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  • Writer's pictureLiz Weiner

The Hallmark Dog Syndrome: It's Like the Human Equivalent of Body Shaming

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

I’ve always been obsessed with Hallmark movies: Their idyllic towns, beautiful actors, perfect families, and predictable happy endings transport me to my happy place where I forget reality in a neat 2-hour package. I’m well aware that these movies are far removed from real life and perpetuate traditional beauty stereotypes. Still, it’s nice to shamelessly indulge in my adult version of make-believe once in a while.

Among the obvious stereotypes, there is one so insidious I didn’t notice it until I adopted an imperfect dog.

It’s what I have come to refer to as the “Hallmark Dog.” I went so far as to refer to it as a syndrome; it’s like body shaming — for dogs.

It took me longer than I would have liked to accept my new reality of life with an emotionally challenged dog — why you might wonder? Because I was living in a world that surrounded me with images of perfect, face-licking, tail wagging, running off into the distance to catch a ball off-leash dogs. I can’t blame Hallmark alone. It’s everywhere. The only times we see sad and afraid dogs are in the tear-jerking Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA commercials, which only perpetuate myths about shelter dogs being broken — This is a dangerous narrative that can deter adoption.

I was ill-equipped for a troubled dog like Millie. At the risk of sounding naive, I didn’t know they were a thing. Before that moment, I assumed all dogs were of the Hallmark breed. In attempts to make me feel better, people would say things like, “the imperfect dog is perfect,” which certainly has merit, but it sugarcoated my reality in a way that felt condescending.

Not every dog will be a Hallmark dog — and that’s ok — so stop trying to push perfection on us like we body shame humans by surrounding us with the thin ideal. I want to focus on acceptance. I want to stop trying to transform Millie into a dog she will never be.

As if adjusting to life with an emotionally special needs dog isn’t hard enough, society places so much pressure on our dogs to be perfect. When someone goes to pet my dog, they ask, “Is your dog nice?” “Yes, she is nice, but she doesn't like to be pet.” The two are independent.

Let’s normalize dog behaviors we classify as “bad”

It’s OK if a dog doesn’t care to be touched by a stranger or not socialize with every dog they pass on a walk. It’s OK for a dog to be terrified by screaming active children. It’s OK to have a noise phobia and pancake to the ground during walks. It’s OK not to be loose and wiggly like most dogs. I wish she were different, but I have to respect that these are her tendencies. Just as I have come to accept my own demons.

There is nothing wrong with the perfect “Hallmark” dog. I had one. I want one — more than anything. What is wrong is that we sensationalize them to the point of ostracizing the not-so-Hallmark breed. They get written off as mean unfriendly, unadoptable when they are just beings with preferences like the rest of us. Like me, Millie is on a cocktail of psych meds that have probably saved her life — mental health struggles are not unique to humans, and we need to acknowledge that.

Heck, even the sob stories of abused dogs have happy endings of becoming therapy dogs with the most gentle temperament. What we don’t hear are the stories of the dogs who don’t fare as well. We sensationalize the “good dogs,” and everyone else is invisible.

I am far from the only one who was set up for disappointment by doggie media; I am just one of the few who have started authentic conversations to dispel it. I write to feel less alone in my pain, to expose the shame I felt over not knowing how to love an imperfect dog. I talk about the things many of us dog owners feel but are too ashamed to say aloud, and that is why we need to continue the conversation.

We owe it to the underdogs and their humans everywhere.

Written by Elizabeth Weiner

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