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R.I.P., Spot

As man’s best friend has started to be treated more like man’s offspring, dog names have gone human

After browsing this year’s list of the most popular dog names, I was struck by some glaring omissions. I couldn’t find a Rex, Taffy or Fido on there. There is no Linus, Spot or Rover. Those names are gone — and, it turns out, they have been for a while.

What has emerged in their place is a list of names that any expecting couple might draw from, a mix of Victorian-era and biblical stalwarts like Charlie, Cooper and Tobey for males and Sadie, Maggie and Chloe for females. When the annual list of the most popular dog names is nearly interchangeable with the most popular baby names, you know society has reached a tipping point. The status of a dog in many homes has moved beyond mere domestication into something far more hallowed.

“Dogs really are the surrogate child, and they can postpone things in life,” says John Homan, author of What’s a Dog For?. Homan’s book focuses on the anthropomorphism of man’s best friend— a relatively new social phenomenon that is the subject of much debate. Unlike chimpanzees, the closest species to humans in the evolutionary chain, dogs “have a kind of emotional intelligence that is more similar to the way we think,” Homans says. But the reasons, as his book details, extend well beyond neuroscience and into demographics.

Birthrates in the United States dipped significantly after the recession, and have only recently showed signs of rebounding. Meanwhile, pet ownership is at an all-time high.

This is not a coincidence.

As people wait longer to have kids, they often look to pets to provide a companionship and a sense of family. And many are happy to spend their disposable income on these furry surrogates. By some estimates, this canine-industrial complex is worth more than $60 billion. Think of the most absurd artisanal dog treat and it probably already exists. This has dramatically transformed what were once fundamental tenets of the dog/owner dynamic. I know this because I unwittingly became part of this subset.

After spending my early adulthood spurning the entreaties of almost every dog I encountered, two years ago I found myself — in a span of several months — falling for a surly Chihuahua/Basenji named Bobby London. Then I promptly lost him, after mistakenly leaving a side door open at my girlfriend’s house. Despite a search that lasted months and included thousands of fliers, a pet detective, a psychic and several A-list celebrities, we never found Bobby.

The fallout from this was wrenching. The death or loss of a child is considered one of the most stressful events that a relationship can endure, and often triggers a breakup or divorce. If the forces of pet anthropomorphizing apply, shouldn’t that spell doom for my relationship?

Thankfully it didn’t. The savior of our relationship came a few months later in the form of another 22-pound mutt of dubious provenance. For weeks he remained nameless as we combed through sites like iDogNames and Bowwow — in fact, there is an entire dog-naming cottage industry offering suggestions, etymologies and more. And though these sites provide more information than you’ll ever need, after a few more weeks we still couldn’t decide.

The weight of choosing the right name only seemed to grow with time. With Bobby, I had proven myself a derelict custodian. This new nameless creature was my shot at redemption. Mingling with the other owners at our local dog park only upped the stakes. Our unnamed dog ran with Hopper, wrestled with Uma and flirted with Fran and Marcel.

We canvassed our friends and experimented with a couple of options, but nothing seemed to stick. Then I landed on a helpful instructional article. A name, evidently, should have one or two syllables; shouldn’t sound similar to a command; and, if possible, should have a crisp and commanding consonant.

And then we landed on it: Wesley.

Looking back, it seems crazy how much we stressed over this. We could have chosen any name really. It wouldn’t have mattered — certainly not to Wesley. You know how little regard they give to such things.

Kids these days.