October 22, 2019

Attention Deficit Dog Disorder

Ever since I bought my dog his own electronic device, I can’t get him to put it down and play with me, even when I’m holding out a treat. He’s surly, sullen and not very fun.

Marshmallow used to be the happiest dog, friendly toward adults, ecstatic around children, on easy, intimate terms with every other dog — and their private parts — in the neighborhood. He’d trot down the street, head high, big, black tail waving back and forth like a flag — all of this happening 18 inches off the ground. He’s a dachshund-spaniel mix, a rescue, a long, low-riding mutt. He brought into my life the loyalty and fluffy-love dogs are famous for, and something else: gratitude that I had saved him.

Why should my dog be the only member of my family without his own electronic device, I asked myself? The internet has something for everyone. I saw an app promising to teach dogs to growl, “I rrrrrove ru!” Marshmallow deserved to express his love in words. Plus, watching videos of real dogs doing tricks could inspire him to try harder to get trained. I’d be so proud. Or so I thought.

Instead, now he barely looks up when I come home. He’s too busy playing Virtual Squirrel, an endless rotation of cute, cartoon rodents waiting to be chased up a tree with a tap on the nose-activated screen. He can’t pay attention to anything for more than four seconds. We were playing a (now rare) game of fetch. He was tearing after a tennis ball when his iPhone buzzed. He skidded to a stop, ball erased from his mind, and bolted toward the phone. It was a notification from Slipper Nanny; his (virtual) master was home. Time to fetch the slippers.

Day and night he lies there, legs splayed out behind him, motionless except for his nose, tapping that stupid screen. He keeps leveling up in Slipper Nanny, bringing his virtual master ever-more-elaborate slip-on footwear. It started with white house slippers, then black, then white embroidered, then black embroidered. Then Dearfoam, then pink fur, then slippers with rhinestones. Who is this virtual master who wears jewel-encrusted slippers? And why am I getting ads for Dearfoam quilted booties on all my devices? Yesterday, my son began hectoring me for a pair of Dearfoam velour slides.

It’s like he’s forgotten thousands of years of genetic programming because of a single electronic device.

“The ad said it would be like walking on clouds!” he said.

“You don’t wear the slippers I bought you last week,” I said.

“Mommy won’t let me walk on clouds!” he wailed.

At first, I chose games I thought Marshmallow would enjoy: “Virtual Car Ride,” “Idle Iditarod” and that one where a huge dog bowl gets filled with steak, then whipped cream, then Doritos. Now I’m seeing charges on my AmEx for videos I didn’t authorize. “Bloody Squirrel”? “Hot Kitty”? “Bodacious Bitches in Love”?

When I tried to take away the phone, Marshmallow snapped at my hand. It’s like he’s forgotten thousands of years of genetic programming because of a single electronic device. It happened so fast, and I feel powerless to stop it. Nothing I offer is as exciting as the virtual, unattended butcher shops, green meadows and slow-moving rodents. A dog may be man’s best friend, but technology has become my dog’s favorite companion.

Last night, while I was scanning and bagging my groceries, I had a thought: A dog is not indispensable. Couldn’t canine love be automated? Improved? Perhaps I could find an electronic dog, a dog robot, a Dobot. He’d be happier to see me than a real dog, and more talented — able to sit and roll over, and also somersault from front to back. I could choose his fur, which wouldn’t shed all over my white couch. He’d have self-cleaning teeth and could be programmed not to bark at people leaving parties late at night.

I’d feel bad returning Marshmallow to the shelter, but he’d find another home. Probably. Anyway, I need to think of my needs, not the welfare of every living dog on the planet, especially a rescue who already has shown himself incapable of remaining endeared to his first owner. But a bespoke best friend, a Dobot? That’s the dog for these days.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”