A growing number of couples plan to make their dog part of their wedding ceremony, according to a press release we recently received. Apparently, the hashtag #dogringbearer is becoming ever more popular, with a “71% search increase for the term ‘dog ring bearer’” in just the past year.
You can find earnest advice online for how to keep your dog calm if he gets over-excited at a wedding, the safest way to secure the rings to him, and how you can stop him from peeing during the ceremony.
But we are not on board. The press release says that the event “will be just as exciting for your dog as it is for you,” but we respectfully disagree. We can think of nothing that would make many dogs more anxious than being “suited up” in a tuxedo collar and bow tie that might feel uncomfortable against their fur and then being trotted down an aisle with the eyes of dozens of strangers upon them. Ditto for canine “bridesmaids” in frilly dresses.
It’s critical to understand that while we love our dogs and consider them part of our families, they do not understand human events and find them confusing — and often unsettling. There is no way to communicate to a dog that he is so important to you that he is being included in a seminal moment in your life. All he understands is that he is out of his element…and are those beef tips that he smells in the other room? And why is everyone laughing as he sprints for the altar, where people may be standing in a row in matching “costumes?” The biggest message he receives from all of the strange goings-on is that his routine has been thrown off.
“A very relaxed dog and a very small, informal wedding in a park or on a beach or in the couple’s back yard where the dog gets to be a dog can work,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “But if there are elements like ring bearers or flower girls, I would assume the wedding is probably neither small and informal nor truly dog-focused.”
Other occasions where he would be out of his element
Weddings are not the only events in which dogs are included — but may very well not want to be. Some people take their dogs along with their youngsters to go trick or treating, dressing them up in adorable witch and pirate outfits. Others dress their pets in Santa or elf clothing on Christmas, even though dogs don’t understand the meaning of Christmas or the meaning of a holiday, period. The chances are better than even that your pet does not want to be part of the action in these ways.
Yes, your dog loves being with you and, for the most part, would rather be in your company than not. But there’s a limit. How do you decide?
If including the dog is for the dog’s enjoyment, making him part of the action is the right thing. If, however, you’re putting a dog in a situation where the point is more to make him a kind of prop or decoration than to actually provide him with environmental enrichment that has his canine instincts and comfort level in mind, it’s best to leave him at home. If you’re going to be gone a long time, leave him with a dog sitter or at the boarder’s.
This is true for vacations as well as for holidays and other events. Many people think a dog would be better off coming with them rather than being boarded, but consider this: Dogs don’t zip-line. They don’t want to hang around a pool for hours and hours. They’re not into art galleries. What that means is that if you take your pet with you, chances are that he’s going to be spending a lot of time by himself in a hotel room. It’s not worth the trip in his mind. He’d rather be boarded and be able to rely on his mealtimes and play times being consistent and not have to continually adjust himself to new people.
“I have been on Cape Cod on vacation this week with the dogs,” Dr. Borns-Weil told us when we interviewed her for this article. “We have done only doggy things — walks, sitting on the beach, lazing around the Air bnb. No restaurants, movies, museums, or long, strenuous walks. All the fun of taking the dogs on vacation is to watch them have fun and have time with them in the way they enjoy. When I need a restaurant, museum, theater, long-hike vacation, a dog sitter stays with the dogs so they can enjoy their usual routine.”
World-renowned animal behaviorist and Tufts professor emeritus Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, puts it like this: “Think dog.” If your pet is not going to understand the context of an event and the “cute” part he plays in it, it’s probably not for him. Your dog’s best events are going to include belly rubs, treats, walks where his happiness is the focus, and games like fetch. If these activities are not part of it, leaving him behind doesn’t make you a bad dog “parent.” It makes you a good one for understanding that even though we may consider our dogs family members, not everybody in the household can enjoy all the same things.