Dog days: The pandemic pooch boom takes its toll

Problems posed by pandemic puppies are only starting. Photograph: iStock
A surge in dog ownership has brought with it an increase in dogs with behavioural and anxiety issues

Charlie loves his family very much. Some might say he loves them too much. Since he arrived, Charlie has spent all of his waking hours hanging on their every word and almost as many of his sleeping hours with an ear half-cocked, making sure all is well. 

But while Charlie is a house angel he is also a bit of a street devil. And when he finds himself in the outside world or finds people from the outside world in his, he turns, well, savage. 

“He’s a Maltese Terrier and we got him last April,” says Grace de Búrca from Galway. “We thought he’d be great company for our other Maltese, Cooper. He hasn’t seen that many people and when he does see them now, he goes for them. If you give out to him he gets very scared so I can’t do that. 

The research found one in eight people, or 12 per cent of those polled, got a new pet during the sequence of national lockdowns

“If people come into the house and he doesn’t know them, he is absolutely savage,” de Búrca continues. “And it is worse again if he sees anyone in a high-vis jacket, that is just a disaster.”

Exasperated, de Búrca brought in a dog trainer for a two-hour session. It was, she says, “a waste of time and money. Charlie actually went for the trainer too. He is great with the family though and he is not going anywhere. We just might not be able to have visitors to our house ever again.” 
She is only half joking.

Dr Orla Doherty, founder of the Animal Behaviour Clinic, pictured with her dog, Scruff, in Malin Head, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
‘It started last summer. I started seeing behaviours I had never seen before,’ says Dr Orla Doherty. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Stories like Charlie’s are not unfamiliar to animal behaviourist Dr Orla Doherty. She has recorded a dramatic increase in calls for her help over the past 12 months. 
“My case number has increased by 50 per cent since the start of the pandemic,” she says. 

“And it is important to remember that the people I see have a very strong bond with their dogs so they come to me. But there are many others who maybe don’t have that bond and I would have a very real concern that dogs will be surrendered to shelters in a major way” once Covid eventually passes.

A piece of research published by the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) this week points to a surge in pet ownership during the Covid-19 crisis but warns of a wave of separation anxiety among animals who have grown accustomed to having their owners at home all day every day over the past year.

The research found one in eight people, or 12 per cent of those polled, got a new pet during the sequence of national lockdowns. But 60 per cent said they were not concerned or even aware that their pets will likely develop anxiety when there’s an inevitable change to their routines as pet owners head back to work or out of home more in the months ahead.

Doherty is concerned by the number of juvenile dogs coming through her doors presenting with behavioural problems.

“It started last summer. I started seeing behaviours I had never seen before. There was aggression in dogs as young as eight or nine months. Before then I’d rarely see dogs of that age, maybe one in 10 but in the last few months around 75 per cent of the dogs I see are juvenile, they are still very much pups. These are presenting with aggression to their owners and to unfamiliar people.”

She believes problems posed by pandemic puppies are only starting. 

“I think there will be more problems when people can have visitors in their homes again or when they go back to their normal routines,” she says, adding that the two main issues “will be a lack of socialisation and separation anxiety”.

Because of her years of mistreatment in the puppy farm, where she was forced to have two litters a year, Gracie was in a poor state.  She is now on prescription kibble which costs around €70 every three weeks

“When dogs are not exposed to a range of different people from a very early age, they can start to feel very safe with their family and when someone else comes in they can get very nervous and it can be extremely frightening for them,” Doherty says.

Another issue is, perhaps counter-intuitively: too much contact with their family, she adds. “A lot of pups don’t want that level of contact and they start to growl, maybe at a child who is holding them in an awkward way. Then the parents say, understandably, put the dog down.”

The dog is pleased obviously that the uncomfortable holding is over and can recognise what caused it to end. 

“So growling becomes a learned behaviour. They are not growling to be devious or bad. Sometimes people don’t understand that.” 

“We would encourage dog owners to start preparing their pets now for a change in routine,” said Suzanne McGovern of the DSPCA. “It’s important that your dog has something positive to do while you are out of the house, otherwise it may lead to anxiety or destructive behaviour.”

Rebecca Rose Quigley at home with her dogs, Gracie and Regan. Photograph: Rory Geary
Rebecca Rose Quigley at home with her dogs, Gracie and Regan. Photograph: Rory Geary

Like De Búrca, Rebecca Rose Quigley got a dog during Covid-19 to keep another one company. But Gracie, a six-year-old Golden Retriever, came from a rescue shelter. She is a six-year-old ex-breeding dog who had been confined to a small space all her life and never socialised. Her story highlights the challenges dog ownership can bring and the horror of puppy farming.

While Quigley has had dogs all her life, pandemic times have been challenging. “She was so scared and skinny and we had to start from scratch,” she says. “It was very traumatic at the start and she wouldn’t leave the bed for days. She gets on with my other dog but hates humans in general.”

Because of her years of mistreatment in the puppy farm, where she was forced to have two litters a year, Gracie was in a poor state.  She is now on prescription kibble which costs around €70 every three weeks and the vet bills are already close to €500. 

“But I have had dogs all my life and wouldn’t regret this,” Quigley says. “I am all for adopt don’t shop, but I think many people don’t realise how much effort it can take. You need to have some experience before you rescue a dog. Gracie is a gentle dog but just has that fear. The last thing I would ever do would be to give a dog away, the trauma that puts them through is just awful.”

Lorna Dunne of Cara Dog Rescue in Co Laois sees that trauma far too often and she is concerned she will see more of it in the months ahead. “We have already seen pandemic puppies coming in,” she says. 

She saved a Cockapoo pup recently. “He was unsocialised and aggressive but in the hands of an experienced foster parent he has come out the other side and we will find him a home,” she says.

“I think too many people have been acting on impulse. They all say they want a small breed family dog and the supply in the rescue centres isn’t there so they go to puppy farms. But the dogs in those places are starting out in unsocialised environments and go into homes where people haven’t properly considered what they are doing. 

“The dogs purchased at the start of lockdown are now reaching their teenage years and it is going to be a big problem, one we are starting to see already.” 
Cockapoos are among the most popular of the so-called designer breeds but Dunne points out that, while they may look cute, they are not going to work in some environments. 

“It is a mixed breed of two working dogs,” she explains. “The cocker spaniel is a gun dog, the poodle is also a working dog so when you breed them you have an extremely high-energy dog. They are also very smart and if you don’t keep them stimulated they get bored.”

Corina Fitzsimons of the Dogs Trust rescue service says they have seen interest in adoption soar by more than 130 per cent last year compared with 2019

Pete Wedderburn is a Wicklow-based vet who will be familiar to many for his appearances on radio, television and in newspapers. He recently launched a new enterprise, PetFix, which aims to provide help and support to pet owners. 

He says that due to the pandemic there has been “a surge of inexperienced dog owners” who don’t know how to handle changes in dog behaviour which a more experienced owner will understand or anticipate. He believes pandemic pooches are likely to face more challenges than past generations. 

“Dogs need plenty of socialisation before the age of four months and if they don’t have that they are more likely to be fearful than curious,” he says. “Nervous dogs are more likely to be aggressive because they are frightened.” 

In particular, he urges people not to buy off puppy farms. Apart from the appalling trauma faced by the mothers and their pups, he says “they will most likely have spent the first weeks of their life in a concrete pen and they won’t be nearly as well socialised”.

Corina Fitzsimons of the Dogs Trust rescue service says they have seen interest in adoption soar by more than 130 per cent last year compared with 2019. “People have been spending a lot more time at home and many are lonely,” she says.

Corina Fitzsimons, Dogs Trust: ‘Not everyone who has got a dog will be able to continue to work from home in the long term. Puppies need to develop coping mechanisms and they need to get used to being on their own.’ Photograph: Dara MacDonaill
Corina Fitzsimons, Dogs Trust: ‘Puppies need to develop coping mechanisms and they need to get used to being on their own.’ Photograph: Dara MacDonaill

Fitzsimons is fearful that when things get back to normal “not everyone who has got a dog will be able to continue to work from home in the long term. uppies need to develop coping mechanisms and they need to get used to being on their own and I would worry that a lot of dogs might develop separation anxiety.”

She also notes that many pandemic puppies are not getting enough sleep or enough time on their own. “Dogs are like humans and they need their own space and the ability to go off and have a snooze. 

“If there are always people around then they can get nervous. Imagine if you were trying to rest while always being fearful that someone was about to jump out of a cupboard at you.”