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Is a Dog Just for Lockdown?

The chequered story of man and his best friend.

bin Ziegler/Pexels
A child with a dog
Source: bin Ziegler/Pexels

Some years ago, I included a tongue-in-cheek question in a survey I was carrying out about family life. I asked adults whether they thought the English preferred their pets or their children. The replies, which may have been as facetious as my question, were staggering. One in three said their pets.

Now I don’t take this too seriously as I have ample evidence that almost everybody I know adores their children and would do anything for them. But at the same time, I am alerted to the strong relationships that we do have with our dogs, cats, horses, or whatever quadruped we may spend time with and care for. And as almost everything seems to have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, I’m now wondering whether the wish for animal companionship has been, too.

Focusing on dogs, there is no question that the bond between them and us is nothing new. A recent article in the journal Science reported research led by Anders Bergström at the Francis Crick Institute underlining how dogs and humans have lived with each other since ancient times. It highlights the ‘inextricable bond between dogs and humans’ and how our canine friends have been domesticated for many thousands of years.

There are numerous examples throughout history and literature to support this claim. Dogs figure strongly in Greek writing as both companions and protectors. One story that particularly sticks in my mind since reading Homer’s Odyssey is how Argos waited patiently for 19 years until Odysseus, his master, returned from his travels. Another remarkable story is of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier in the mid-nineteenth century who spent 14 years standing guard of his dead master’s grave in Edinburgh until he himself died.

As well as being wonderful companions, dogs can be worth their weight in gold, or silver. Saint Bernards are renowned for their skill in rescue, and Golden Retrievers crossed with Labradors are, according to the British organisation Guide Dogs, the most successful guide dogs of all. And talking about silver, Pickles was a Collie who rose to fame in 1966 when he sniffed out the FIFA World Cup trophy, stolen four months before the international football matches had started, when out for his daily walk.

But coming back to the present, what about the role of dogs in our lives during the current pandemic? Have they been increasingly valued as our lives have become more restricted? Has being at home more, and relishing the extra company or having that extra push to go out and get exercise and keep the pounds at bay, made a difference? The evidence suggests that it has.

Indeed research in Britain by the Kennel Club found a 168 percent increase in searches for puppies between the beginning of lockdown in March and the end of May compared to the same time the previous year. During May the increase was as much as 237 percent. Adoption rates have gone up too. The London-based Battersea Dogs and Cats Home revealed that more than twice as many dogs were adopted in the week of lockdown than in either the previous week or the same week the previous year. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, dog adoptions and sales have soared similarly in America.

George and Lucy
Mungo out for a walk
Source: George and Lucy

Knowing three couples who have recently decided to buy a puppy, I hoped that they would be able to enlarge on this hypothesis. Had lockdown been a decider, I asked? ‘No’, said George and Lucy who got Mungo in August, ‘It has only been a hindrance. Lockdown has unfortunately made puppy classes much harder to find and put the price up considerably’. But they did also say that they wanted Mungo because they were working at home more and thought a dog would make the house more ‘homey’. He would also make them feel safer and, hopefully, would want to go running with them when he was a bit older.

What about the other couples? Paul and Sara had also wanted a dog long before the pandemic but said that ‘lockdown slightly pushed our timeline earlier as now we are home all day we have the capacity to train our dog properly’. Toby had already brought them much joy and encouraged them to be patient.

For Steve and Daisy, lockdown had been an even greater impetus. They’d expected to get a dog in several years once they had children to help look after it. Now, however, both anticipated working from home for the foreseeable future, and ‘this prompted us to decide to get a dog sooner than previously planned since we won’t have to leave it home alone’.

If the pandemic has affected humans, might it also have an impact on our four-legged friends? A little bit of anthropomorphism may be necessary, but it is not at all unreasonable to suggest the answer might be yes. I have been gathering lockdown diaries from older people over the last few months and have encountered several reports of changes in animal behaviour. In each case, the dog, or sometimes the cat, had become more friendly and affectionate. Just like us, it seems they have their new routines and have become used to being in a human's company all day long.

But it may not all be good news. Another recent article in The Washington Post reports that new walking routes, having to avoid other dogs, and seeing strangers in masks, can be contributing to new canine anxieties, too.

Nobody knows quite where we are going in the next months, and there’s little doubt that the pandemic has contributed to some good lasting relationships between man and dog. Unfortunately, however, most things come with a downside and there’s no exception here. Not only has there been a notable increase in dog thefts over recent months as they have become more expensive and valuable, but the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Britain is also reporting that the high demand for puppies during lockdown is now being followed by the abandonment of an increasing number.

Please don't abandon me
Source: Chevanon/Pexels

The Dogs Trust, also British, is concerned that this trend may be hastened if there is a severe downturn in the economy as a result of the pandemic, and people can no longer afford to keep the dogs they’d bought, maybe on an impulse. They estimate that up to 40,000 more dogs could be abandoned and in need of support. For many years they promoted the slogan that A Dog Is for Life, not just for Christmas. Aptly, they have now amended this to A Dog Is for Life, not just for Lockdown.