Thousands of people have acquired a canine companion since the pandemic hit, but Ireland may not be ready to fully cater for man’s best friend
By any reckoning, the year of the pandemic has also been the year of the dog. Anywhere you go — within your 20km bubble, of course — you’ll find yourself tripping over lurchers, setters, terriers, hounds, poodles, pugs, and quite possibly even 101 Dalmatians.
Prices have shot up as breeders struggle to keep up with demand, while waiting lists grow ever longer, as more and more households seek a canine companion to keep them company on their daily walk.
While we’ll have to wait a few more months for the official 2020 dog licence data to confirm our suspicions, it’s almost certain there has been a significant rise in ownership this past year.
And this is an upwards trend that pre-dates Covid-19 — in 2019, local councils across Ireland issued 212,559 new dog licenses, up from 188,910 in 2012.
“It’s like you are the exception rather than the rule if you don’t have a dog,” says vet and dog lover Pete Wedderburn, who has noticed huge increases in the numbers of dogs when out and about.
But are these new pet owners in for a rude awakening when normal life resumes post-pandemic? Will they be able to, say, eat out in a restaurant with Fido in tow? Will they be able to stay in a hotel or rent an Airbnb? Will they be welcome in the country’s parks and on our beaches?
While we might like to think we’re a nation of dog-lovers, are we still playing catch up with our European neighbours when it comes to actually catering for them?
One of the biggest bugbears for dog-owners is the lack of dedicated dog parks, where pets can roam off-leash (something that is forbidden in many public parks and beaches around Ireland).
The exact number of dog parks in Ireland is hard to quantify but most of them (roughly half a dozen) are in Dublin, says Kate McQuillan, owner of Pet Sitters Ireland. McQuillan has been, with the help of dog owners around the country, collating dog parks on petsittersireland.com.
However, some of the parks that people suggest are simply open spaces where owners let their dogs off-lead, as opposed to an enclosed area with drinking facilities sanctioned by the local council, such as Marlay Park in Dublin.
“The true number of dog parks is not enough,” says McQuillan.
In Cork, for instance, there are none. Dog-owner Mairead Casey is campaigning for the city council there to provide one, and has garnered more than 1,600 signatories since she launched a petition in February.
The council says it is carrying out a cost analysis before potentially opening the first park in the west of the city. Mairead believes such off-lead facilities are vital when it comes to training and socialising a young dog.
“A lot of people have got puppies in the last year and they say, ‘I’ve nowhere to train them. I can’t train them to come back to me.’ In order to do that, you need to leave them off-lead,” says Casey. “If you want a dog to be a ‘good dog’, socialising them is part of it, letting them play with new friends.”
As the country slowly and cautiously starts down the road to opening back up, dogs and their owners will begin to venture beyond their usual routes.
Whether cafes, restaurants, pubs and hotels are ready for them is another question. In Britain, which has a dog population of nine million and where pets are often considered part of the family, pub visits with pooches are a routine sight. That hasn’t always been the case here.
Whether dogs are allowed in to an establishment is entirely up to the owner. Vet Pete Wedderburn used to bring his dog to his local pub in Co Wicklow regularly. Overall, he says, there’s been progress when it comes to facilitating dogs and dog owners in the past few years.
But, he points out, “Because of Covid, everything has been distorted.”
The Two Pups Coffee on Francis Street in Dublin has long been known for being a dog-friendly spot in the city centre. Given the cafe’s name, it might seem self-evident, but as proprietor Zoe Ewing Evans says, the two pups are actually a reference to her and business partner Kevin Douglas.
“It was never our intention to be specifically a dog-friendly cafe, it just seemed to happen,” says Ewing Evans. She explains that a neighbouring business owner had two lurchers who “used to traipse in and out on occasion, so I guess we got used to having dogs in and out of the place.”
There are strict rules for canine customers, as Ewing Evans explains.
“Obviously they have to be well-trained, no barking, no jumping up, they have to be house-trained and clean, no bringing your dog for a big muddy walk and then for brunch.”
And feeding your pet from your plate, no matter how cute, cuddly and Instagrammable he or she might be, is “a huge no-no.”
But, overall, Ewing Evans says Two Pups has developed a “base of hugely cute and well-behaved doggy visitors that we are very fond of and who just make everyone’s day more cheerful.”
Hotels and holiday rentals are also increasingly coming round to the fact that people want to holiday with their pets. Even some of our leading hotels are making furry friends welcome: Castlemartyr Resort in Co Cork has a pet concierge; Ashford Castle in Co Galway refers to their four-legged guests as “Very Important Pets”.
Karen Deenihan, a new dog owner, said searching with the ‘pets allowed’ filter on Airbnb is a good place to start when looking for holiday accommodation, but “it reduces the selection available hugely.”
“It’s my plan for a break later this year,” says Deenihan. If that doesn’t work, she’ll go camping with Ruadh, her labradoodle, “providing I can find a campsite that allows dogs.”
Dog kennels have long been an option for dog owners, and there is an increasing supply of them as well as daycares, says Donna Forde, a dog owner who owns Lead The Way, a dog-walking and home-boarding business in Cork city.
But, as she points out, for dog owners their pooches are a part of the family.
“We have come a long way and had some improvements when it comes to becoming more dog-friendly,” says Forde, “but we have a way to go to catch up with our continental neighbours.”
It would be impossible to have a conversation about dog ownership without mentioning the thorny issue of dog fouling. These days, it seems like you can’t go anywhere without finding a bag of dog litter dangling from a tree or discarded by a path.
Dublin City Council recently took to social media to highlight the problem, urging dog owners to ‘bag it and bin it’. The council showed recorded footage of scenes many people will be familiar with: a dog squatting, defecating, its owner waiting, and then simply walking off.
This frustrates the many responsible dog owners who feel they are being given a bad name.
“Ninety per cent of dog owners clean up after their dogs,” says Mairead Casey. “Everyone blames all dog owners for the fact that there is dog poop.”
That issue aside, the majority of dog owners just want to enjoy life with their pet, without bothering anyone else. And they’ll be hoping, post-Covid, that the facilities will be in place for them to do just that.