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Robyn Dochterman

Robyn Dochterman is an editor at Startribune.com, the website of the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Doghouses
Are they a relic of the past, or are our homes becoming theirs too?

Bailey had no interest in the Cheerio. Impervious to my efforts to get her attention as we walked to the park, my Blue Heeler pup tugged the leash to get to the Retriever in a yard along the way. Since Bailey clearly only had eyes (and nose) for him, I shrugged and let my gaze wander. That’s when I saw the little doghouse.

The classic canine shelter was tucked away in the tidy back yard of a Minneapolis, Minn., home. It was tastefully sided in sunny yellow lapboard to match its human-size counterpart. By the dog door sat a clean, full water bowl. There was no sign of the actual inhabitant.

We walked past that doghouse dozens—maybe hundreds—of times during the course of the summer. I eventually got Bailey to give me her attention and take the treat, but I never did catch a glimpse of the doghouse’s resident dog.

That diminutive cottage started me thinking, though. During our walks along residential streets and down alleys, I began to look for other doghouses. I peered over fences and parted overgrown lilac bushes, hoping to spy another. Having little success, I realized that the yellow doghouse was unusual not only because it appeared to be sans dog, but also because the neighborhood, brimming with all manner of mutts, was strangely sans doghouses.

Where had they all gone? Doghouses were everywhere when I was growing up in the  ’70s. My family stuffed straw in an insulated doghouse for our German Shepherd. The next-door neighbors had a doghouse, too; they painted “Sparky” over the entrance and then proceeded to name each successive dog Sparky, so they never had to repaint.

I began to suspect that, like drive-in movies, playground seesaws and banana seats on bicycles, doghouses had ascended the pop culture ladder and then somehow tumbled off while I wasn’t looking.

“I think the obsolescence of doghouses reflects a cultural change in our perception of appropriate place,” said Ralph Caplan, a design critic who wrote a seminal essay on doghouses for a popular exhibition of doghouses at the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York. “When a dog’s place was outside, the location of the doghouse followed suit. For the same reason, the outhouse often stayed outside long after plumbing advances made that unnecessary: The perception lingered that what went on in the outhouse belonged outside. The evolving attitude of dog owners toward dogs has made it in some cases unthinkable for a dog to sleep anywhere but with its companion or family.”

I thought about Bailey, who takes herself to bed (mine) when she thinks I’m up too late, and only moves to the floor when I drop my voice and adopt that tone my mother used when she was really serious. On the other hand, my childhood dog, Duchess, was only allowed in the house to warm up on the deepest of Midwestern winter nights.

I’m apparently not the only human who likes to be close to my canine pal. In a 2003 study, the American Animal Hospital Association found that 67 percent of pet owners said their pet most often sleeps on their bed.

Noted dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, author of Bones Would Rain from the Sky, offers a further perspective on why many of us have invited dogs indoors, at least in urban areas.

“Dogs in the house may offer us a much needed connection to something outside the unnatural, self-imposed rhythm dictated by clocks and deadlines and train schedules,” she says. “The thumping tail on the floor when you roll over at night may be a wise choice when it comes to what our souls need: a way to stay connected with the natural world.”

It hasn’t always been like that, of course. Scientists tell us that we were once hunters who gathered around a campfire and threw bits of gristle to wild dogs bold or hungry enough to approach. Most agree that humans and dogs have existed together for at least 100,000 years, and a few researchers have suggested that, based on DNA evidence, the human–dog relationship could be much older.

We don’t know when the first doghouse was built, but it was certainly after we gave up our nomadic ways and settled into homes of our own—we would have wanted to protect the dogs that watched our sheep, guarded our homes or helped us hunt.

Fred Albert, a design writer who compiled a colorful collection of doghouses into a book titled Barkitecture, includes photographs of some of the oldest known doghouses in the book’s introduction. Among them is one made of wood with silk upholstery that belonged to Marie Antoinette, who kept a small Spaniel at Versailles during the late 1700s.

The earliest surviving doghouses in the United States date to nearly a century later. A Gothic revival style is displayed on the grounds at Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in the Hudson Valley of New York, and an extraordinarily detailed Gothic Revival doghouse built around 1880 to match the fanciful main home is part of an estate in Bangor, Maine.

The rise of backyard doghouses was probably the result of the changing values of dog owners. According to Mark Derr, author of A Dog’s History of America, the end of World War II signaled a shift in how we saw dogs and their value.

“The prevalence of doghouses comes with the rise of purebreds,” he said. “Before World War II, less than 20 percent of dogs were purebred (compared to 50 percent now). Returning veterans wanted the right kind of house, the right car, the right dog, because it was a sign they’d made it. It was an enormous change.”

One of those soldiers returning from Europe began drawing a floppy-eared character who conducted aerial dogfights from atop his doghouse. Charles Schulz’s Snoopy—along with the rest of the Peanuts gang—made his newspaper debut in 1950, and started a groundswell of puppy love. At the height of its popularity, the comic strip had an estimated daily readership of 350 million.

“Back in Peanuts’ heyday, the 1960s, everybody wanted to own a Beagle like Snoopy—and a doghouse to go along with [him],” says Barkitecture’s Albert. Mass media had discovered the dog.

Television shows, movies and even magazines joined the feeding-bowl frenzy. In 1954, the Saturday Evening Post ran a cover illustration depicting a man measuring his dog in preparation for building a doghouse. This reportedly prompted numerous readers to write in with their own doghouse-building advice. An extensive essay on doghouses was photographed by legendary photographer Nina Leen for Life, and ran on several pages of the magazine in 1956. 

Those who aspired to build their own pup pad had plenty of help. Magazines like Field & Stream and Mechanix Illustrated ran plans for bigger, better or easier doghouses almost continuously for 30 years. If you had the urge to build a doghouse with a door that grew with Fido, a triple-decker doghouse or even a space-age dog shelter, all you had to do was thumb through the latest issue for plans and step-by-step instructions.

By the affluent 1980s, doghouse design took a sharp turn toward style. After a parody of Vogue magazine—Dogue—featured a photographic tour of lavishly appointed doghouses, architects were called upon to design doggie digs for competition and charity fundraisers. The first, held in Atlanta in 1988, was a hit. By 1990, the prestigious Cooper-Hewitt in New York City hosted its high-profile exhibition, which sparked even more copycats … er … dogs.  Soon, cities all over the country were showing off the creativity and wit of local designers, many of whom found designing for canine clients a refreshing romp.
 
In early 2000, the city of St. Paul announced plans to honor Charles Schulz by placing 100 sculptures of Charlie Brown in various locations around the city. Since then, they’ve also included artists’ renditions of Snoopy, Lucy and Linus. This summer, it was doghouses. As part of “Doghouse Days of Summer,” nearly 100 decorated doghouses were displayed everywhere from the shopping mecca Mall of America (okay, it’s not technically in St. Paul, but close enough) to riverfront boulevards. This fall, the city is auctioning off the pieces.

Since the city publishes a map marking the locations of all the sculptures, I won’t have any problem finding doghouses this time. I think I just might pack some Cheerios and take Bailey to see them.