Traditionally, men in Ireland were more commonly seen walking larger dog breeds, such as, Sight Hounds (Grey Hounds), Retrievers, German Shepard's or other Guarding Breeds. In the past small dogs were more frequently women's four legged companions. Indeed large dogs were the norm for Irish men, and their four legged companions were often machismo symbols. The bigger and tougher looking the dog, the tougher the man looked also. Big dogs not only brought 'street cred', but were great deterrents for prospective burglars or unwanted trespassers!
However, something has changed since then. Today, I saw a very macho looking man walking two little Bichon Frise, perfectly groomed with wooly jumpers and matching bejeweled collars (one pink and one purple). Indeed, this is not an unusual occurrence in modern Ireland. Regularly, I see men walking varieties of toy dog breeds; such as Pugs, Shih Tzus, King Charles Spaniels, Pomeranians and so on. Often I hear comments like 'Dude, your dog's so cute!' or 'thats one cute little fecker!' .
This would have been unheard of 20 or 30 years ago. A man walking those types of dogs back then, dressed and accessorized as toy dogs are today, would have been laughed at and ridiculed. Such men would have been looked upon as a 'sissies' or 'poofs', as my grandfather's generation might have called them. Toy breeds such as Pugs, Shih Tzus', Bichon Frise and Pomeranians are not bread as working dogs; they don't exude machismo, toughness nor aggression. Such little dogs have no function other than to look super cute and be our best little buddies! However, it is now culturally acceptable and normal for all types of men to walk dogs that would once have been seen as 'girlie'. So what does this change in dog trends signify?
Certainly modern men are different from my grandfather's generation. Gender norms have shifted left and men have much more freedom from restrictive traditional masculine stereotypes. However, I believe this change in dog trend has its origins in the Celtic Tiger. During the boom, there was an explosion in pedigree dog sales that matched the explosion in national prosperity. Not only was there an increase in pedigree dogs being sold, but the range of pedigree dogs increased vastly. What were once rare or unusual breeds quickly became readily available. It also became common place to spend small fortunes on dog companions. Gradually man's best friend became symbols of our new found financial successes. Toy breeds being particularly expensive became status symbols; representing affluence rather than machismo. The huge monetary value of these toy dog breeds resulted in them becoming a form of symbolic capital.
Toy dog breeds although more affordable now due to our economic recession, still retain their symbolic capital. Interestingly, now a huge variety of interactions and occurrences take place demonstrating the symbolic capital of particular breeds. One such example, which I have had the pleasure of attending, is the Dublin Pug Club. Some members of my family are fortunate enough to have pugs as companions. They are not particularly attractive little K-9's but what they lack in appearance they make up for in attitude and character. Every month via a social media website, Pug owners arrange meeting up in a park in Dublin City Centre. On the occasions that I've attended usually about 20 – 40 owners turn up, often bringing more than one Pug.
What unfolds at these club events, is a furore of Pug activity and general cuteness, which tends to amaze and amuse members of the public who happen to pass by. Being part of the Pug Club not only provides a opportunity for the dogs to socialize but owners too. However, this setting provides owners a mechanism for attaining prestige. The better your Pug's lineage, or the cuter and more accessorized; the greater prestige awarded through the admiration of other club members. Being in the club affirms status, exclusivity and provides public acknowledgement of symbolic capital; all through the ownership of a particular toy dog breed, in this case a Pug. At these gatherings men and women proudly parade their Pugs (who are usually accessorized to beat the band) in front of members of the pubic frequenting the park. Groups photos are usually taken, new members welcomed, Pug birthday's often celebrated and sometimes there's even cake in the shape of a Pug.
Ultimately the changed nature of dog ownership in Ireland, not only provides evidence of new Irish masculinity but also demonstrates how gender norms have been influenced by economic prosperity during the Celtic Tiger period. It might be a comfort for many men to know, that today in modern Ireland you don't need to assert your masculinity through your dog; your man's best friend can be small, fluffy, cute and accessorized without your masculinity being jeopardized. In the past a man's best friend might have killed you with their aggression or their bite ... today they are likely to kill you with their cuteness ... awww!
© Clay Darcy, December 2013.