It’s said that people come over time to resemble their pets. Bulldog men expand around the jaw and midriff; Bassett Hound enthusiasts grow glum-eyed and jowly; poodle owners cultivate elaborate perms and firm, taut buttocks. Semiotically speaking, though, there is more to the dog/owner symbiosis than appearance alone. As owned objects, living extensions of human keepers, dogs can and do signify their owners’ status, character and aspiration – how their owners live, and how they conceive of themselves in the world.
Just as small, pure-breed dogs like Chihuahuas and miniature pugs suggest wealth and manicured femininity, so pit bulls and Rottweilers indicate aggressive masculinity – animals refashioned as weapons, to intimidate or pre-empt attack. Context of course is everything – toy dogs signal party-girl affluence more keenly when peeking from the clasp of Paris Hilton’s handbag, fighting dogs hostility when tethered to a teenage boy by a metal leash. A beagle or a lurcher codes fox hunting more strongly when walked by a ruddy-faced white man in Barbour jacket and tweeds than by a black African grandmother; a Golden Retriever beside a young woman in dark glasses codes guide dog, where in the company of a family with young children it may not. Meaning derives not from an intrinsic quality of the animal, but from relationship and association – from the dog in relation to its handler in a specific environment, not from the dog alone.
These canine semiotics can be witnessed in – for example – recent campaigns by pet food brand Cesar, the emblematic West Highland White Terrier of which communicates many of the values of the brand. Small, neat, clean and cute, the Terrier codes lifestyle accessory and non-threatening companion – not (say) a weapon or a hunting tool. Cesar, the Terrier suggests, is a brand for those (women) for whom a dog is a friend, to be cherished and so fed accordingly. Correspondingly, Cesar’s advertising communications explicitly target (through the use of suitable actors and expensively decorated but unshared living spaces) a market of affluent, professional single women in their 20s and 30s – women for whom a dog is not only a pet but a friend, and (perhaps) a partner-substitute, too.