Is it ever acceptable for dogs to be kept outside?
I call into the Newstalk studios in Dublin every Tuesday morning, to do a "vet spot". Each week, we discuss a topical subject, before answering questions on pet care from listeners. From time to time, a controversial discussion ensues. That's what happened recently when the topic of dogs sleeping outdoors came up.
It started with a listener texting in to ask if it was OK to leave her Yorkshire terrier outside. My reply was that as long as the dog had a warm, dry, weatherproof place to sleep, then it was a possibility. After the show, another listener emailed me to say that in his opinion, there are many reasons why a dog should not be expected to sleep outdoors, pointing out that most dog rescue organisations won't rehome a dog to an owner who plans to keep the dog outside. This started a debate: is it ever right to keep a dog outdoors?
My view is that as with many subjects, it can be dangerous to make generalisations. I do believe that it is possible to give a dog an excellent quality of life with the dog having a sleeping place at night that is not inside the family home. I have had this experience myself: many years ago, our young terrier dog, Spot, routinely slept in cosy kennel on a paved area outside our back door. He came inside to be with the family during the daytimes and evenings, but his "bedroom" was an outdoor kennel. He had a warm, dry, draught-free insulated wooden kennel which he saw as his home, and he liked going into it. He was taken for a 45 minute walk twice daily, and he had as much social time with our family as if he had slept indoors. One benefit of his outdoor sleeping place was that he had a useful role as a watch dog, barking if there were any strangers coming into our back garden. We appreciated this, and our immediate neighbours also found this reassuring. Spot had a thick shiny coat, shedding less than other dogs, and I believed that his time spent outdoors, with more exposure to seasonal ambient temperatures and day length, contributed to the excellent health of his coat.
However, while this system worked well for my own dog, it does not mean that I believe the broader statement that "dogs can be kept outside". There are many potential hazards associated with dogs having being kept in outdoor kennels.
First, just because a dog has a kennel that's outside does not mean that he can be forgotten about. There is a very serious animal welfare issue in Ireland with dogs being stuck out in the back yard and ignored, never taken out even for short walks, living miserable, frustrated lives. Many housing estates across Ireland reverberate to the sound of dogs barking in back gardens, lonely, miserable and frustrated.
Furthermore, these bored dogs often try to escape, then roaming the streets and getting into trouble. People try to keep them in with ineffective electric shock fencing or by chaining them up. It all has the potential to lead to serious animal health and welfare issues.
It is this type of common scenario that leads animal welfare groups to take a hard line on outdoor accommodation for dogs. And I agree with them: if a vet on the radio says it's OK for a dog to sleep in an outdoor kennel, this should not be taken as an excuse for this type of neglect.
People need to remember that when they get a dog, they are not getting an object like a piece of garden furniture that can be left outside and forgotten about. They are taking on a living, sentient creature that should become part of their family, sharing time and experiences with the rest of the household. Dogs are social creatures and their human owners are obliged under the Animal Health and Welfare Act to fulfil their physical and behavioural needs. If they cannot - or do not want to do this - then they should not take on a dog in the first place.
So when I say that an outdoor kennel can be acceptable, this can only be in the limited context of a dog being otherwise cared for as a loved family pet, and not being treated as a nuisance, put away outside for convenience.
By the way, if anyone is considering an outdoor kennel for their dog to sleep in, assuming other aspects of the dog's life are being properly looked after, there is a particular type of kennel that stands out. A new Irish company called Pet Cosy (www.petcosy.ie) has designed dog kennels that are the canine equivalent of five star accommodation. At first glance, the kennels look similar to standard dog kennels but they are carefully designed for comfort, with 40mm insulation, a rubberised comfortable base, and other unique features. I have no commercial connection with the company but I have seen their products, and I'm impressed.
Declan, the founder of Pet Cosy tells a compelling story about how he started designing pet accommodation. When he was a teenager, his sister bought a pet rabbit with a wooden hutch from the pet shop. Declan was an animal enthusiast, avidly following the work of Eamon de Buitlear, and he knew that rabbits liked to live in cosy warrens underground. He was appalled that the rabbit was expected to sleep in a cold bare wooden nesting area, so he installed thick insulation, creating a warm snug in the centre of the rabbit hutch. The pet rabbit lived till he was fifteen years old, far longer than an average pet. Could this have been a direct result of having a warm bed every night?