Imagine the scene: you pop into the pet store on your way home from work, pick up a little Christmas Elf number for your four-legged friend to wear over the festive period and smile indulgently as you visualise all the funny photos you’ll be taking of Santa’s little helper over the coming weeks. So far, so fun right? Well, some people wouldn’t agree with you. With the craze for dressing up your dog becoming more and more popular, especially around Hallowe’en and Christmas and even a National ‘Dress up your Pet Day’ now taking America by storm, animal welfare charities and pet owners alike are feeling increasingly uneasy about pets wearing clothes which they believe can lead to them being perceived as accessories rather than living beings with their own behaviour patterns.
The question is - is it really that serious? Isn’t dressing up your dog just a bit of harmless fun, a few moments of bonding time while you shoot a few photos to upload to your (or your dog’s) social media account? Could this really be considered animal cruelty? According to a recent poll carried out by Canine Cottages, opinion is strictly divided. While over half were against dressing up in principle, the comments were mostly in favour, with many stating that if a dog seems happy and isn’t showing any signs of distress, then no harm done. But is there more to it than that?
We thought we would delve a little deeper into this subject to see if we could dig out any more information about the pros and cons of dressing up your hound and to find out whether something that is often considered to be a bit of fun could unintentionally be causing our four-legged friends harm.
When did dressing up dogs become a thing?
The culture shift for this phenomenon began back in the early 2000s when socialite Paris Hilton and Mean Girls star Lindsay Lohan started the celebrity trend for ‘handbag dogs’, so called because they were small enough to be carried around. Dogs were no longer just our faithful muddy old canines, happy with a stick and a squeaky toy. They had reached full accessory status, akin to a Chanel handbag or a pair of Louboutin’s. No longer was it enough to be included as part of the family, now they had to dress like one of them too.
Dogs, small ones like Chihuahuas, Shih-tzus and Yorkshire Terriers especially, became a status symbol, often seen peeking out of a Prada or Birkin and with this came a whole array of dazzling accessories. We’re not talking about a fun woolly jumper, but the full shebang. Legally Blonde chihuahuas started dressing up in diamante collars, ballerina skirts and full couture gowns – male dogs donned leather trouser suits and even full matching owner and pet couture. Top designers very quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and smart London stores started showcasing ever-growing windows of sparkly canine accessories.
Unlike other trends that are a flash-in-the-pan, this one has only got bigger and better, with many dogs not only dressing up in all manner of doggy daywear but becoming celebrities in their own right. For or against, we can agree on one thing – the prevalence of pups on social media has continued to make dressing up pets a bit of a thing. Whereas once, you might have put a red coat on your dog at Christmas and paraded them in front of your relatives, there are now whole fabulous social media accounts dedicated to dogs and their increasingly expensive wardrobes.
Those in favour of dressing up say that if these Insta-famous dogs don’t get stressed by being dressed up and seem to enjoy the attention, then where is the problem? Most of these dogs are much-loved members of the family and very well cared for. While that may be true, we do, however, as responsible pet owners have to ask ourselves whether, if by showcasing our pets in this way, we are doing the right thing by them and the species as a whole.
To dress up or not to dress up – that is the question
Perhaps you’re on the fence about this subject. Maybe you think that putting a warm jumper on your dog to keep them warm is okay (and if it’s a Batman sweater then so be it) but believe that dressing up dogs in uncomfortable outfits and using them as accessories is going a bit too far? This tends to be the opinion of not only readers of our poll but of many dog owners across the country. You might go so far to say that even if a funny outfit isn’t that comfortable, is wearing it just for a couple of minutes whilst posing for a photo really that bad in the great scheme of things? If your dog isn’t overly stressed by it, then surely it isn’t a problem?
This is where the issue becomes complicated. Most dog-loving people would agree that if you have a dog who loves any kind of attention and who looks perfectly happy when you put a hat on them for a photo, this doesn’t really constitute animal cruelty. However, if you make your dog do something it is obviously uncomfortable with, which results in it trying to get away, panting, stressing – then it isn’t the right thing to do. You should know what is normal behaviour for your own dog, and this may well be different to how another hound feels when the sequins come out. So far, so common sense.
But the important question here is - it really just about your dog and how they react to a photo opportunity? Or does dressing up dogs have a darker side? Are we, as a society, pushing animals more and more into becoming mini humans?
Dogs as humans - sorry, anthro what?
Yes, there is a name for this – anthropomorphism. This is ‘the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities’. While the many studies are too in-depth for the scope of this article, we can state that anthropomorphism (treating dogs like humans in this case) is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. We all think we know how our dog is feeling, often saying that they are ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ – but do we really? All we have to go by as pet owners are visible signs that our pet is happy or unhappy, stressed or relaxed. In the case of stress, while there are some universal signs of dog stress such as panting, yawning and lip-licking, animals are still individuals and may react differently to a given situation at any given time.
But perhaps we are misinterpreting the signs our dogs are giving us? In the picture above for example, would we really know if the dog was enjoying the photo shoot? Even if to the untrained eye, the dog isn't displaying normal canine stress signals, does it mean they are not suffering any stress? Unless we are measuring, amongst other things, heart rates and cortisol levels, we just don't know. And while some photos seem funny, and are taken by adoring owners, there are many cases where animals are being forced to dress up for commercial gain, forced into unnatural positions for hours while trying to get the perfect picture. It's not always easy to tell from a photo what you are looking at, and this makes it harder still to not feel uneasy when our canine friends may be being exploited.
Psychology Today says that ‘extreme examples of anthropomorphism are also linked to psychological issues and social concerns, such as anxious attachment to objects that leads to hoarding, forcing wild animals to behave in unnatural ways for the sake of human entertainment’. While circus elephants and dancing bears immediately spring to mind, could making our dogs into mini-me’s really be included in this? According to the research, whilst attributing human behaviour to animals is one way that children and adults interact with the world, the question of whether animals actually experience emotions in the same way humans do has long been the subject of debate. They suggest that an animal’s reaction to a situation ‘may merely be an instinctual behaviour in response to certain cues'. This is relevant to this discussion because it may mean that what we see as an animal being ‘happy’ when put in human clothes (cue cries of 'she loves being dressed up'!) may not mean that the animal ‘loves dressing up’ but is happy because you are happy – they may well be responding to your cues rather than the routine of dressing up itself.
Anthropomorphism isn’t all bad though – when we consider that animal behaviour isn’t the same as human behaviour, attributing human characteristics to animals may actually be influential for our interactions with the world around us, potentially even increasing animal welfare standards. Children, especially those who have not been brought up around animals may see them as 'equals' - and not something to be scared of or disrespected. This (while respecting differences between wild and pet animals) may help to give the child a sense of responsibility for an animal, believing that the animal has 'feelings', just as we do. This isn’t to say that dressing your dog up as Wonder Woman is the way to teach children about respect to animals, but anthropomorphism or humanising can have positive elements, with Psychology Today also stating ‘perceiving minds gives entities moral responsibilities’.
The relationship between children and animals is an important one. Not only do interaction and perception give a sense of responsibility, but the animal-child bond can also be beneficial in so many other ways, from physical to psychological. Perhaps a compromise is to teach children the importance of letting their dog be a dog and respecting their behavioural differences while allowing them to have fun together. A dog can join in family activities surely, without being put under unnecessary stress. The question is though, would you recognise signs of stress in your dog?
Recognising stress and discomfort in your dog
While anthropomorphic studies are hugely important in the ethics of animal welfare, most people will make up their mind about the subject depending on what they can see in front of their very own eyes - whether or not an animal is obviously stressed or uncomfortable in any given situation. So apart from obviously trying to get those smart new dungarees off or running out of the room when the dressing-up box comes out, what signs should you be looking out for? Here are some visible stress signals that a dog isn't happy:
- Licking of lips
- Excessive drooling
- Tucked under tail
- Gastrointestinal upsets
Can you read stress signals in your dog?
If you are going to dress up your pet, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can your pet move properly – does the outfit restrict their movement?
- Can your dog still groom themselves or allow themselves to be groomed?
- Does the outfit make your pet itchy? Does your dog have a skin condition that could be irritated?
- Can your dog rest or sleep with the clothing on at any point of the day?
- Does the outfit negatively affect body temperature?
- Can the dog get tangled up i.e. with a scarf or hat?
- Are there buttons or sparkly bits that could cause a choking hazard, especially to puppies?
If any of the above make it difficult for your dog to display normal dog behaviour, then there’s only one ethical answer - get it off! We are sure that there are some dogs who seem to adore having their own wardrobe department on hand and a quick outfit change probably isn’t going to stress them too much but if it does cause stress, don’t do it. The message here is - don’t stress your pet for something that isn’t beneficial for them.
But my dog gets cold!
We all have those dogs who don't cope well with our cold weather! A well-fitted and comfortable indoor jumper or outdoor waterproof jacket can be great for these hounds on colder days, especially recently clipped dogs, thin-coated dogs, older or poorly pets. Some breeds do have an extra layer of fur which is designed to keep them at the correct body temperature - extra layers could actually make them overheat so best to leave alone in this case.
Another dressing-up alternative is a hi-vis reflective jacket which can help to keep your dog visible on dark winter evening walkies. Not only excellent for keeping both dogs and humans safe, they make a rather smart combo with a matching collar and lead!
Just be aware that when you dress up a dog in any type of clothing, you may get an unexpected reaction from other dogs - and we aren't just talking about the fact they are still wearing last season's coat. Read on to find out why your dog may be not giving out the right signals to their new mates at the park.
Can dressing up hinder dog communication?
As much as we like to believe our four-legged friends are a hive of jealousy upon spotting Flora the Fox Terrier in her new flowery dress on a summer day, this isn't always the case. Dogs communicate using their bodies and covering them may mean that other dogs struggle to read their body language properly. Maybe you think that Diana the Dachshund is ignoring Flora because she’s jealous of her new Dior, but she may just be missing vital communication signals.
Tails are particularly important in dog communication, as are ears so be careful not to cover them at any time. The RSPCA have said that they have genuine concerns about the dressing up of pets in costumes and advises against this practice and go on to say ‘The signals which dogs use to tell us how they are feeling can be subtle and covering up their tail and ears for example when wearing a costume makes it even more difficult for dogs to communicate with us and other dogs'. See their full statement here.
Can you actually be prosecuted for dressing up your dog?
Yes, you can. According to an article in the Telegraph, animal welfare charity, the RSPCA has said that forcing pets to wear clothing could be harmful, and in some cases, there may be grounds to prosecute. Jo Barr, the RSPCA spokeswoman, said in this article that ‘dog owners should be aware that under the Animal Welfare Act that came into force in April 2007 they have a duty of care to ensure that all of their pets’ needs are met. One of those needs is to express normal behaviour and it could mean that with restrictive clothing they are not able to do that properly. We’re concerned that any pet should be viewed as a fashion accessory. Taking on an animal is a long-term commitment. It's quite humiliating and sends out the wrong message about pet care’.
While we're sure that putting a woolly Reindeer jumper on Fido isn't going to end up with both of you debuting your matching Black is the New Orange matching prison outfits, there is something in this. The RSPCA's statement hints at the true impact of dressing up your dog. It isn’t just about whether your much-loved pooch minds the donning the odd hat, which is unlikely to cause a canine meltdown, it’s about the effect this trend could have on animal welfare as a whole. Often dogs bought as a fashion accessory are seen as disposable, rather than a potential 10-15 year commitment, and this is leading to increasing levels of abandonment.
The theory is that people who see dogs as accessories are unlikely to be able to fully understand a dog’s needs which could potentially lead to neglect. Animal shelters have over the years seen a huge increase in abandonment of fashionable breeds, with the Blue Cross reporting a 120 percent increase of ‘handbag’ dogs being handed in between 2010 - 2015. Whereas you can change a handbag every season, a dog is for life and many owners who have bought pocket-sized pets on a whim cannot cope with the true demands of a dog.
Because however cute a dog looks, it is still a dog, not a fashion accessory. Small dogs cannot be dressed up and carried around in handbags for long – they need the same exercise and mental stimulation as other dogs. Battersea Dogs Home state ‘sadly, small dogs have become more like fashion accessories in recent years, and Battersea sees the repercussions of people taking on these dogs with little thought of how to care for them'.
The question to ask is, does your dog really need a fireman’s hat and/or a tutu? Is there any validation for it really being in the dog’s best interest? Dogs are not mini humans however much we like to think of them in this way. We need to remember that treating dogs as humans is our choice. As humans who buy or rescue dogs, we are completely responsible for not only their welfare but also the effect our actions have on how the species is perceived in society. And as much as we might like to think that our dogs are quite happy to be dressed up or to choose a comfortable sofa over guarding sheep, we still have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t force our desires onto them.
Having said that, with regard to the individual dog, are we really just worrying too much about what is really just a bit of material? Is this really animal cruelty? Most owners would remove anything that causes distress, with many dogs who dress up a little on the side being extremely well cared for pets. Dogs are not just used as working animals anymore, they have evolved to become companion dogs and this has moved the goalposts. While we must be aware of the full implications of our actions with regard to our pets, and absolutely make sure that their needs are met, we must also ask ourselves if there are more pressing animal welfare problems to be concerned about.
So, is there a compromise? Should we limit outfits to themed comfortable knitted jumpers or outside coats, rather than delving into the dressing-up box when it’s party time? Your dog won’t really know if they are wearing a plain coat just to keep them warm or if they are inadvertently debuting as Robin to your Batman, so if you still want to play dressing-up, perhaps just stick to the kinder version? Dogs are generally happy when their owners are happy, so put a comfortable coat on your dog, tell them how amazing they look and they will show you their best happy grin – purely because you are happy. And isn’t that the best thing?
We’d love to know your thoughts on this highly divisive topic, please use the comments below to let us know what you think about dogs and dressing up.