There is a line in J. R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir My Dog Tulip that I think about frequently. After explaining Tulip’s temperament, Ackerley pauses and writes: “It is necessary to add that she is beautiful.”
The reason this comes to mind is mostly divorced from its context; Ackerley’s line follows a gentle description of a dog whom others might see as not very well-behaved, but whom Ackerley understands deeply. He mentions Tulip’s beauty right before the fact that she does not like to be petted by strangers. And who would?
But apart from being touching, and a stunning turn of phrase — it is necessary to add that she is beautiful — the line pops into my head frequently because my own dog is very beautiful, which I mention as a brag. When telling a story about him it’s always in the back of my mind: It is necessary to add that he is beautiful. When making an appointment at the vet: It is necessary to add that he is beautiful. When ordering a small coffee: It is necessary to add that he — he meaning my dog, did I tell you I have a dog? — is beautiful.
Because he is beautiful, a shiny black Lab mix with large amber eyes and a romantic soul, he frequently receives compliments. This is not a problem for him; he deserves them and should be complimented (plus, it’s assumed that he does not know how to speak and is therefore not expected to respond). The response is left to me, his friend. And what do I say? Well, that’s the issue. The compliments are an even bigger problem in winter, when he begrudgingly wears his handsome little coat. It’s blue with a fuzzy white collar, fitted and warm, and he hates it. But when I finally trick him into wearing it, he’s a handsome little coat man. And who can resist complimenting a handsome little coat man?
I’ve thought about it and it seems to me that there are two options when responding to a dog compliment, neither of them very good: “Thank you!” and “I know.” They can be stretched — “Thank you so much! Isn’t he a handsome coat man?” and “I know, I love his dog face” — but I think those are the basic components. Either you’re left to thank the stranger who complimented your dog as if you had anything to do with his looks, or you’re left to just agree, which seems a little rude. So what do you do?
The how-to-accept-a-dog-compliment issue extends, I’ll have you know, beyond the unsociable corners of my own psyche. A Google search proves this is something plaguing others. “Silly question: What do you say when someone compliments your dog?” asks someone on Yahoo! Answers. “Do I say thank you? Because I had nothing to do with them being cute; they did that on their own (or their doggie parents did it). We didn’t even pick them based on their looks; we just got dogs that needed homes. So is ‘thank you’ OK, or would you say something else?”
Jewel Staite, an actress who was on the show Firefly, tweeted about it once.
So what’s the answer then? A Quora user responding to the question reasons that because you take care of the dog, paying for his food and toys, etc., you’re allowed to accept compliments on his behalf. “So by the time the dog is 10 or 12 years old,” she wrote, “you put about $100,000 into it. It’s $100,000. That deserves a compliment.” Hm. It’s certainly an interesting estimate of the amount of money to spend on a dog in 12 years.
The “Best Answer” on Yahoo is, “Say thank’s and agree with them because you love them (the dog that is) :p” I find this the most agreeable of all the answers I’ve found online, but I thought it might help to also reach out to professionals.
First I spoke with Charlotte Reed, author of The Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Dog Etiquette. She explained that she has an English Toy Spaniel, and that she’ll usually offer a bit of information about the breed in response to compliments (or backhanded compliments, like “that’s an interesting-looking dog …”). “It’s the cousin of the dog Charlotte had on Sex and the City” was one of her examples. For my dog I would say, “Actually he’s a little poet trapped in a dog body.”
She continued, “Just be polite, say ‘oh, it’s a breed that was popular in the 1930s,’ or whatever, and keep moving.” She also noted that it’s important to assess the complimenter’s body language before engaging; protect yourself and your dog before your reputation as a polite compliment-taker. “You don’t want to be in a threatening situation, especially at night.” I agree — please be careful.
Next, because I assume the royals know exactly what to say when someone compliments their dog, I spoke over email with Myka Meier, a British-American etiquette expert and founder of etiquette school Beaumont Etiquette. (Beaumont Etiquette tells me she “was trained by a former member of The Queen’s Household,” which indeed sounds very royal.) “If someone compliments your dog, it’s second-handedly a compliment to you, and important to acknowledge their kind words,” she wrote.
“If someone says ‘You have the cutest dog!’ or ‘Aren’t you the cutest little thing?’ You could reply with ‘That’s so kind of you to say — she is pretty great.’ This way you are not just saying thank you as if it was a compliment to you, but you still are recognizing the gesture.” A good option, and I have to assume it is, indeed, what Meghan Markle would say: That’s so kind of you to say, he is pretty great. (Meghan Markle has a boy dog.)
Finally, I emailed with Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert who calls himself Mister Manners, a moniker that would also be a good nickname for my dog. First he assured me that accepting a compliment not intended for you directly, but rather for someone or something associated with you, is “a common situation.” Thank you, Mister Manners.
Farley told me that even though it might seem selfish to absorb a compliment on behalf of someone else, it is up to us to do so if they aren’t present or able to reply themselves. “A simple ‘thank you so much’ is perfectly fine,” he said. “If that feels too bare or awkward for some reason, you might consider: ‘Thank you for saying so. I think he/she/they is/are pretty wonderful, too.’”
Thank you for saying so, my dog makes me want to die every day with how much I love him; I am going to explode imminently with affection. Farley continued, “In the case of a dog, that might be followed up with an informational statement, such as, ‘She’s a rescue. We believe she’s poodle-schnauzer mix.’”
“Ultimately, the complimenter is presenting us with the chance to break free from our daily bubble and interact pleasantly, if briefly, with a well-meaning fellow New Yorker,” he said. “If only we all had more opportunities to do so.”