time for people to open their eyes to the realities of dog-abandonment in urban centres. “I work as an individual rescuer,” he says, “and I receive a minimum of five distressed calls a week regarding abandoned dogs. And almost every one of these is a breed dog.” Naik concurs, and explains that people are unprepared for the realities of a dog that requires grooming, care and space. She says, “All puppies are cute. But when they grow up, it’s like constantly having a large child in the house, and for many people it’s very difficult.”
One of the primary causes of this ‘difficulty’ is the nature of dog breeding itself. The pug, for example, dates back to the Shang Dynasty of China, where it was the pet of rulers; of kings. But like Yudhisthira’s companion, they’ve come a long way since, and with the growing demand for cuter (read: having squishier faces) pugs, these dogs are repeatedly bred and inbred, leading to a host of medical problems including respiratory diseases, joint conditions and eye prolapse. But Hutch didn’t include these side-effects in its heart-warming commercial, and as in turns out, most prospective dog owners rarely consider learning more about the breed they have set their heart on. So as your pug snuffles, sneezes and limps its way through your two bedroom apartment, remember that he’s just one of millions borne out of cruel breeding practices. In fact, most breeding in India is illegal. Pathak explains, “See, breeding has to be in a particular phase [of the dog’s life], and in proper time. If they keep breeding, there are chances that puppies born may develop critical medical problems, and when owners realise that the dog’s medical expense is beyond their limit or they don’t want to spend any more on it, then they take the step of abandonment.” And while there is a system of proper documentation and licensing in place, it is very rarely implemented, leaving practically all bred puppies vulnerable to conditions that rely on expensive and frequent healthcare.
So what’s the solution? ‘Adopt, adopt, adopt!’, say activists and animal lovers alike. Rekindle the natural and mutually beneficial relationship between dogs and humans, and find yourself a good old ‘regular’ INDog. She may not come with a price tag to match your designer shoes, but she will be healthy, happy and faithful. When it comes to wo/man’s best friend, what more could you ask for?
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Class and the canine: the Indian rich and their obsession with pedigree’ in The Sunday Guardian on 5 October 2013