We never had a dog growing up. That's a lamentable fact. Having a sentient pet to interact with (no, Mother, my pet pot of cress, "Steve", did not count) teaches children empathy much more quickly than if they don't have access to animals.
That can only be a good thing. Small children are rather akin to psychopaths (or terrorists): their neurological incapacity to empathise for the first few years of life ensures that they are really only ever interested in themselves and sugar-based foods.
When our house was burgled, and my brother sat, aged four, amid the ransacked chaos of what used to be our things, his first impulse was to cease playing happily next to the upturned sofa full of stab marks and declare with some passion, “I hope they didn’t steal my Rice Krispies” . The sooner little children grow out of their psychopathy, the better, but a dog, in particular, is always ultimately the adult’s charge to care for, and can be rather like having a second needy toddler.
This week I’ve said yes to volunteering, spending some time helping out at the
in Dublin. Although the charity’s extensive centre was built by a generous bequest, it relies entirely on donations.
During my time there, the number of dogs in the trust’s care is higher than it has ever been, and the staff are under visible strain. They all have passion for their work and a genuine affection for their charges, but their frustration is evident.
The general ignorance they have to deal with is erosive. While I sit at reception, a man comes in for the second time that week to collect his dog, which he had left tied up for hours in his back garden, alone and without any stimulation. She had escaped again – in heat – to wander the streets.
He is offended by the polite suggestion that she requires more care and socialisation than he is providing her, and suggestions about how he might alter his approach. This sort of thing happens every day, I’m told.
The people at the trust are concerned about Christmas. So concerned, in fact, that they shut down from mid-December to prevent people from rashly taking puppies as Christmas gifts only to return them as boisterous, untrained adolescents later. The women at reception tell me they receive frequent calls asking what "stock" they have in, and whether people can come by to pick up a puppy today and take it home in the boot.
The adoption process is rigorous. I attend the talk for people who come to collect their new puppies, and the reality of how a puppy behaves and what it needs is laid out for them. It is a 15-year commitment. The puppy will require comprehensive training through positive affirmation of good behaviour. Then, when it is a scraggly-limbed teen, you’ll have to teach it all over again as it rebels in adolescent fashion. The trust offers a lifetime aftercare service – you can call them anytime for support.
Last week they ran the highly effective “Canal Dogs” campaign where 51 cardboard cut-outs of dogs were lined up along a Dublin canal. The 51 dogs represented the 51 phone calls received by the trust on one day last January from people looking to surrender their unwanted dogs. Printed on the cut-outs were some of the reasons given. “He’s too old” or “The honeymoon period is over”.
The older dogs are somewhat overlooked. I take a big, black, doe-eyed lurcher called Tommy for a walk, and wonder if he’ll find a home.
His sweet, docile nature and pointy frame are no match for the energised cuteness of a pup, but he would make a wonderful addition to any family.
The saddest dogs are those that have been homed and then returned again, rejected for whatever reason. They then exhibit behavioural problems that make them even harder to rehome. They lie in their kennels looking glum, and although their needs are met at the trust, they are joyless.
We have bred dogs to be social, needy creatures; we can’t then blame or discard them for making demanding pets. Adopt a dog, by all means, if you can care for it and train it and include it in your family. Toys make better Christmas presents. I still can’t stop thinking about Tommy.