What have we done to man’s best friend? Lockdown puppies are being returned in their droves and attacks have skyrocketed. KATIE GLASS finds out why

On my lap, as I write, I am juggling a tiny brown Bear. My chocolate labrador puppy is a chubby pile of velvet fur and giant, wet almond eyes that look desperately sad whenever he isn’t being spoiled.  

Since his arrival, he’s torn apart my furniture and demolished my clothes, ignoring the endless toys and expensive dog bed I’ve bought him in favour of chewing my trainers and sleeping on my chaise longue. 

When he’s not torturing the cat, pulling up gladioli in the garden or shredding my Temperley dresses, he is camped beside his red, heart-shaped Le Creuset bowl, demanding more food. 

Still, I’d do anything for those soft rabbit ears and squidgy puppy bean-toes. 

Britain experienced a breeding frenzy during lockdown. Now there are more fur babies than ever before roaming the pavements, parading in designer outfits and photobombing our Instagram feeds. 

The number of dog-owning households, once around 46 per cent, shot to a high of 62 per cent in 2022, before falling to 57 per cent today. 

There are around 13 million pet dogs in the UK – four times the population of Wales. As the dog population has gone up, so the paw pound has ballooned. Insurance specialist Protectivity estimates Brits spend £15.6 billion per year on our dogs. 

Last year, a survey by the premium dog-treat brand Denzel’s suggested people were set to spend £3 billion on Christmas gifts for their dogs. I should know: I spoil my dogs rotten. 

I took my last, Princess, a silky labradoodle, on weekends to Lucknam Park Hotel in Wiltshire, where I fed her sausages in bed on a silver plate, and to dinner at restaurants with doggie menus serving bone-marrow risotto. 

I watched YouTube tutorials on how to cook her wholesome dog soup (chicken, celery, carrots and green beans), bought her diamanté collars, Pawsecco and once, in Monaco, dog biscotti (made with beef, carrots and apple). 

 Demand at one dog rehoming charity is described as ‘unprecedented’

When I dog-divorced her ‘dad’, I consulted her own doggie lawyer who told me of cases where pooches are placed in the middle of the courtroom and directed to go to the parent they like most – litigants must wash their hands before the process because previous parties have smeared themselves in dog food. 

Meanwhile, Bear is now seven months old: gorgeous, fat and rapidly eating through my bank balance. I have splashed out on luxury turkey, coconut and camomile air-dried dog treats (courtesy of Marleybones), coats, soft wool jumpers, a Nobu bathrobe with his name stitched on and ‘doga’ (dog yoga). 

Did I mention that I sing him to sleep with his favourite song: ‘The Bare Necessities’?

For increasing numbers of people, however, the doggy bank has dried up. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, many families can’t afford their pets. Last month, Britain’s biggest dog rehoming charity, Dogs Trust, described demand for its help as ‘unprecedented’. 

It asked analysts to calculate the rise in inflation experienced by dog owners and found ‘dogflation’ was running at nine per cent (compared to around four per cent general inflation). It’s the same situation at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, where there are now more than 60 unwanted dogs waiting for spaces. 

Rehoming manager Laura Alwen says the combined impact of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis has created a ‘perfect storm’ in the pet industry. ‘Working from home meant people who hadn’t been able to have dogs before suddenly could,’ Alwen explains, ‘but now they’re expected back in the office, they’re realising how expensive pet sitters are.

Katie with her beloved labrador Bear

Katie with her beloved labrador Bear

Then there are spiralling costs. Factor in doggy daycare and lots of people can’t afford to keep their pet.’ Meanwhile, breeders, previously able to sell animals for high prices, find themselves unable to shift their ‘stock’ and are dumping entire litters. 

This is how Bear ended up in my arms, after his litter was abandoned at the Many Tears Animal Rescue in Wales. 

Its CEO, Sylvia Van Atta, tells me the situation has never been worse. ‘We are seeing litters and litters and litters – yorkies, labs, cockapoos, cavachons,’ she says. 

Overall, the number of dogs being given up has doubled year on year. The shelter’s 200-plus-space kennels are often at capacity, plus it arranges foster care for up to 200 more dogs at any one time.  

Where once the rescue centre could expect to receive a pregnant animal every two years, these days one arrives every eight weeks. 

The staff have also seen discarded puppies, like the scrawny litter of lurchers abandoned in a cat carrier, among them two eight-week-old pups. Later christened Barbie and Midge, they were both underweight, with bellies full of worms. 

Dogs with expensive medical needs are also increasingly being rejected by their owners, like Beatrice, a sweet little yorkshire terrier, found by members of the public with painful old injuries to her legs and feet. Unable to walk, stand or use her back legs at all, she had to be put down. 

Unlicensed ‘backyard’ breeders sprang up during lockdown, attracted by the high demand from people ready to pay in cash. ‘You think if you sell ten labrador puppies for £2,000 each, it’s easy money,’ says Van Atta. But many – even if they were well meaning – knew little about breeding dogs. 

Dogs don’t need 25 toys and a lick mat, they just need attention from you  

She tells me about one such breeder who brought four dogs to the rescue centre. ‘It was supposed to be five, but they said one had frozen to death outside.’ Another ‘old Welsh couple’ made ‘a little box out of plywood’ for two breeding yorkies, ‘and the lovely yorkie puppies never left that box, they never went out anywhere. It was awful’.

Unlicensed breeders will often dump puppies because they don’t want to be traced. One litter of labrador puppies was left in a plastic bag at a lay-by on the M5, and found by a driver who’d pulled over for a nap. ‘We are seeing everything,’ Van Atta says. ‘We’re getting families in tears bringing in their dog because they can’t afford to keep it.’ Financial pressures often go hand in hand with domestic-violence cases wrought on the animal. 

One dog that came to Van Atta in such circumstances is ‘now terrified of men. We have people who’ve had a mental breakdown and we’ve had more suicides than ever, where the dog is then left alone.’ 

Nelson, the Saint Bernard puppy gifted to Amal Clooney by husband George earlier this month

Nelson, the Saint Bernard puppy gifted to Amal Clooney by husband George earlier this month

In addition there’s the fallout from the XL bully ban. As I write this story, the family of 68-year-old Essex grandmother Esther Martin is mourning her death after a mauling by two XL bullies.

English and Welsh owners of the breed must now have a certificate (costing £92.40) and for those who can’t afford the fee the only answer is to have the dogs put down or to drive them to Scottish rescue centres where the rules aren’t yet in place. 

Now Scotland’s government has said it will introduce the same restrictions in the coming months. ‘I’m sad because I’m facing the reality that I’ll soon have to put to sleep some fit and healthy dogs just because they’re on a list,’ says Ian Futter, chief veterinary officer at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Dogs Trust has been inundated with calls from XL bully owners trying to work out the logistics of keeping their pet. 

Yet if they can’t afford the certificate or equipment, their pet may well be euthanised. Rescue centres offer free online muzzle training and behaviour classes. But the experts I spoke to say the problem isn’t breed specific. ‘Any dog can cause great damage if it’s out of control,’ says Futter. ‘

When dogs, including XL bullies, are poorly bred and reared, then denied training, socialisation and good care, aggression becomes more likely. That’s what needs tackling.’ 

Christine Collins from Town & Country Dog Training in Somerset says many people who got lockdown dogs found themselves in trouble through lack of knowledge. 

‘[They got] all sorts of “doodle” breeds – without appreciating how much grooming they need,’ she says (see Rachel Johnson’s piece about her cockapoo Ziggy, page 40). 

‘A lot of people got spaniels because they are small, but they need a lot of training.’ 

Collins also saw dogs emerge from lockdown with all sorts of behavioural problems. These included separation anxiety, as owners who had been with them 24/7 suddenly went back to their old lives. 

This led to some dogs compulsively chewing – even through doors. She believes that training is everything and that dogs, like cars, should require a licence.

 ‘People want to treat their dog well, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind,’ says Collins. ‘There was a lack of teaching of dogs [during lockdown], which may have been due to a lack of knowledge, as people got a dog out of impulse rather than informed decision.’ 

She’s highly critical of the money made from catering to dogs and their owners. ‘Two decades back there were two dog-food brands, now there are hundreds,’ she says. ‘Dogs don’t need 25 toys and a lick mat, they need attention from you, guided play and learning.’ I nod, looking down at the floor, which is littered with Bear’s toys. 

Nor is Collins impressed by the everyday use of doggie daycare – a modern convenience that does more harm than good. 

‘Don’t get a dog if you don’t want it with you. A few decades ago, you only got a dog if you were sure you could look after it, whereas now it’s a free-for-all. There’s every possible service so you can have a dog simply for the hours you want it.’ 

For all the money we lavish on our dogs, are we really treating our best friends very well? We encourage them to love us, then leave them alone all day. We anthropomorphise them, not for their own good, but for ours. 

We shy away from training them, even though it ultimately makes them calmer companions. For all the five-star dog hotels I could take Bear to, I know what he really wants is quality time with me: a walk, a snuffle and a roll in the mud. 

Ideally, not just before he climbs back on to my chaise longue.

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