When strict lockdown came into place in Italy and Spain, there were few excuses for going outside. Work and essential shopping were allowed, but in Spain even short walks outside for health and sanity reasons were banned. There was, however, one small loophole that could get you out of the house: walking your dog. Suddenly in Spain and Italy, dogs became a hot commodity – they were over-walked, as they were borrowed, and even rented out for steep prices, to give people a legally permissible reason to get out of the house.
Although lockdown in the UK is not as extreme, people are looking for reasons to get out more than their single sanctioned outing for exercise. And like other parts of Europe, dog-walking seems to hit a sweet spot for those becoming restless or lonely while quarantining. So, many British people are turning to dog-lending app BorrowMyDoggy – where dog-owners and dog-lovers meet.
BorrowMyDoggy essentially functions like a platonic Tinder for dogs. Owners can post profiles for their animals when they’re in need of extra help walking or dogsitting. Keen borrowers can then register their interest in a dog by “liking” it or, if they fork out for a membership fee, messaging the owner. Users then meet up to see if it’s a good fit, and if it is, owners get free dogsitting. The site has been successfully matching owners and borrowers for nearly ten years.
Oli has been on BorrowMyDoggy since 2015, first as a borrower and now as a dog owner. They are one of these users and tell me that, as soon as lockdown seemed imminent, they began to get random messages from people on the site they’d never previously spoken to asking to borrow their two rescue Lurchers.
“I definitely think people are clutching at whatever they can,” Oli says. “I’ve had friends of mine asking if they can take them out as well. I guess it’s a useful excuse to be outside and you’re less likely to be asked to move on if you appear like you’re doing something that is supposedly permissible within these new societal constraints.”
They say, though, that they ultimately found the flurry of messages strange. “It didn’t really seem to make sense to be suddenly offering to look after people’s animals you’ve never met before…. [It doesn’t seem] it’s ‘absolutely essential.’”
Twitter searches for the app show hundreds of people encouraging each other to join specifically because of the pandemic, with many hoping the presence of a dog might work as a mental health boost. Chloe, an accountant working in London, is one of these people, joining BorrowMyDoggy after being told to work from home following lockdown measures. She says that she hoped it might give her something to do during her lunch breaks and a way to occupy herself during longer evenings.
“It’s quite an unnerving time,” she tells me, via the website. “A lot of people are away from their homes and family dogs.” She herself had only just moved out of her family home when coronavrius hit the UK, leaving behind not just her parents, but also the family dog. “I am missing my long dog walks and fluffy companionship,” she tells me. “Having a dog to cuddle and reassure you is exactly what people need!”
Angelica, unlike Chloe, has been a BorrowMyDoggy member for over a year, but never ended up looking after any pets she met on the site. “When I originally joined, I had every intention of spending time with as many dogs as possible,” she says. “However, life and work gets in the way and I found it hard to schedule meetings which worked for myself and the dog owners.”
But now she says, working from home, she has a huge burst free time – time she’d like to spend finally borrowing a dog. “I thought it would be a fun opportunity,” she tells me, “even though I am aware it’s unlikely people need help with their pets during this time.”
BorrowMyDoggy’s official advice is to, essentially, stop borrowing – that people should not be meeting up to lend out their dogs unless the owners are unable to leave the house for health reasons. “In order to protect the NHS and save lives,” it says, “we all need to stay home as much as possible, and should not meet people.” However, the site has implemented no restrictions on messaging or arranging meet-ups. (BorrowMyDoggy did not reply to the New Statesman’s request for comment.)
It seems likely that, for as long as messaging is still available, borrowers will continue their attempts to find a quarantine companion. And in fact, many borrowers have posted to Twitter in just the last week saying they’d met up with a brand-new dog in the middle of lockdown. And while it seems unlikely the UK will reach the state that Italy and Spain are currently experiencing, nothing is impossible – and soon dog ownership may become one of Britain’s hot commodities, too.