They are the nation’s pet of choice, with 8.5m of them in our homes. Yet ignorant owners are giving man’s best friend a bad name. Our columnist and pooch-lover in chief calls the nation to heel.
We’re probably getting another dog. We discuss it constantly — breed, size, age, whether it will come from a rescue centre or from a breeder. The reason the second dog isn’t yet in situ is that we love our existing dog so much that it is hard to imagine having enough — or indeed any — love left over for Dog 2. Dog 1, a three-year-old soft-coated wheaten terrier called Brodie, is the epicentre of our world. If he were a king and needed a nickname, he would be the Well-Beloved, or the Much-Adored. Except he wouldn’t be a king — he’s not that kind of dog. An Afghan hound would be a king (capricious, bejewelled), and so would a lurcher (ancient, Celtic). Brodie would be a farmer, or a really kind vet in a soft flannel shirt, with curly hair.
We have plenty of children: Brodie is not a substitute for anything. He is pure dog. He is magnificently himself. He is brilliant at everything. If you want to lie about the sofa on a Sunday, he will lie about with you, occasionally emitting a fat, contented sigh. If you’re in the mood for a long walk, he is the best companion imaginable; he explodes with joy, going, “Whoa, look at these leaves,” or, “Woohoo, I’m running! And now I’m running some more!” or, “Man, I love grass so much! I’m running on the grass! Life is amazing!” in a way that makes you feel thrummingly alive and grateful, even in the sheeting rain.
It’s not just me who feels this passionate devotion. Britain is at the peak of its enduring love affair with dogs: they recently overtook cats as the nation’s favourite pet — 24% of British households have dogs (there are 8.5m of them), compared with 17% who have cats (7.5m), according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association . They’re all over your television screen, both in dedicated doggy programmes such as Paul O’Grady’s award-winning ITV series For the Love of Dogs, and increasingly as the critter du jour in adverts, where they are used to denote friendliness, trustworthiness and honesty. They bestride social media like puppy colossi, where some are superstars with huge Instagram followings (my favourite accounts are @thiswildidea on Instagram and @dog_rates on Twitter).
You could say that dogs were having a moment — except that, to devoted dog owners, dogs are always having a moment, and have been for thousands of years, ever since hunter-gatherer man domesticated the grey wolf; or, according to another theory, the clever wolf, knowing a good thing when it saw one, domesticated itself. Either way, research suggests that dogs may have been domesticated as long as 30,000 years ago.
Breeds as we know them today — dogs bred for specific purposes and to carry out particular jobs — were created thousands of years later and are, of course, still being created today, though these days more for a pleasing appearance than for usefulness. It’s good to bear in mind that some of these newer breeds are still a work in progress. (If you are getting a dog, this matters: never go on looks alone, and remember that cross-breeds will still have inherited characteristics from both their parents — not just the parent they resemble most.)
You’ll live together for up to 15 years: don’t choose your dog because you saw one like it doing something cute on YouTube
In what often feels like an increasingly frightening world, dogs represent stability and goodness. They make us feel better just by being near us, not least because they seem unerringly able to pick up on our feelings. This isn’t just some sweet, nebulous notion: we know for a fact that specially trained dogs have a beneficial therapeutic effect on all sorts of people, from the elderly in care homes to young children at school. They can help kids with autism, service personnel with PTSD, people with disabilities, and have found to be helpful to people with anxieties or depression. If they can do all that, just imagine how life-enhancing they can be in a bog-standard family home.
There’s a problem, though, with this great outpouring of dog love: it isn’t necessarily good news for dogs themselves. There seem to be an awful lot of badly behaved dogs around, and dog-rescue homes are permanently full to bursting point — try Googling “rescue dog near me” for a depressing sample, or just watch an episode of O’Grady’s aforementioned show, which follows the journey of various dogs through Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and into their new lives.
In the year to October 2015, the Stray Dog Survey carried out by the Dogs Trust charity found that more than 47,000 dogs had been left in council dog pounds and never claimed by their owners. Between 2014 and 2015, 14 stray dogs a day were put to sleep by the UK’s local authorities — 5,142 in total. The Dogs Trust itself reported last year that it received 120 calls a day from dog owners wanting to give up their pet. This seems to sit oddly with the fact that every other person you meet has, or wants, or is about to get, a dog. But in fact it’s not odd at all. The outpouring of dog love is real. Prospective owners’ expectations? There’s the rub.
So much in our world is easy and instant. But you can’t just “get” a dog and carry on as before — or rather, the fact that people do just that is part of the problem. Like the ad says, deciding to get a dog is a serious commitment — your dog will be with you for up to 15 years, all being well. Owning a dog is hard work, at least initially. Above all, it requires time, the one thing all of us are short of.
People want lovely dogs like the ones in films (Marley & Me took £180m at the box office) or like the well-behaved dogs they see on television. In the process, they don’t always remember — or even know, to be fair — that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Those dogs are lovely because they have been properly trained. The widely held assumption that you just get a dog, and that it will somehow train itself and fit into your life effortlessly, leads to disastrous outcomes. This is under-reported, because people want a dog so much that they skim over the inconvenient logistics, like the fact that dogs thrive on human company and strongly dislike being left on their own. Dogs thrive on time and attention. This does not sit well at all with the fact that most people go out to work.
When I lived in the middle of London, a stone’s throw from two enormous dog-magnet parks, I met badly behaved dogs every day — loads of them. I became convinced that there were more badly behaved dogs than there used to be. It’s hard to prove this, but when I was a child, a teenager and a young woman — always living near one of London’s green spaces — dogs seemed to potter about happily alongside owners who could control them. In recent years, that has no longer seemed as true.
The other thing that struck me was that a lot of the naughty dogs I was encountering daily had nothing to do with the badly behaved dogs of yore. Those had thuggish owners who wanted thuggish dogs. This new lot of naughty dogs had very nice-seeming, mildly panicked owners, who would apologise profusely for their dog’s behaviour while simultaneously appearing completely incapable of doing anything about it.
Sometimes this was something really basic, like not being able to call their dog to heel: the dog would be pelting about, freaking out small children and older people, leaping up, licking their appalled faces, and the owner would be in the distance, wringing her hands and calling out: “I’m so sorry! He won’t come back when I call him!” Sometimes it would be something more alarming, such as watching a very large dog go charging up to someone who was clearly frightened and knocking them over, while, again, the owner was a pointlessly shouting pinprick in the distance. And then there were a whole slew of behaviours towards other dogs: aggression, biting, the kind of fighting that has nothing to do with playing, and, on one hideous occasion, a little dog being maimed.
Even on the lead, in a street, there were insanely yappy dogs spoiling everyone’s time as they tried to have a coffee at a pavement cafe. There were dogs who growled at people as they passed by, making toddlers burst into anxious tears. There were dogs who seemed a bit mad, straining at the leash, bulging at the eyes, intimidating people and causing them to cross the road. There were dogs tied up outside a shop, barking for 20 minutes. These dogs were a pain. Worse, they made even well-disposed people anxious. When people who are normally on their side start crossing the road to avoid them, that’s bad news for dogs.
A happy dog makes for a happy owner, and vice versa. All of the dog “problems” I saw in the park every day seemed to me easily and simply avoidable. It’s not only a question of training, though in my view training is essential. The initial problem, often, is that people just “get a dog” without putting much thought into the vitally important detail of what kind of dog it is and what its needs are. They pick a breed purely because they like the look of it, without finding out about that breed’s characteristics — and then, for instance, they end up in a small flat with a largish dog that’s traditionally (by which I mean, for centuries) been bred to work, ie, to carry out particular tasks.
The dog is incredibly energetic and clever. It’s eagerly awaiting instructions. None are forthcoming. The flat is small and the owners go out to work. The neighbour pops in and takes the dog for a quick trot round the block a couple of times, but the dog is from a breed — let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s a beautiful, super-fashionable, highly intelligent vizsla, that can, and wants to, run for miles and make itself useful. (Vizslas are pointers, initially bred to flush out game.)
None of this happens. The owners come back to a trashed sitting room and an anxious, distressed dog who is nevertheless crazily pleased to see them. He’s pooed and weed everywhere (obviously: he can’t use the loo). But they’ve been at work all day, they’re knackered — and now they’re angry with the dog. The dog they shouldn’t have got in the first place, since their lifestyle is wildly incompatible with this particular breed’s primal and immutable needs.
A professional dog trainer I know is constantly being hired by people who feel that their longed-for dog is a nightmare and that there must be something “wrong” with it. In reality, the dog is being a dog, and the humans are the problem. She has evolved various tactful ways of gently conveying this. But most people can’t afford one-on-one dog training: they’re stuck at the “my dog is a nightmare” stage and can’t get beyond it. This is why it is crucially important to match your dog’s needs with your own, and not to dive in blindly because you think sighthounds, to pick one example, look marvellously elegant. They’re lovely dogs, but they have their own needs. All breeds do. The good news is that if you meet those needs, almost any dog will make a wonderful pet. Ignore those needs, and you’ll have a problem.
The whole situation is made even worse when dissatisfied new owners then decide to “punish” the dog, which was already baffled and is now frightened to boot. It’s the beginning of a really unhappy scenario. “We’ve got a very naughty dog,” the owners sigh. Actually, it’s the dog that has very naughty owners, but it’s too kind to tell them — unless their ineptitude tips over into cruelty and makes the dog mad, in which case, well, we’ve all seen the headlines. It is dangerous to live with an animal that you can’t control or even manage. Dogs want to be good, because what they want more than anything in the world is to please you. It is the new owners’ job to show them how to do this.
The whole “punishment” question is a vale of tears in itself. In a nutshell: the idea that dogs, which are closely related to wolves, need to be “shown who’s boss” so that they “know their place” in the “pack” is as outdated and discredited as the idea of corporal punishment for children. Recent research shows that all of the thinking that led to the notion of the pack needing an alpha was based on chronically flawed evidence, including observing wolves in zoos rather than wolves in the wild. Needless to say, animals in cages don’t behave like animals in their natural habitat. You wouldn’t make authoritative statements about what polar bears are like on the evidence of one tragic example, in a too-small enclosure, in broiling heat, rocking with misery. This is why, today, no respectable dog trainer uses anything other than rewards-based, as opposed to punishment-based, training methods.
This information has taken a long time to trickle down to the dog-owning public, however, despite the success of the academic John Bradshaw’s brilliant and gripping book, In Defence of Dogs, which explains it all in minute detail and which I could not recommend to you more highly. To me, it’s very simple: if you wouldn’t hit or deliberately humiliate a child, you shouldn’t hit or humiliate a dog. Dogs are like people. We learnt only the other week what dog owners have known for a long time: that dogs understand what you say to them, and that they process speech in a similar way to humans — meaningful words with the left hemisphere of their brains and intonation with the right hemisphere.
To me, it’s very simple: if you wouldn’t hit or deliberately humiliate a child, you shouldn’t hit or humiliate a dog
The same research, written up by Hungarian scientists in the journal Science, found that dogs experience a sense of reward only when both our words and our intonation indicate praise. Yet another reason to go for rewards-based training methods, which are brilliantly effective and which even quite small children can carry out, which is satisfying for both child and animal. I personally don’t go a bundle on the idea of dogs as child substitutes, but that shouldn’t invalidate the fact that those people have the right idea. Dogs, like children, need to be shown how to behave in the context of your home life. Too many potential dog owners forget this. This is sad for the owners and their families, extremely sad for the dog itself, and sad for doghood in general. Bad owners give good dogs a bad name, and it’s a particular shame because obviously nobody sets out to be a bad owner, or to have a miserable time with their dog.
I don’t want to make it sound more complicated than it is. Dog ownership is primarily about joy, and once you’ve got going it is simple, straightforward and intensely pleasurable. But it really pays to build your foundations carefully, because dogs like routine. The most important decision of all is whether your lifestyle can accommodate a dog. No matter how badly you want one — where problems occur, they disproportionately do so because the idea of a dog turned out to be far more manageable than the reality. As for the very vexed question of leaving dogs home alone all day: it is not ideal by any means; and my strong recommendation is that you hire a dog walker at the very least. Dogs can be trained to be left without exploding with distress, but this training needs to be minutely incremental, and carried out over a sensible period of time (ie, not one lone weekend).
The second most important decision concerns breeds. You’re going to live together for up to 15 years: don’t choose your dog solely because you saw one like it on YouTube doing something funny and you thought it looked cute (this sounds inane, but you’d be surprised).
The third thing to consider is that, as with anything to do with love, you only get out what you put in. You can have a perfectly civil relationship with your dog, or you can be mad about each other. The success, or otherwise, of the relationship depends entirely on treating your dog with kindness, respect and enforcing boundaries.
To achieve that, training is essential. All of this takes more time and effort than you had perhaps anticipated. But put in the legwork and, my goodness, what rewards! If you’re chilly, your dog will keep you warm, like a fur blanket. If you’re happy, he will share in your joy. If you’re annoyed about something and you tell him, he will listen sympathetically, and the look in his eyes will make you feel better. He will know when someone is ill, and quietly go and lie by their side, deliberately tamping down his natural exuberance. (When my daughter Nell was recuperating from surgery, Brodie did not leave her side for two weeks except to eat and do his business. He practically tiptoed.)
Above all, dogs are made of kindness. This is why people love them the way they do. Dogs are absolutely uncomplicated and pure. They have good, great big hearts, no side, no hidden dark chamber, no secret bad character. Proximity to a good, great big heart is excellent for anyone, young or old, married or single, happy or sad, introverted or outgoing. I often feel, when people are sad or lonely, that dogs should be prescribed like medicine. Dogs know what love means, and they never play games. Dogs make you feel that the world is beautiful.
SIX DOG COMMANDMENTS
- If you want a pedigree dog, do your research regarding breed characteristics. If the breed you pick is niche, remember that gene pools are finite. There’s an element of the dog aristocracy endlessly interbreeding here. Pedigree dogs can be prone to health difficulties in a way that random (as opposed to designer) crossbreeds — mongrels, or mutts — seldom are. There’s an awful lot to be said for a mutt. Which isn’t remotely to say that all pedigree dogs have issues, but speak to your breeder
- Lots of people think that rescue centres are full of dangerous or damaged dogs. This is only partially true. They’re also full of wonderful, loving dogs that make lovely pets. Charities such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the Dogs Trust are brilliant at matching breeds with families
- Vet bills are astronomical, even for the smallest procedure. Get pet insurance
- In the old days, dogs used to thrive on table scraps and bones. They now eat a highly processed diet that’s like giving your children Haribo for breakfast — with all the health and behavioural problems (and digestive issues) that that implies. There are easier and healthier ways — raw feeding, for example
- A good dog training class is invaluable and can make all the difference
- Never buy a dog from an ad or from a pet shop. The dog’s provenance may conceivably be legit, but chances are they’ve sourced their stock from a puppy farm. A puppy farm sounds bucolic and sweet, but it is neither. Imagine a human adoption centre where every baby on offer was bred on demand, in captivity, from an exhausted, neglected mother who was binned when she couldn’t have any more. Puppy farms are deeply sinister — think battery hens. They only keep going because people don’t realise how horrendous they are. See pupaid.org (warning: distressing)