Dog Day Afternoon

A stranger to the cult of canine companionship tries to get a handle on a venerable Viennese obsession

On The Town | Peter Diller | September 2011

The full heat of summer was bearing down on my shoulders as I stood outside the gate of the Wiener Trabrennverein, the raceway for equine trotters and pacers at Krieau, panting in the pervasive heat. But that was alright; I was in good company. Today was the first annual Hundetag, a gathering for dog lovers and their canine companions, panting their hearts out. No leash or muzzles required.

I have never been a fan of dogs. In my experience they are outdoor animals whose purpose is to protect and keep company while work is done. People in the house; animals in the barn.

When I first came to Vienna, I was disturbed that dogs were allowed in a restaurant, let alone served a bowl of water. I was astounded to see people pushing dogs in baby prams, and pulling them in trolleys behind their bikes. The idea of a dog being as beloved as a child, or perhaps more, seemed grotesque. But over the years I have grown more comfortable with the Austrians and their four-legged obsessions.

As soon as I entered the gate, the smell hit me. Hot hair and hound breath sponsored by Purina. I lit a cigarette to protect my senses and proceeded to survey the booths. Most were stocked with specialty pet items: High-end collars, studded leashes, and customizable bowls were the standard fare.

As I wandered through the grounds, the offerings got more bizarre, while "Who Let the Dogs Out" seemed to be playing on a constant loop. One booth offered special Christmas photos for your inter-species family. Another arranged dog-friendly vacations. And yet another provided doggie massages.

None of these things seemed out of place. Rather they came across very naturally in an environment populated by canine-caregiver pairs who looked like matching sets.

Events unfolded throughout the day. The first was an agility course. As I sat in the shade, I watched owners practicing the course without their dogs. Running by the hoops, swinging their arms over hurdles, tracing the steps of an imaginary animal that would do anything they commanded. As the first round of dogs ran the course, they did just that, often following their keepers in the wrong direction.

The races were held on the trotting track, in front of the grandstands. Put in heats according to size, dogs were pitted against one another in groups of six. One of the participants held the animals at the start, while another coaxed them past the finish line.

Standing in the mostly empty bleachers above the crowd at the rail, I watched several heats. The old saying, "It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" rang true as the most uncontrollable, barking pups left the rest in the dust.

Where do I place my bet?

And why?

Beside the grandstand was a large pool. A crowd gathered around it to watch another, stranger event: dog diving. It seemed like a sporting enough idea, but the reality fell short of my expectations. Dogs were put on a platform in front of the overly attentive crowd and a toy was tossed into the water.

Of all the dogs I watched, few seemed keen on the idea of retrieving the toy from a pool only centimetres below the platform. Most of the pouting pups whined and pawed at the water, walking in circles before committing to getting wet, much to the crowd’s pleasure.

The last, and possibly most bizarre, was the Dog Dancing Fun Tournament. Three judges sat to the side of a section of racetrack, as selected American pop-country music blared from the sound system. An owner and her pet took centre stage, doing synchronized command routines. Shania Twain’s "No One Needs To Know" played as a large woman had her tiny dog running in between her legs as they stepped across the dirt track.

As the song came to a close, she fell on her knees, throwing her arms and her head back, while her pup leaped onto her chest and proceeded to lick her face.

I had to excuse myself.

As I left the event, I came to empathize with the patrons. Though I failed to grasp the Viennese "Hund-Obsession", I understood that this event wasn’t for the dogs. It was for the owners. There was something comforting in the idea of a group of people gathering for a lively afternoon with nothing in common other than a spoiled animal and a lack of social skills.

Other articles from this issue