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9 November 2021

Why we need to talk about dogs

A dog is for life not just for lockdown, they said when the pandemic began. Not everyone listened.

By Rachel Cunliffe

This is not a tirade against dogs. I promise. I know there’s a perception that cat lovers hate all dogs and vice versa, but I would like to state for the record that I have nothing against other people’s canine companions. All pet preferences are valid, your dog is OK.

Except, perhaps, when it isn’t. Tragically, on Monday (8 November) it was reported that a ten-year-old boy in Caerphilly, Wales had died after being attacked by a dog. Armed police “destroyed” the dog (a truly hideous turn of phrase), which was described by a resident as having been “a nuisance on the estate for a bit of a time”. Investigations continue.

It is obviously unfair to draw sweeping conclusions from one particularly awful case. A study from January 2021 looked at rates of fatality by dog across Europe and found just 56 in the UK between 1995 and 2016 – around 2.6 a year. To put that in context, there were approximately nine million pet dogs in the UK in 2018, before the pandemic puppy-buying spree. The vast majority of owners are conscientious and responsible; the vast majority of dogs are agreeable and well-trained and no threat to anyone.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about dogs recently as I dodge excitable puppies barking and wrestling on Hampstead Heath – or rather, about the ticking time bomb that is the lockdown dog boom. Figures from March 2021 from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association suggest 3.2 million British households got a pet over the course of the pandemic, with registrations for new puppies jumping 26 per cent between April and June 2020.

[See also: The pandemic has shown why the ban on pets for renters must end]

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It goes without saying that not all these budding dog owners did their homework. Even relatively early on in the pandemic, in August 2020, a Kennel Club survey of new owners found one in five admitted they “hadn’t fully considered the long-term commitment or responsibility that comes with having a dog”, and “less than half (45 per cent) researched puppy training before getting their dog”.

No wonder, then, that demand for dog trainers is now exceeding supply, with puppy schools booked up as owners belatedly try to discipline their out-of-control pets. Even owners who did their best have found the lack of stimulation during lockdown means their under-socialised pooches are struggling to adapt now things have opened up. It’s hard to blame a confused dog for attacking a motorbike or scooter or pushchair when it’s never seen one before and doesn’t know how to react.

We don’t know, of course, whether the dog in Caerphilly was a pandemic impulse purchase or not. But any trainer will tell you that bad behaviour is harder to correct once the animal is no longer a puppy – meaning the problem of aggressive, disobedient dogs is only going to get worse. As people start going into the office more, many of these dogs will be left alone, leading to further stress and problematic behaviour. I know at least two people who are now grappling with the question of how their lockdown dog fits into their post-pandemic life.

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Anecdotes do not equal data, but the figures speak for themselves: the Dogs Trust charity said in September it had seen a 35 per cent increase in calls inquiring about giving up a dog, the BBC reported, while “traffic to the ‘giving up your dog’ pages of their website had increased more than 180 per cent in July compared to pre-pandemic visits in February 2021”. A dog is for life, not just for lockdown: a phrase I heard repeatedly in spring 2020. Clearly not everyone listened.

I also can’t help but wonder, as I receive my 100th email of the day on Cop26 and the global fight against climate change, whether all the people who paid £1,900 for a puppy fully considered the environmental implications. As the comic musical genius Tim Minchin so provocatively puts it, “your dog has a bigger carbon footprint than a four-wheel drive” (although he also continues, “so does your baby, maybe you oughta trade him in for a Prius”). The carbon “pawprint” of an average-sized dog is 770kg per year, mostly as a result of their food, and that’s before you even get to the threat they pose to wildlife – contributing to the extinction of wild species. (In the interests of impartiality, I will say that cats are even worse when it comes to destroying wildlife than dogs are, although their carbon pawprint is lower.)

None of this is to say that dogs – or dog owners – are bad. I have written before about the healing power of pets and their importance for mental health and companionship. With human contact banned for months by Covid restrictions, our pets became a crucial lifeline – sometimes a matter of life and death. Their environmental impact must be weighed against the joy they bring us and the positive effect they have on our lives, or, if you’re cynical, the money they save the NHS by reducing obesity and helping alleviate depression.

But I do think there will be a reckoning when it comes to lockdown dogs. You can’t just introduce millions of baby animals, which have the potential to cause real damage when they grow up, into households that aren’t prepared for them, at a time of huge national stress, and expect them to assimilate smoothly. Some people will give their beloved companions up; others will persist with fractious, highly strung creatures that are unhappy and unsuited to modern urban life. And as a society, of dog lovers or not, we will have to figure out a way to deal with that.

[See also: The row over Afghan pets shows the UK’s animal obsession has gone too far]

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