No sacred cows

A dog is not just for lockdown

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

The Dogs Trust charity received 114 calls on 27 and 28 December from people wanting to offload their puppies. No, these weren’t unwanted Christmas gifts, but dogs they’d bought during the first lockdown.

According to the RSPCA, demand for dogs soared last year, with breeders and rescue centres reporting unprecedented levels of interest. But some new owners have already become disillusioned. In the past three months, the Dogs Trust has received 1,800 calls from people begging them to rehome their puppies.

On some days, I’m tempted to contact the charity myself. The Young family’s new pet isn’t strictly speaking a lockdown dog. We got her in February, just before prices started to skyrocket. Mali is a cavapoochon, a cross between a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, a toy poodle and a bichon frise. Caroline assured me she’d be very low maintenance on account of her diminutive size, quite unlike our previous dog, a Hungarian vizsla. But that’s true only up to a point.

She eats less than the vizsla, but her tiny stomach processes food astonishingly quickly, and then she’s hungry again. If you don’t watch her like a hawk, she’ll leap on to a chair and then on to the kitchen table, at which point she darts around with lightning speed, hoovering up any stray morsels like a turbo-charged rat. On Boxing Day she got hold of a joint of gammon even though it was twice her size.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that she behaves like any other dog in this respect, but she looks so cute — like a little teddy bear — that it’s always something of a shock when her animal instincts kick in. One minute she’s lying in your lap, apparently asleep, the next she’s flying out of the back door, barking like a maniac, having caught the scent of a fox in the garden.

We sometimes joke that she’s like the creature in the film Gremlins. Some of the time she’s Gizmo, a cuddly, affectionate little ball of fur, but at other times she’s Stripe, the demonic beast that springs from Gizmo’s back if he gets wet. Or maybe a better analogy is with Frankenstein, given that she’s been cobbled together from bits of other dogs. At first, you think the experiment is a great success, but then the dark side begins to comes out.

One of her instincts, a blessing and a curse, is that she’s incredibly gregarious. She’s the opposite of Greta Garbo: she doesn’t want to be alone. If I’m the only person in the house, she’ll follow me around and the moment I sit down she’ll curl up at my feet, resting her head on my shoe. Pretty sweet, and a quality that’s guaranteed to bring out her owner’s nurturing, protective side, almost as if she’d been bred to mimic a small child. But if you take her for a walk, this need for companionship switches entirely to other dogs. She can spot them 500 metres away and the moment she sees one she’s off, powering towards it like a missile. At that point, she forgets all about you and no amount of calling her name or waving treats around will persuade her to come back. The other dogs initially enjoy this rapt attention, but after a few minutes they begin to tire as Mali morphs from being a teenage girl with a crush into a demented stalker. I often have to re-attach her lead and drag her away.

The RSPCA says the reason people give for wanting to rehome their dogs is that they hadn’t realised just what a burden they’d be. In some cases this is financial, with owners unable to afford the cost of looking after a dog for ten to 15 years — an average of £16,900, according to Sainsbury’s pet insurance. But it’s mainly just the sheer effort of having to feed them, clean up after them, take them for daily walks, etc. Small dogs are less effort, but it’s not true that a dog that’s a tenth of the size of a Hungarian vizsla will be 10 per cent of the work. That was a fib, Caroline.

On balance, though, I think it’s worth it. Some of the dogs she zeroes in on in the park are as sociable as she is and watching them chase each other around in enormous figures of eight is oddly pleasurable. Caroline loves her — much more than me, obviously — and so do the children, although I sometimes suspect that’s because they see more of Gizmo in her than Stripe. And she has made the lockdowns more bearable, which is just as well, given that we’ve now embarked on a third.

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