A pit bull could communicate that you're a bully. A Chihuahua might mean you're chichi. A shar pei says preppy, possibly. Your canine, in fact, could say as much about you as your ZIP code, your coupe or the cut of your blazer.
Dogs, you see, are the fashion accessory of the day.
"It's almost impossible to have the right style without the right dogs," declares designer Isaac Mizrahi in the docudrama "Unzipped," after admiring Eartha Kitt's twin standard poodles.
Madonna reportedly has a Chihuahua and an American pit bull terrier; Elizabeth Taylor, a set of Malteses; Neil Diamond, a golden retriever and a boxer. Supermodels are seen strutting on the runways with pups in arms. And fashion catalogs don't seem complete these days without pooches modeling side by side with pretty people.
"I was working with a couple in Beverly Hills who bought an American Eskimo [a smallish dog with fluffy white hair] because he matched the patio furniture," says Miriam Yarden, a doggy therapist--yes, doggy therapist--based in Long Beach.
At a new dog park on fashionable Main Street in Santa Monica, coddled canines are paraded through the trampled grass as if they were models on a Milan runway. ("The dogs here," notes an onlooker, "are all purebred and named Darwin. The ones in Venice are all mutts named Spike.")
"Our dog is really stylish," admits Alice Ann Grusin as her Jack Russell terrier, Watson, trots through the terrain. "Yeah," adds her husband, "our dog is spoiled and obnoxious."
Jack Russells, a smallish brown- and/or black-on-white terrier, seem to top the list of trendy dogs. Others include the borzoi (which looks like a greyhound with long hair), Boston terrier, the diminutive Chihuahua (all the better for portability), dachshund, golden retriever, Labrador retriever, Maltese (a white fluff ball), poodle (a mainstay of the wealthy), Rottweiler (a tough, barrel-chested breed), shar pei (a mid-sized dog with more wrinkles than a tanning salon) and, of course, the Akita (a big, bearish dog made famous from the howls of Kato, Nicole Brown Simpson's pet).
"Akitas," says Donna Marcel, editor of Chicago-based Dog World magazine, "showed a surge of interest after the O.J. Simpson trial."
Of course, these are high fashion dogs that range from preppy (retrievers and Jack Russells) to eccentric (borzois, poodles with cotton-candy cuts) to trophies (Chihuahuas, Malteses). ("Small dogs are like surrogate children," says dog trainer Matthew Margolis of West Los Angeles. "Small dogs never grow up.")
"The Russian hounds are used in high fashion magazines with models," says Yarden, the canine shrink. "A poodle with a silly cut is always a fashion statement. A Maltese is a fashion statement."
For the canine equivalent of streetwear, go down the beach to Venice, where the rule is the tougher, the better. American pit bull terriers are the thing, but anything that looks good in a spiked collar (Rottweilers, pit bull mixes and other tough mutts) will do.
What do tough dogs say about their owners?
"We very much hand over our feelings, fears, pain, love and joy to our animals and they pick it up like little seismographs," Marcel says. "I think some of these dogs show a real sense of insecurity among their owners that does a disservice to those breeds. For example, Rottweilers weren't meant to be big, tough dogs. They were bred to pull carts."
Indeed, many of the breeds we see today, from the posh to the street-tough, had utilitarian beginnings. Shepherd dogs tended herds; setters, hounds and terriers were made handy for hunting.
It was during Victorian times in England that dogs became "fashion plates," as the Encyclopedia of Mammals (McGraw Hill, 1990) puts it. People of leisure began breeding "idle" dogs for aesthetics instead of athletics.
But the dark side of breeding later produced terriers that were put to battle with other dogs for sport. Those are the ancestors of the American pit bull terrier--a dog with a largely aggressive lineage.
Today, pit bulls are occasionally still placed in the "pit" for bet-worthy battles. In Southern California, pit bulls are sometimes used as a weapon in the arsenal of gang members or, at the least, paraded as a tougher-than-thou fashion statement on a par with low-riding work pants.
"Mainly they're used by gang members to intimidate people," says Los Angeles Police Det. Roger Magnuson. "These people have low self-esteem, and one way to boost your self-esteem is through fear."
But, of course, not all tough breeds produce tough dogs. "There's no such thing as bad breeds," says dog trainer Margolis. "There's just bad breeding."
Or, as Marcel says, dogs, to a large extent, reflect their owners' attitudes. Training, treatment, cropping, docking, even the cut of the coat indicate where the owner is coming from.
Richard Dysart, a 67-year-old actor who played a partner on the NBC show "L.A. Law," for example, has a big black poodle that's anything but puny.