Britain is a dog-crazy nation. But it’s OK to be dognostic | Pets

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Can I make something clear? I don’t hate your dog. I’m sure it is an upstanding member of the animal kingdom, a treasured member of your family, a lovely guy, a terrific bitch. I’ve no doubt you always pick up its poo, too – please tell me you always pick up its poo? – and it’s frankly amazing that you’re prepared to do that. To sign up to 12-plus years of handling another creature’s excrement, carrying it around in a little plastic bag until you find the appropriate bin? I mean, it’s revolting, but it speaks of a unique inter-species bond. I respect that. Do you mind if we don’t shake hands?

I won’t overstate the point and pretend that some of my best friends are Schnauzers – but I do have Labrador and Collie acquaintances and, well, look at that picture. Do you think I would submit to that if I weren’t capable of a healthy working relationship with this species?

My point is, I have nothing against dogs. I’m dognostic. I inhabit the middle-hound. It’s very much a dog-by-dog basis with me. I feel the same way about cats, too, in case you think I have some sort of sinister pro-feline agenda. Cats are OK. Dogs are OK. What really makes my heart leap are wild animals – pied wagtails, giant octopi, pangolins, hell, even stray dogs might fall into this category. Why this need to stake ownership over living things? Britain likes to think of itself as a nation of dog lovers and yet it is illegal to be a dog in Britain unless you are someone’s property. Ah, but that’s not really my point.

My point is: while there are fewer and fewer wild animals in Britain, there are more and more pet dogs. Two million more than there were just over a year ago, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. Wandering around shops. Squatting on street corners. Yapping at toddlers. Bounding across picnics. Dressing up as cowboys on social media. Suffering from appalling deformities due to intensive breeding. Behaving extremely badly because no one has thought to discipline them properly. Being taken to the vet. And penetrating areas hitherto unknown to dogkind – such as the office.

The co-working space where I like to go for a little peace and quiet has, as it turns out, a pro-dog policy. The place often resembles a sort of puppy crèche; the sound of dog whines, dog slurps, dog feet slipping on laminate flooring now form the backdrop to my working days. “You can never have too many dogs around!” is the general consensus of my (mostly younger) co-workers. And I’d understand if they were, say, shepherds or huntsmen, but, as far as I can tell, most of them work in events management and ecommerce. Nevertheless, to deviate from the opinion that dogs are generically magnificent is to mark yourself as a pariah, a grump-a-dump, a person who hates fun.

I know this because I once wrote on the suggestions whiteboard: “Ban dogs?” And it was way more controversial than communal oat milk: “WHAT?” “NO!” “ARE YOU MAD?!” swiftly appeared on the board. But over the next couple of days, I sensed the first stirrings of a resistance. “Yes.” “Please yes.” Dogs: the ambivalence that dare not speak its name.

At least in public. Because, I can guarantee that for every person who rushes up and goes, “WHO’S A GOOD GIRL? A GOOD GIRL! YES YOU ARE!” there are others seething, wincing, cowering and sneezing (15% of people are allergic to dogs, by the way). “Work is for work, full stop!” fumes one software engineer. “I don’t bring my kids to work – why should you bring your dog?!” A fellow father confesses to having a phobia of dogs after having been bitten when he was young. “When your dog jumps up at my kid, and you find it hilarious and cute, I really don’t, OK?”

“I dislike the idea that dogs are welcome in so many places now,” says a pensioner, who became utterly fed up with the amount dog poo on the stretch of pavement outside her flat during lockdown. “We’re all expected to embrace this culture of dog ownership. You feel grumpy if you object. But I really don’t think dog-owners have any idea how much they impose on other people.”

I should stress that most dog owners I know are responsible, train their animals well and never hang their poo from a tree in a little bag (seriously, why do people do that?) I also have zero objection to guide dogs or service animals, whose right to accompany their owners everywhere is, of course, protected under the 2010 Equalities Act. But many dog owners seem happy to blur the line between want and need.

When we were living in Los Angeles, I was concerned when a friend of ours announced she was visiting her doctor to get herself diagnosed with depression. “Oh I’m fine,” she said. “I just need Zazu registered as a therapy dog so he can fly with me.” Trust me, you would not have wanted to be on a plane with that dog.

‘Dogs: the ambivalence that dare not speak its name’. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer

But my feelings really shifted when I became a parent. When you are responsible for a baby, suddenly, a mastiff sprinting over your picnic rug feels less of an irritation and more of an existential threat. And even from the perspective of, say, a four-year-old, a Springer Spaniel may as well be a rhino. I have lost count of the times my eldest has been reduced to terror – a whole excursion ruined – when someone’s dog has pounced at him or chased him or barked at him when he is minding his own business. Often, the dog will be followed by an owner, lead casually slung over shoulder, vaguely offended. “She’s just being friendly!” How would I know? “He needs to stop moving!” Oh, so it’s the defenceless child’s fault now?

It’s not as if the fear of a charging dog is irrational. Dogs were responsible for 7,987 hospital admissions in 2018, according to the most recent available NHS data. The number has been steadily rising for years; an earlier study found a 76% increase in dog-related hospital admissions in the decade leading up to 2014, partly ascribed to the growing popularity of “cute” but ferocious breeds, such as the French Bulldog (a rat hunter crossed with a lapdog) and the Dachshund (traditionally used to kill badgers). And even intelligent, well-trained dogs bite, sometimes. It has required careful coaching to ensure my boy doesn’t overreact and make things worse – which I can’t help thinking is the wrong way around.

In offices, too, the onus is on non-dog owners to change their behaviour. Many companies (particularly tech companies) now vaunt their dog-friendliness as a lure to would-be employees. Amazon is not such a great company to work for if you’re a human, by most accounts, but if you’re a dog, it’s wonderful, boasts the company’s corporate literature: “How much does Amazon love dogs? Just ask one of the 7,000 who work here!” (The dogs were unavailable for comment). I turn to human resources specialist Liz Afolabi of Unleashed, who advises start-ups on employee relations, to see how she handles dissenting employees. But I soon realise that everyone has a dog in this fight, so to speak. “I’m strictly pro-dog in the office as I love them,” she tells me. “I’ve also seen the benefit of having them in the office and so have employers.”

Still, she stresses that any company that initiates a “dog friendly” policy should ensure first that they are people friendly. “I would sincerely hope and encourage any company thinking of doing this to consult with its employees before it ever did this. One potential conflict area is where an employee is allergic to or is afraid of dogs, but most companies find a way around this by having dog-free days – and to be honest most non-dog people don’t apply for roles in companies where they have dog-friendly policies, I find.” Isn’t that a bit like telling a peanut allergy sufferer that sorry, other people really like peanut butter, so go find some other job?

But then again, the rise in the dog population makes it inevitable that there should be a creeping shift in dog v human power relations. (Or rather dog-owning human v non-dog-owning human power relations; dogs themselves having no power). It’s not simply a pandemic thing, either. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, in 2010-11, 22% of British households had dogs and the dog population stood at 7.6m; a decade later an estimated 33% of households have dogs, bringing the population to 12.5m. Even allowing for the relatively small sample size, that is an enormous increase: 64% more dogs in a decade. Since the majority of these new dog owners are young people living in cities, the urban environment must adapt.

And as the fashion for dogs has taken hold so have dog fashions. Dogs are both consumer products and proxy consumers. There is no limit to the amount that dog owners are prepared to spend on their “fur babies”, says London pug-owner Lucie Herring, who runs the Doggo Style Market, a monthly shopping event for dog owners. Labels to look out for at her market include the doggy “superfood” brand Rockster, Pethaus, which makes denim jackets for dogs, and Harbour Hounds, which makes miniature dressing gowns. Come again? “They’re proper towelling robes that you put on your dog. Say you go to the beach and your dog goes for a splash in the water? You wouldn’t believe it, I know. But dog clothes are huge.”

I ask Herring if she doesn’t Herring find it a bit – strange? Dressing up a dog in human clothing? “Maybe it’s a bit unethical?” she says. “But I don’t know, if you’re not forcing your dog to dress like that every day, it’s harmless fun. It’s up to the owner. As long as that dog is cared for and not harmed, there’s not so much damage.”

The fact that 59 percent of British dogs are overweight and this shortens lifespan by an average of 2.5 years would suggest that there is some damage associated with all this doggy indulgence. But this only fuels the emerging market in CBD oil for dogs, doggy acupuncture, doggy therapy. Dog ownership has not only been commodified, it has been pathologised. Dogs are now treated as extensions of their owner’s psyches and invested with all sorts of human emotions.

“Do not underestimate how much people love their dogs,” says Kate Spicer, whose book Lost Dog: A Love Story documented her relationship with her lurcher, Wolfy. “I think people really need their dogs right now. Dogs provide unconditional love. They connect us back to our animal nature. It’s not hard to see why people would want that.”

She is broadly sympathetic to my objections to dogs in the workplace, but suggests that this is really just a continuation of the role that dogs have always played. “If you look at the history of dogs, they have always been put into the service of humans,” she says. “Lapdogs were invented as a suitable companions for 18th-century ladies.” Invented? “Yes, invented. Lapdogs were selectively bred for comfort and companionship, and so that you could fit them up your sleeve or in your handbag. These are exactly the type of dogs that do well on social media.”

So this is the Faustian pact that dogkind made when they hitched their evolutionary fortunes to those of homo sapiens. In the past, dogs served humans by rounding up sheep or keeping away intruders. Now, they do so by helping office workers de-stress and providing lols on the corporate Instagram. Which is why old English Pointers are a dying breed, and Schnoodles and Yorkipoos are in hot demand.

But this insistence on cuteness – there’s a dark side to that. In her book, Our Aesthetic Categories (2014), the literary theorist Sianne Ngai examined the popularity of “cute” images on the internet of which dogs are, of course, a dominant genre. She framed “cuteness” as an “aestheticisation of powerlessness”. To judge something as “cute” you have first to feel your own dominance over it. They are things we love because they submit to us – things that pose no threat whatsoever. So “cuteness” captures an uneasy conflict. It’s a desire to protect, but also the power to destroy. So that’s one way to think about a picture of a Chow-Chow eating ice-cream on Instagram.

No doubt, the people who are squeezing their lapdogs into miniature Ozzy Osbourne costumes have the best of intentions. What people do in their own homes is their business. But this desire for dogs to be cute has consequences, not least because the “cute” breeds are so often the ones with chronic health problems. The demand for them causes untold suffering.

And maybe this whole “unconditional love” business needs questioning, too. In The Companion Species Manifesto (2003), the philosopher Donna Haraway argues that imagining dogs provide unconditional love to us is not only mistaken but abusive – to dogs and humans. “Being a pet seems to me to be a demanding job for a dog, requiring self-control and canine emotional and cognitive skills matching those of working dogs,” she writes. This puts dogs at a special risk: “The risk of abandonment when human affection wanes, when people’s convenience takes precedence, or when the dog fails to deliver on the fantasy of unconditional love.” She prefers to emphasise respect and trust and to see dogs on their own terms: as animals from a species very different from our own with whom we can still sometimes, however fleetingly, share moments of profound communion.

Spicer suggests our categories of cuteness and wildness have become mixed up. “The weird thing is, people now treat Labradors as lapdogs. Even big dogs are primarily seen as comfort animals. We’re in danger of forgetting that dogs are still dogs.” A couple of Christmases ago, her parents’ Whippet bit a family member, twice, drawing blood. “It was genuinely shocking. But it was a reminder that dogs are dangerous.” She remembers a family dog being put down for biting when she was small. “Would that still happen? I’m not sure. There’s more tolerance of bad dog behaviour in cities as people have such intense bonds with their dogs. People love their dogs more than their children.”

As Haraway writes, thinking of dogs as furry children sets up a world where children are bitten and dogs are killed. And I’m not sure that anyone wants that – least of all the dogs.

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