Lori Quello is crazy about Shady, an energetic terrier/Rottweiler mix.
An avid photographer, the retired art teacher has taken scores of pictures of Shady’s puppyhood and collected a hundred of them in what she calls his “baby book.”
Shady isn’t even Quello’s dog. Her daughter adopted Shady last year, making Shady Quello’s “granddog.”
“I love to spoil him, and he gets so excited when he sees me,” said Quello, who lives in Shoreview. “I’ve taught him how to do tricks. I bought him a little jacket, toys, and I spent a fortune on treats. I say he’s my four-legged grandchild.”
If you haven’t heard of granddogs, just wait: You will. The concept is nosing its way into the American family. Most often, they are the pooches belonging to millennial sons and daughters, many of whom are delaying or forgoing parenthood.
There are scores of branded granddog items — picture frames, plaques, tote bags, personalized coffee cups, “Proud Dog Nana” T-shirts. Granddog pictures and videos are proudly posted on Facebook and Instagram. And granddogs are included in family portraits, named in Christmas cards, even listed as survivors in obituaries.
At 62, Quello is in prime grandmother years. But she’s part of a large and growing cohort of women of a certain age who aren’t fussing over a baby. Research from the University of North Carolina found that the number of U.S. women between 60 and 64 who have no grandchildren is expected to reach 25 percent by 2020, up from 10 percent in the 1990s.
At the turn of the past century, the average grandparent had 15 grandchildren; today that number is three.
“The world of marriage and family continues to shift, and the granddog represents the new reality,” said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global. “It becomes a compensating factor in the absence of a child. All these baby boomers who have time and emotional energy to lavish turn their attention and affection to the dog.”
It’s a dog’s life
That boomer parents are connecting so strongly with their children’s pets is a sign of more than changing demographics. It’s also evidence of the changing status of man’s best friend.
A century ago, a dog lived outside and had to earn its keep. Today, a dog’s job is to be a human’s companion. Dogs have not only moved indoors, but into their owners’ — er, make that their parents’ — beds.
They’re also claiming their parents’ hearts.
A recent survey by marketing firm Kelton Global revealed that 81 percent of pet owners consider their dogs to be equal in status to other family members, with a little over half calling themselves “pet parents.”
“There’s been a cultural shift over the past 20 years where people talk about being their dog’s ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ instead of their master or owner,” said Ali Jarvis, founder of Sidewalk Dog, a digital media platform that offers pet news to Minnesota dog owners and directs them to public spots — coffee shops, restaurant patios, breweries and shops — where their pets are welcome.
“We’ve seen an uptick in dog grandparents who use our site and bring their granddogs to our events,” she said.
Jarvis has watched the granddog phenomenon up close, seeing her mother dote on her own beloved Maggie Moo, an eight-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel rescue dog.
“I loved Maggie from the start and she loves me, in that unconditional way that is so sweet,” said Joan Boettcher, 73, Jarvis’ mother.
“She’s like a grandchild in that you don’t have the final responsibility for their care but you get the joy and fun,” she said.
To make sure the dog feels welcome, Boettcher keeps Maggie’s bowl, bed and toys at her house in Eden Prairie, just like she kept highchairs and portable cribs for her grandchildren when they were younger.
Boettcher wistfully notes that her grandchildren, now ages 13 to 20, are so busy with social, school and sports activities that they spend less time with her.
“The grandchildren don’t want to sit and cuddle, so it’s nice to have the granddog,” she said.
Some may see the idea of embracing a granddog, rather than a grandchild, as pathetic at worst, anthropomorphic at best.
“In the absence of a child, people can get goofy about a dog,” Meehan said. “When there is a child, the dog becomes the dog.”
But the intense bonding that often exists between people and pets is rooted in biology, researchers say, and the connection is based on who loves the dog rather than who owns it.
“Research shows that even looking at pictures of companion animals releases beneficial neurochemicals in the body, almost identical to what we see with people and their babies,” said Prof. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.
The health benefits of the pet connection are well documented. Just petting a dog (or cat) has been shown to lower blood pressure, help the body release a relaxation hormone and reduce levels of stress hormones.
Johnson concludes that those positive effects extend to those who spend time with animals and develop a relationship with them. Last year, Johnson published research in a scholarly journal that showed that older pet owners who regularly walk their dogs have lower body mass indexes and make fewer trips to doctors’ offices than those without canines.
“For adults who are engaged in the grandpet’s life, there are likely to be physical as well as social and emotional benefits for them,” she adds. “People seek differing degrees of attachment, but in our high-tech, low-touch mobile society, the need to connect is strong.”
Those who choose to connect with an adult child’s pet can expect to attract the occasional odd look or muttered judgment from people who are mystified by the cross-generational, cross-species attachment.
That’s why Quello is cautious about which friends hear her stories and see her photos of Shady.
“I realize there are people who would want to see pictures of a grandchild but don’t want to see pictures of grandpuppies,” she conceded.
With motherhood not currently on the agenda for her only child, Quello busies herself with taking part in the joys and chores associated with socializing Shady. She’s content with treasuring a creature with paws, not tiny fingers and toes.
“I’ve never thought that my child owes me a grandchild,” she said. “I’m not a complainer. I could pout that I don’t have a grandchild or I can be happy that I have a grandpuppy, enjoy him and get on with it.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.