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.