Who Is Your Dog’s Birthday Party Actually For?
As Lizzo says, “Is it your birthday, [dog]? Let’s celebrate it.”
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There are people in all our lives so exquisitely interesting and creative and energetic that we feel like a side character in their presence. One of these people is my neighbor, Matilda — and Matilda considers herself only a side character in the life of her gorgeous tiny Pit Bull mix, Joan Crawford.
This past May, Joan turned 16, and Matilda threw a party that was instantly legendary in Philadelphia, where Her Royal Highness Queen Joan resides. There was cake from the dog bakery, meat treats from the butcher, and local dignitaries arrived to “kiss the ring.” Matilda’s a host of many extravagant parties, but Joan’s Super Sweet 16 was, according to Matilda, “by far the most bombastic.” It was themed “Zsa Zsa Gabor” for reasons I’ve never learned. Joan wore a rhinestone collar and a beautiful hat. “She gets to be wheeled in her favorite cart, and, well, she loved the attention and was a very good girl and kept her hat and sash on the entire time,” Matilda says.
I asked Matilda, not so subtly, “Do you think Joan knows this about her?” And Matilda responded in true Matilda fashion: “Everything is always about her.” Yes, of course. That’s gorgeous Joan’s general myopia: We all exist just for her amusement.
But an enormous Joan birthday party bedecked with silks, jewels, feathers, and cocktails? Is this just a party for people, with the dog as an excuse? Maybe! According to my beloved childhood friend, Sarah, who has a chill barbecue to celebrate the birthday of her dopey Lab, Mia, every summer: “It’s for me, but she loves it, so it’s for her!”
Who’s It For, Really?
The birthday party for a dog, running on the human schedule of a year, seems like a crystallization of our relationship with our beasts. It’s on our terms, even if we do it with full consideration of our beloved animal. Bark Mitzvahs are becoming popular, because like Joan’s Super Sweet 16, they honor a dog at an older age (in this case, 13). The older dogs in particular, I think, evoke a special type of reverence from the humans. “Now that she’s older, people come to her almost like in line for a queen,” Matilda says.
In a general sense, the dog’s birthday party is analogous to a human’s birthday party: It’s just an excuse for their loving community to lavish them. And, of course, we should lavish our beloved humans and our beloved pets every single day with no excuses needed. But the birthday allows for some considered preparation.
Because it‘s an arbitrary occasion, the dog birthday party allows us to put aside our own little distractions and spend a day only considering this other creature. On the dog’s birthday, everything is just the most dog-centric choice.
For my boy Finn’s birthday, we drive to the wetland for the smells. Every time he wants pets, I stop whatever I am doing for pets. He’s allowed to sleep on my pillow, and because it’s his special day, I don’t tug it out from under him and replace it. He’s a bit of an introvert, so it’s just me and him and my partner for the party — plus a set of six tiny peanut-butter-bacon wet bread sliders, a combination of his three favorite foods. Let me know if you’d like the recipe, I’d be thrilled to share.
Do I wish I did this for Finn everyday? Yes, in the same way I wish I baked a cake for my best friend every day. That would be cool, but I do have a life and I value that as well. But, as an occasion, it’s fun and rewarding to plan an ideal day for the creatures we love.
“I invite all of Jumper’s best dog friends,” my college friend Ellie tells me. “Lulu, Sasha, Carrot and Payton, as well as all Jumper’s favorite humans, which are just two other people.” These are also the people who bring the dogs. But Ellie doesn’t care about leaving out her usual invites for a gathering. A dog’s birthday party is not your party.
Ellie is critical of dog parties that are excuses for human parties. “They are not props for our pleasure,” she says, adding that dogs “are our wards that need to be cared for.” The concept of the birthday, she says, must be extremely filtered through the dog’s wants.
It’s For Us...And Them
But I’m not so sure that’s totally true. My neighbor, Matilda, weighed in on Joan’s Super Sweet 16: “She can def tell the difference between when I have people over, and it fucks with her routine; versus a lot of people who are clamoring to give her pets and squatting to her level, and showering her with so many gifts and cakes and cookies!”
It’s very ouroboros: the dog’s birthday party. It’s our excuse to have a day that’s about our love for them. They don’t know why this extra love is happening to them on this arbitrary day we picked, but they feel that love. So — to paraphrase my friend Sarah with the Lab named Mia — it’s for us, because everything is. But — to paraphrase my Matilda — it’s for them, because everything is.
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Maggie Lange is a writer, editor, and columnist. Her work has been featured in New York Magazine, Vice, Guernica, GQ, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Elle, and Bon Appetit. She lives in Philadelphia with her favorite brindle boy, Finn.