Tater Tot Credit: courtesy Michelle Kundrat

When Michelle Kundrat was a freshman in college, almost ten years ago, she worked at a now-defunct Lincoln Park dog boutique called Pawsh Puppies. There she sold hybrids, specialty breeds, and otherwise “fashionable” dogs—often at hefty price tags that started at $1,000.

It’s also where she and her then-boyfriend and coworker got a tiny dog of their own: a ten-pound Maltipoo named Tater Tot.

“He was in my store for maybe about a day or two or three days, and I just kept feeling that urge of ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want him to be sold,'” says Kundrat.

At Pawsh Puppies, Tater Tot was considered a teacup dog. Breeding organizations such as the American Kennel Club don’t officially recognize the teacup as a separate designation; the term is used to describe dogs that are specifically bred to be smaller than average. Because teacups were trendy thanks to Paris Hilton and her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, they were very lucrative for the store; Tater Tot’s price tag was $1,500. Kundrat convinced the owner to sell Tater Tot to her for what the store bought him for—$900, still a substantial amount of money for a college student—and that was it.

“When I was 18 years old, I thought oh, having a small dog . . . I can carry him everywhere,” says Kundrat. “I feel like that’s also when Paris Hilton was in her prime.”

Since the early 2000s, when Hilton popularized tiny dogs that fit in tiny purses (helped by Bruiser, Elle Woods’s designer-wearing Chihuahua in Legally Blonde), teacup dogs have enjoyed a reputation as expensive and frivolous that has largely gone unchallenged. And Hilton has only doubled down on this association in recent years, building a $325 million home just for her tiny Pomeranians.

But, aside from their cuteness, there are a lot of practical benefits to having a small dog in the city, even without a special multimillion- dollar doghouse. It’s easier to rent an apartment, they take up less space, and you can take them almost anywhere you go without them pulling you down the street. Many small dog breeds are also hypoallergenic, and they tend to live much longer than larger dogs, who age more rapidly, according to research done by Cornelia Kraus, Samuel Pavard, and Daniel E.L. Promislow at the University of Chicago.

It wasn’t until after Kundrat left Pawsh Puppies and started LEAD Rescue, a 501(c)(3) foster-based dog rescue, that she began to suspect that Tater Tot came from a puppy mill and not a home breeder, as she had been told. “Any GOOD breeder would never sell their puppies in pet stores,” she writes in an e-mail.

According to the National Humane Education Society, breed manipulation—especially as it pertains to teacup dogs—can result in serious health risks including breathing problems, brain deformities, and higher rates of injury. This is especially prominent in puppy mills, which breed high-fashion, high-selling dogs for the consumer market.

A city ordinance was put in place in 2015 in order to stop stores from sourcing dogs from puppy mills and instead encourage them to use pounds, humane societies, and shelters. Pawsh Puppies had not been in violation of the ordinance, as it had closed in 2010. But a 2018 investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed that three high-end pet stores in Chicago found a loophole that allowed them to get dogs from rescues that have substantial relationships with commercial dealers and breeders.

Among them was Pocket Puppies Boutique in Lincoln Park. Celebrities like Steven Tyler, Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech, and Chicago Bulls player Cristiano Felício have gotten small dogs with big price tags—often starting at $1,200—from Pocket Puppies.

Pocket Puppies did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But small dogs don’t have to cost a small fortune. In reality, small dogs take up a lot of space in shelters and rescues.

“People think that small dogs don’t end up in shelters or rescues, [but] they absolutely do,” says Kundrat. “I can tell you firsthand that that’s probably the most breeds that I get are owner surrenders of small, fluffy dogs.”

Both Kundrat and Lindsay Griffith, advisory board director at the Live Like Roo Foundation, an organization that supports animals diagnosed with cancer through preventative packages and medical grants, have seen small dogs that were surrendered at shelters because they were old. But their adorable appearance helped them get into foster homes or adopted.

“You can have a 17- or 18-year-old Chihuahua,” says Griffith. “I just adopted a ten-year-old Pomeranian [from a shelter] and we got her [heart] murmur checked out—she’s going to live forever.”

Griffith’s dog is ironically named Fancy. Griffith says Fancy lives a “ridiculous dog life,” which includes flying with her to multiple states for work and getting dog massages.

When it came to planning Live Like Roo’s upcoming fund-raiser, Griffith wanted to have fun with the posh reputation of tiny dogs as well as celebrate those that came from rescues and shelters.

So she planned a tiny dog tea party at the Drake Hotel, where dogs under 20 pounds are encouraged to get dressed up in their finest tiny tuxes and ballgowns: the embodiment of fun and shallow frivolousness with purpose. She plans on giving Fancy a full coat of dog-safe pink dye for the occasion.

“Tea at the Drake is the most iconic thing we could think of,” says Griffith. “I love the idea of floofy dresses, wearing fascinators, and bringing our dogs to high tea.”

Tater Tot is familiar with the finer things too. He attended Kundrat’s wedding to her former Pawsh Puppies coworker. Their only requirement for the venue was that it allowed dogs, she says.

Now, Tater Tot is approaching his tenth birthday. He spends his days with new rescue dogs to help prepare them for foster homes. Kundrat calls him her “dainty little prince.”

She adds, “I think that everyone should have a small dog in their life because it would bring them so much joy to know that something so small can love something so large as a human and not be scared or intimidated by us.”   v

Small Dog Tea Party
Sun 8/25, 1 PM, Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton, livelikeroo.org, $60 adult, $40 child, $20 dog.