Opinions are like dogs. It appears everyone has one. And if you have a dog, particularly a dog acquired during the pandemic, chances are you have heard a lot of unsolicited opinions. So, let’s start with facts.
According to a 2021 report by Animal Medicines Australia, “Pets and the Pandemic: A social research snapshot of pets and people in the COVID-19 era”, Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of pet ownership, with more than 30 million pets nationally. During the pandemic, it increased by about 10 per cent, and more than 68 per cent of households now have a fur buddy.
The report reveals that Australian homes have welcomed more than one million dogs since 2019. Mine was one of those homes and, judging by the amount of unpicked-up poop on my neighbourhood’s streets, most of the others live in the City of Melbourne (come on people, just put a roll of poo bags in your pocket).
So why did so many of us spontaneously succumb to puppy brain? My opinion is that we did it with the best intentions. Dogs come pre-loaded with all the things we craved before we became numb to the shock of the world being in a pickle – companionship, an imperative to exercise, diversion from dread, and a golden ticket to be allowed out of the house during lockdown. They promised fun and love to an otherwise miserable society; they offered a chance to restore routine and order, to make something good from a bad situation. While others tried to perfect sourdough, I set out to create a well-trained, happy dog.
“I’ve always wanted a puppy, and now I’m working from home it’s the perfect time to raise one,” was my chipper thought on a road trip between lockdowns two and three – or was it three and four? – in late 2020. As I scrolled through a gallery of plumply cute Staffordshire bull terrier pups on a Canberran community social media page, I felt I’d met my match. Melbourne shelters had already been cleared out and the value of breeders’ dogs had risen faster than an ASX bull market to up to $8000 a unit in Victoria, no matter what the breed. I’d heard stories of pups flown in from Darwin, and of intricate distribution channels smuggling adoptees across state borders. It was as if we had a list of things we needed to get us through lockdown – toilet paper, check; hand sanitiser, check; spaghetti, check. Oh, and a dog.
My way is not the ideal way to purchase a dog. But I felt compelled. And my goodness how I love her. Like Rick (Astley) rolled, I’m never gonna give her up. But we have issues.
Within the first few months, people – strangers mostly – began telling me, with the absolute certainty of the ignorant, that I would surrender her. Some no-idea-who-that-guy-is would heckle me in public, barely breaking stride. “This your first Staffy?” they’d ask, chuckling as she sat rigid, like Gundagai’s Dog on the Tuckerbox, refusing to leave the park, let alone point her nose in the direction of home.
“You can’t control your dog,” they’d say, as Bluey* ignored my recall and trebucheted herself into people’s faces to say hi, or shot like a cannonball across football ovals, local parks and once, terrifyingly, a main road. Narrators of the obvious, it turns out, are everywhere.
I tried my best. We went to puppy school (she was too boisterous so she never appeared on Instagram in a mini-mortarboard); sought one-on-one trainers (the most lucrative up-and-coming profession of our age); joined a very expensive group-training club (and left when my bank account buckled) and eventually found a wonderful community-led volunteer obedience club (too late, as she reacted badly to another dog and we got kicked out of there too.)
I took Bluey to dog parks thinking she could learn to socialise off-leash before she’d mastered walking well on a lead. By christ, dog parks are chaotic. Your dog may learn many things there but being calm is not one of them. It’s like taking your baby to a rave and expecting her to dance with drug-struck strangers. Bluey looked as though she was having a great time with those cavorting cavoodles and limber vizslas, but it did nothing for our relationship. Thousands of positive-training-technique dollars later, I understand what went wrong and we’re trying very, very hard to undo it.
Ever since she was the smallest of pups, Bluey has wanted to be where the action is. She wants to be rolling in every puddle, interfering in football games, chasing skateboarders, rumbling with wrestle-obsessed French bulldogs. She wants to scale fences just to see what’s on the other side.
I thought I was doing the right thing letting her meet every human and sniff every dog butt. I wanted to socialise her well so she would cope in doggie day care when I returned to the office. But it turns out that’s not what socialisation means. A well-socialised dog can watch another dog walk by without batting an eyelid. Bluey cannot. I wanted her to have fun and mistook her curiosity for extroversion. Now, following a diagnosis from a veterinary behaviourist, Bluey is on meds for an acute anxiety disorder and separation anxiety syndrome.
I’m assured it is not my fault, but I feel guilty as we traipse, tethered, around the neighbourhood, with her whining because she’d like to go meet that dog, that cat, that duck. While she does enjoy the tricks I’ve taught her – sit, stay, drop, play “dead”, beg (now called sit pretty, apparently), up-up, find it, on your bed, in your crate, with me, wait – I’m pretty sure she’d prefer to go hog-wild.
There has been a lot of conjecture about why so many workers haven’t returned to the office. I’d hazard a guess that a good portion own a dog with separation anxiety. Bluey can never be left alone. Friends with children say it must be as difficult as having a toddler – but at least they can take their kids into Coles. I feel like I’m still in lockdown.
A La Trobe University survey of 1034 parents living with a child and a pet between July 29 and October 29, 2020 showed that one in five families acquired a new cat or dog during the pandemic. Interestingly, the same study disclosed that owners who reported having a strong emotional attachment to their pet had poorer mental health. It makes sense that we forged co-dependent bonds with our dogs during lockdown, particularly with pandemic pups that had never known a life without their human by their side.
In the 2020-21 financial year, the RSPCA received 22,311 dogs. While 19,809 of those were rehomed, that rehoming rate had dropped 19.5 per cent from the previous year. An influx of dogs to shelters this year is cause for concern. Cost-of-living pressures can’t be helping and pandemic puppies are now reaching their troublesome twos.
On its surrender-themed page, the association tries to offer alternatives, such as where to get support for issues with housing, dog behaviour and owners’ mental health. But it’s unlikely a boss would allow anyone to keep working from home just to be with their anxious dog. And not everyone can afford $1000 for a session with a specialist behaviourist. My pet insurance gives back just $50 a year for behaviour-related vet costs.
New South Wales parliament this year passed the Companion Animals Amendment (Rehoming Animals) Bill to prescribe the actions that local councils must take to rehome a companion animal. But here’s the rub: there aren’t enough facilities to house council-impounded and surrendered dogs, and there aren’t enough foster carers to handle the incoming while the search is on for a new home.
No one wants dogs to be euthanised. So we need to start thinking about what can be done to keep those dogs with their owners. Instead of more dog parks, perhaps there should be more community-led obedience clubs, sponsored by councils.
In 1996, pop band The Fauves released a terrific song called “Dogs Are the Best People”. Bluey is my person and I want to keep her safe, with me. So, if you see a haggard woman roaming like the walking dead with a sometimes friendly, sometimes reactive blue Staffy, or indeed anyone with their dog, please don’t offer criticism. Just smile and whisper “good job”, from a distance. All of us, humans and dogs, are doing the best we can.
* Name changed to protect the (mostly) innocent.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Howl".
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