The first time I ordered dog ice cream, it was awkward, largely because I didn't have a dog with me.
I was on my way home from work, and I had planned to return with Alice, my mutt who looks like an oversized Boston Terrier with a bulldog's underbite. But then the sky opened up, a massive summer-in-North-Carolina storm briefly spitting out buckets of rain. I ducked into the downtown Raleigh scoop shop Treat to get a doggie sundae to-go, trusting that Alice would be happy with the surprise.
Treat offers a one-dollar "doggie cup," a small serving of vanilla ice cream in a paper bowl or, if you don't have far to travel, a cone. But I opted for the much fancier—and, at five dollars, much more expensive—Bow Wowzer Sundae, a three-scoop dessert of Maple View Farms vanilla topped with bacon bits (from one of those plastic containers with the red caps) and a Pawlee's biscuit, a North Carolina-made, grain-free version of a Milk-Bone. Treat's sole employee didn't seem interested in talking to the dogless person who only wanted dog ice cream to-go, but she did offer up the assurance that it was a popular menu item.
I've been a vegetarian long enough to know that red-topper bacon bits usually consist of textured soy protein, not pork, so I resolved to give the thing a try myself. When I got home, though, my cat, Bastian, attacked the sundae himself, diving headfirst into the bowl as I rummaged around for a spoon. He surfaced only when I poked him, his stubby brown nose covered in cream and a few bits of bacon.
Funny, I thought, to sprinkle artificially flavored "bacon" dyed with Red No. 40 on a sundae of locally sourced, high-quality ingredients, even served in a compostable cup. But how should I know what dogs like?
Alice looked on patiently as I managed one bite. The sundae had melted a little during the walk home, so a very aggressive bacon-bit crunch interrupted the vanilla creaminess. It felt like sipping on a smoothie mixed with sand that tasted like overcompensating meat. Overwhelmed, I spat it out. I didn't technically inhale, so my vegetarian card remained intact.
At last, it was Alice's turn. She did not seem deterred by any textural issues. The Bow Wowzer lasted longer than expected, clocking in at a whopping two minutes of slurping. Alice ate the biscuit last, then somehow got the bowl stuck on her head. I pulled it from her nose.
Our second ice cream excursion was much less exciting, but still quite sweet. Alice and I ventured to Bruster's, a walk-up ice cream shop with locations in North Raleigh and Apex, to order a "pup cup." It is nothing more than a scoop of vanilla in a disposable container, topped by a little biscuit. Though it's all I ordered, the young woman at Bruster's insisted I take the "pup cup" at no charge. Alice devoured it in approximately thirty seconds. A half-minute of free, unbridled joy is still a pretty good deal.
After these consecutive confections, I wondered how much ice cream dogs can—or rather, should—eat. With her furiously wagging tail and saucer-sized, sugar-high eyes, Alice told me that she'd be OK if this experiment lasted forever. I reached out to a veterinarian at Wake Forest Animal Hospital for a second opinion.
"Whenever you treat your pet, it's always good to use the everything-in-moderation rule," the very astute Jenny Bennett told me. "Many dogs are lactose intolerant and will get diarrhea with too much dairy. Otherwise, plain vanilla ice cream is fine."
Bennett added that if you're not sure as to your dog's specific degree of lactose intolerance—a lesson many must learn the hard way—you should go with a dog-specific ice cream. They often contain less sugar than the human variety, and they are often dairy-free.
On that tip, Alice and I traveled to specialty pet retailer Phydeaux, where an entire chalkboard above the cash register details the store's dog-specific ice creams. I selected a box of SweetSpots, which come in two flavors: peanut butter honey and sweet potato molasses. Sweet potato felt too artisanal for a dog that rushes to eat bits of lemon rind that fall off the counter while I'm cooking, so I went with the peanut butter flavor.
SweetSpots come in little paper containers with a peel-off lid, just like Italian ice. Four servings in one box cost seven dollars. The product inside looks like Italian ice, too, but instead of cheery reds or bright yellows, the treat is an unappealing brown cube covered in thin rime. These SweetSpots, it appeared, might have been sitting around for a spell.
Before I gave the Spot to Alice, I put my tongue directly on the cube and gave it a lick, finding little flavor in the process. Resting my tongue on the ice did reveal a sort of watery peanut butter whiff. Made with all-natural ingredients, fortified with whey protein, and enriched with live yogurt cultures, SweetSpots seem like they're made for the type of parent who bakes a dessert chock full of zucchini and calls it a brownie.
Alice liked it, but not as much as she likes ice cream—smart dog.
For Alice's last freebie, I contemplated Locopops' Pup Pop, a rawhide stick surrounded by peanut butter, banana, and yogurt. It sounded a little too much like the SweetSpot, though, so instead we ventured to Sunni Sky's, an always-slammed shop off the highway in Angier. Though there are 130 homemade flavors for humans, there's only one for dogs. The Sunni Sky's "doggie mix" is vanilla-flavored milkshake base served in a Styrofoam cup that's about as big as your palm. It costs a dollar.
When I called to inquire about the mix, a staff member warned me that dogs "do actually get brain freezes" from the treat. It's "best if you pace them," the shop said.
Alice doesn't believe much in pacing, but she did take it slow enough to finish the treat in just under a minute. She then sat obediently, looking cute and making eye contact so as to lick the drips off the shirts and legs of any child who wandered up to pet her.
Her brain, it seemed, worked just fine.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Puppy Bowl"