An 1856 article in New York Times complains that only “very young ladies” could keep pets without censure, even employing them as “diplomatic agents” during courtship. It’s not clear what such uses entailed.
In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850), Dora Spenlow’s pet Spaniel, Jip, challenges and menaces (to the best of his little dog abilities) the besotted David. Perhaps the dog was useful as a way to keep a too-ardent lover at bay.
“[L]adies of mature age, married or single,” however, lack the courtship excuse. These pathetic women who insist on keeping a pet need to be “brought to a sense of shame for the rather low level at which they have arrived” (“Pets, and What They Cost” 411).
A famous literary example of a dog used for courtship is actually wielded by a male character: James Chettam, of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874), offers a small Maltese as a courtship gift to a reluctant Dorothea. In rejecting “one of nature’s most naïve toys,” Dorothea explains that she does not like “creatures… bred merely as pets” because they strike her as “too helpless,” “too frail,” and “parasitic” (Eliot 34). Although the narrator suggests that this opinion was formed “under the heat of irritation” (Eliot 34), her reasoning is cogent enough: she would prefer a relationship with a creature with a “sou[l] something like our own” that can “either carry on [its] own little affairs or can be companions to us” (Eliot 34)—like the burly St. Bernard, Monk, which Dorothea does engage. In this choice, she echoes a centuries-old virulence against lapdogs that would feature more prominently by the end of the nineteenth century.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London; Glasgow: Collins’ Clear-Type Press, 1852. Google Book Search. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.
“Pets, and What They Cost.” Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art (May-Aug.). Ed. W.H. Bidwell. New York: No. 5 Beekman St., 1856. 410-5.