THE PUG FACTOR
Sitting in a South London cafe, waiting for my cholesterol-enriched weekend fry-up (no bacon but plenty of grease just the same) and admiring the brisk March English weather through a glass pane, I bespied a tiny little dog. A tiny cute little dog leashed to his/her owner, sat nearby, working on his/her own fry-up. This looked like a pug - doing its trembling, frisky little thing, getting all twisted up, running the leash around aluminum chair legs. Playful, super-alert, and really tiny. And maybe cold as well.
So of course I just had to introduce myself to Lola (pug) and Cormac (owner).
"She's 4 months old and won't be getting much bigger ... maybe just a wee little bit." Cormac has two young children: "Lola's great with my kids!"
What a funny-faced little dog with a great personality! And the first time I'd ever met one. The first time I'd ever seen one, anywhere, in the UK.
I'm surprised it took this long. Pugs have become incredibly popular in the US - and what is big over on that side of the pond usually makes its way here to Britain. Brits call it the "special relationship". But maybe we could call it The Pug Factor. Perhaps it even started here? After all, Queen Victoria was a huge pug fan. And going back even further, the great English 17th century portrait painter William Hogarth featured one in a self-portrait. But what’s for sure is that in recent times pugs have been getting a lot of press, to a great extent because so many celebrities own them. And if not pugs, then their toy class dog brethren. Pomeranian, Pekingese, Chihuahua, King Charles Spaniel, Havanese, Chin, Yorkshire Terrior and others - it is a very big family.
Remember Mickey Rourke hand-feeding his chihuahua Beau Jack prime cuts of raw sirloin at Cannes while telling reporters about how Beau Jack saved his life? Rourke had been doing some “crazy shit” at the time, but stopped when BJ nuzzled up and Mickey saw the look in his dog’s eyes. By the way, Beau Jack was Mickey’s replacement for Raphael, a pug that had died.
Elsewhere: Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Paula Abdul, Stan Lee (owned or was owned by a pug named Pookie) Andy Warhol, Woody Harrelson, Sally Jessy Raphael, Lou Ferrigno (but see interviews where he refers to his "pug" as "half Maltese and half poodle"), Tommy Hilfiger (US resident), Jessica Alba (pug: Syd), Paris Hilton, Scarlett Johansson -- all these and many, many more are toy class, and primarily, pug dog owners.
And where celebrity leads, their minions follow. The US Kennel Club reports that the popularity of toy dogs has soared in the past five years “… as more and more celebrities are pictured about town with tiny breeds.” This has led to concern that “… dogs are being chosen as fashion accessories by people mimicking their favorite celebrity icons."
Yet it’s not just about the dog and master relationships – it’s all the doggie spinoffs too. Just a quick glance on the web reveals the staggering volume of new pug commerce. Merchandise and services now include:
• Pug fashion lines (clothing for pugs, i.e. pug fleeces, pug T-shirts and baseball caps, pug bibs, pug slippers and what appears to be an expanding Haute couture product line).
• Pug bling and other accessories (jewelry, wigs, tiaras. hairclips, dog tag and necklace sets, designer dog bowls, dog bowl floor placemats, doggie sofa beds and comfy luxury beds).
• Pug toilet utilities (designer heart-shaped litterboxes - and I’d thought litterboxes were only for cats! Even portable pug potties – but you’d have to train your pug to use one first!).
• Pug spas and boutiques to pamper your pet: shampooing, bathing, nail clipping, grooming, nutritional counseling, and the fast-expanding pug massage sector – more and more people are qualifying as pet massage and acupressure practitioners, so it stands to reason that pampered pugs are among the first pups to benefit commercially.
• Health and beauty pug products – from aloe “anti-flea creams” to cleansing ear and eye wipes to mango-scented, hypo-allergenic shampoo, wash and rinse kits – as well as a whole host of books to coach pug owners about what to buy and why.
• Countless pug clubs, blogs, fan sites, and “user” groups. Even festivals like Pugstock (moves from US city to city), The Pug Crawl (Portland), PugFair (Cincinnati), Pugpalooza (Louisville), PETCO Pugfest (Milwaukee), Pugtoberfest (Albuquerque) … the list goes on!
• A film called Pugumentary!
And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface where pug toys (cuddlies, chewies, shreddables) are concerned!
Yet most of this merchandise - what is it for? Unless pugs are show dogs, how many of these products serve a purpose other than to humanize these dogs for their owners? (And if they are show dogs, a whole new topic regarding pug in-breeding raises its head.) Do the dogs give a poop if they get to wear a jewel-encrusted hairclip? Maybe. But it’s more likely that people who spend a lot of money on pure-bred pugs tend to dote on their investment. Cormac’s pug Lola alone costed well over í1000. That’s a pretty penny for Southeast London.
And so it then follows that there’s a whole other marketing sector out there - pug-related accessories for human beings! Things like pug imprint shirts and jackets and sneakers, pug cookies, pug mugs, pug chess sets, pug porcelain figurines - literally scores of pug memorabilia in every imaginable shape and size.
The aforementioned film Pugumentary touches on these “for human beings” issues. A word of mouth phenomenon chiefly publicized by pug-lover club internet blogs, it screened to sell-out audiences (chiefly pug-lovers) in New York City and upper-state New York. The film ever-so-lightly proposes that pug popularity says more about the people who own pugs than about the dogs themselves!
Set in New York City, Pugumentary suggests that New Yorkers love their small pet dogs (in this case, apartment-friendly pugs) more than their human neighbors. It explores the legacy of the owner of 22 pugs (!) after his death. This man dies, they are all still alive and need a meal when he expires. The film pulls together through interview, verite and history a variety of people who knew him, think they did or pretend they did, and who expose themselves in the process. Fact or funny? Documentary or mockumentary? It is left for you to decide.
To be sure, pugs are adorable, are easier to accomodate than a Doberman, and are great with kids. Just imagine the small, wrinkly, short muzzled pug face! According to Eev Rodriguez-Knapp, fundraiser for Pug Dog Encephalitis (PDE) Research at Indiana University: “Pugs especially have become more popular with dog lovers because they have had so much exposure on TV and film, they have such a big personality but are smaller and easier to keep in compact living quarters. Their faces and expressions are almost humanlike.” One of the most entertaining characters from the movies Men in Black and Men in Black II is an alien from outer space. To hide his origin, he adopts a disguise. He becomes Frank the Pug. Shape-shifting deluxe. Ironically, the word "pug" may have come from the Old English "puge", an affectionate term for a playful little devil-monkey.
Speaking of shape-shifting, in some ways this idea is not so different from how pugs have come to be as they are. These were, after all, favorite lapdogs of Chinese Emperors not for nothing. Pugs have been bred by humans for perfection from the outset - it’s only now that we dress doggie in fleeces or baseball caps as well. Eev Rodriguez-Knapp, who has channeled her efforts into Pugweiser, the charity which specifically raises funds for Pug Dog Encephalitis (PDE) Research, says “There has not been anything that has linked up the disease to inbreeding. However, research is going strong at this time to determine a genotype and a primary cause of PDE.”
Elsewhere opinion is divided. The reknown UK Krufts dog show has suffered sponsorship loss because dog food suppliers didn't want their reputations tainted by the hint of illness linked to toy dog in-breeding. A recent blog (written by an Animal Science grad) titled The Ethics of Creating the Purebred American Pug claims that pugs result from intensive inbreeding to ensure a profit for breeders and “an aesthetically pleasing animal for buyers” while “... overshadowed by the pain and the suffering of a majority of the dogs created through the process.” It could very well be that PDE (like Progressive Retinal Atrophy [PRA], a Pug disease which can lead to blindness) stems from this.
According to Phil Magitti (for Dog & Kennel Magazine) pug husbandry has been for one purpose and one purpose only: “ … to provide companionship to a species that desperately needs them. Pugs are good at this work - so good, in fact, that a friend of ours is fond of saying, "A dog is a dog, but a pug is another person in your house."
Pugs trot among us. But as aliens, humans or dogs? You decide.
For more information visit film's web site www.pugumentary.com