Kate Spicer article (contribution to)

Have British dog owners lost control of their pooches?


Long-time dog owner Kate Spicer has noticed a surge of inexperienced owners out and about with their poorly-trained pets

“It was OK when there was just the one crazy, untrained dog in the park, but now it’s chaos.” I’d seen Emma Lewis-Galic and her two shaggy pointers on my usual dog-walking turf, but we had never stopped to chat – until now. Very quickly, the subject turned to dog rage at the surge in young dogs, bought in lockdown and now coming into their most difficult “teenage” periods.

“Lockdown puppy owners,” she fumed, “expect their dogs to be like Timmy from The Famous Five without putting in any training at all. Their unruly pups and adolescent dogs are like that sweaty, drunk bloke in the pub that won’t leave you alone. Their relentless onslaught will annoy all but the most tolerant adult dog.”

Anecdotally, the increase in barely trained or poorly socialised dogs with naive and inexperienced new owners is creating a them-and-us attitude in local parks. Unusual numbers of teenage dogs, in their tricky six-to-18-month period, are inciting dog rage between the existing owners and the lockdown arrivistes.

My older dog, Wolfy, is entirely unaggressive but, like a lot of older dogs, finds puppies annoying and will tell them so. Before the lockdown puppy boom, the times when he’s given a pesky little scrap a brief, fierce and noisy ticking off would be greeted by the owner with genuine thanks. Older dogs are an essential part of a puppy’s education in good manners.

Lately, though, Wolfy’s grumpy growls have been greeted by something like hysteria. When, on Wormwood Scrubs, he had a snarl at a £2,500+ poseur pup snuffling round his behind, its owner scooped it up like a kitten, said Wolfy was “aggressive” and slithered off at the highest speed he could in his silly smart shoes through unholy mud.

“You do know you’ve got a dog there, not a toy, don’t you?” I couldn’t help shouting after him.

I am no paragon of dog ownership. I am sympathetic to the trials of training. My lockdown addition, Boof, a two-year-old metre-high podenco that I adopted from Ibiza, is no cinch to train. The misplaced confidence – pure hubris, really – I had about adopting her was down to the fact that Wolfy was a peach from day one. Life with Wolfy was so perfect, I wrote a book called Lost Dog: A Love Story about our lives together. Now, I cringe thinking I sold people a fairytale.

If urban parks have seen a rise in conflict between humans, elsewhere in the country the impact of unruly dogs is more devastating than a few muddy paw prints on coats, upset kids and their irate parents.

Andy Power is one of many farmers fencing off land for the growing trend of dog-walking fields – places where dogs can go off lead in safety. His field at Cator Gate on Dartmoor is seven acres, with entry £8 an hour. “By definition, someone who books into a dog walking field is a responsible owner,” he says. 

“One dog recently did serious damage to a flock of sheep, several of which had to be destroyed. It’s an enormous problem for farmers. I don’t think people realise that a dog among sheep is like a fox in the chicken coop. They don’t kill one for their tea, they kill the whole lot for fun. Once your dog is in that state, no amount of yelling its name will make a difference. Even a well-trained pet is deaf to its owners calls.

“It’s never the dogs fault – it’s always down to a lack of training and awareness on the owner’s part.”

According to a spokesperson for the UK’s 15 National Parks, there’s a concern about increased numbers of out-of-control dogs: “Anecdotally, we are dealing with more of it, but we are trying to get the message across in a non-judgmental way. We want people to come, we don’t want to whinge about it, but without risk to livestock and wildlife like the ground nesting birds.

“Everyone loves the idea of roaming free with a dog at their side. But the truth is, off-lead, even the best behaved dog in the world can upset livestock and wildlife.”

This fairy tale – which, in my own irritating way, I helped perpetuate – isn’t great for dogs. Kennel Club research from 2019 found that puppies bought on an impulse are more likely to die prematurely; one in five of them get sick or die before their first birthday. Further studies in 2020 found a quarter of new owners admitted they bought a puppy “during the Covid-19 pandemic with little research”.

Hence the increased chorus of clueless new owners frantically calling their dog’s name in vain – “or calling them back to a whistle, even though they are not whistle-trained”, says Lewis-Galic with an eye roll.

The unexpected weight of responsibility that dog ownership brings, say pretty much any animal welfare charity you choose to ask, will cause an inevitable avalanche of unwanted pets. In the last six months, the Dog’s Trust has seen a 41 per cent increase in web traffic to its “giving up your dog” page. The number of views to RSPCA pages about rehoming a dog almost doubled, exceeding a million clicks, between the start of the first lockdown in March and the start of the third in December. 

As normal life resumes, RSPCA dog welfare expert Samantha Gaines says that many of the puppies bought during lockdown are now approaching adolescence, a challenging time where big behavioural changes can occur. “This period does typically pass but may bring additional challenges for owners if they’re unprepared for how best to manage their dog. Dogs are a huge responsibility and taking one on should always be a decision that is made carefully, with great consideration given to whether you can care for that pet for the rest of their life.”

A dog trainer describes the actions of a client which she says sums up the attitude of some owners to their dogs. “They had bought a clicker, which is not a bad training tool at all, except all they did was click it and point it at the dog like a remote control expecting that alone to change the behaviour.” The trainer, who wishes to remain anonymous, added: “I don’t think there is anything to be gained from alienating new owners, if they need help we just have to hope they go to a good training school or behaviourist.”

Dr Jenna Kiddie is Head of Canine Behaviour at Dogs Trust, “One of the biggest reasons why dogs are handed into rescue organisations like Dogs Trust is because of behaviour-related issues that could have been prevented by good training early on. Prevention is better than cure, but it’s never too late to start training your dog and teaching them vital skills.”

And in all this mess, who suffers? “It’s always dogs that pay the price,” says Lincolnshire based canine behaviour specialist, Janice Davenport. “People don’t seem to realise what a huge responsibility taking on the needs of a sentient being is. I’ve been helping a lady who got herself a cockerpoo puppy because she was lonely during lockdown and she can’t understand why it keeps biting her. She’s shouting, the dog is cowering with no understanding of what its done wrong. The dog is paying the price for its owners inexperience and high anxiety levels. What she didn’t understand is that you need to bond with your dog, she needed to allow more time in every day for the dog in order to make it her own. The woman didn’t understand that the dog had needs, she just wanted it to serve her own.”

It’s a fact that if you want the doggy fairy tale, you’ve got to put in the work.