Sunday 16 June 2019

Give pet accessories as gifts, but don't give pets

People are still tempted to give a dog as a Christmas present
People are still tempted to give a dog as a Christmas present

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

"A dog is for life, not just for Christmas". For some reason, this slogan, invented by Dogs Trust forty years ago, captured the public's imagination.

The phrase entered common parlance to the extent that it has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary of Quotations. It's popularity became so great that the combination of words had to be protected, by getting the slogan officially trademarked by Dogs Trust, to stop retail companies from using the same words to promote their own products.

You would think that, by now, everybody would have heard and understood the message, but the strange thing is that many people continue to fall for that old temptation every year. And the same consequences repeat, year after year: as soon as the puppy has passed the cute and cuddly stage, he or she may be dumped on the streets.

The most common cause of death of young adult male dogs is euthanasia for so-called "bad behaviour". The truth is that these animals were often just unlucky enough to find themselves in a home where they were not really wanted, and where nobody could be bothered to train them properly. It's not their fault that they grow up to behave in ways that mean that people felt they had to take them to the vet to have them euthanased.

When animal rescue centres and vets witness this type of unfortunate outcome, it's no wonder that they become so passionately against puppies being included on Christmas gift lists. Most dog rescue centres (like Dogs Trust) and many responsible breeders refuse to rehome animals in the weeks leading up to Christmas, to avoid pets being bandied about like toys.

In theory, of course, there is an argument that there may be a place for a new dog to be brought into a home around Christmas. If the family has considered the decision carefully, and has done the correct research, why should a new pet not be introduced on a particular day of the year? How is it different from any other day of the year?

There are three good reasons why even in these circumstances, it's still not a good idea.

The first point is that animals should never be given as gifts, as a point of principle. When this is done, the animal is unavoidably classified as an object, rather than being recognised as a sentient creature. After all, nobody would ever consider giving a human being as a present. Can you imagine if a couple had been considering adopting a child, and as a surprise, the husband came back with a new baby for his wife as a Christmas present? This is clearly just plain wrong when it comes to humans. And although, of course, animals are not the same as humans, they are still living creatures, and they should not be treated in the same way as inanimate objects. If they arrive in the house in this way, they are put in the same mental box as a toy, or a gadget, or a piece of jewellery, or any other gift. But because they are alive, they cannot be treated like these other presents: you can't just put them back in the cupboard when you are tired of them. This is the simple reason why giving animals as gifts is just a no-no.

The second reason is that Christmas time is just a bad time of year for a new animal to arrive. The household is up to high doh with all sorts of other happenings. There are visitors coming and going, special meals are being eaten, too much drink is being drunk. There just isn't time to give a new animal the focus that it deserves. And those early days are really important for young puppies: they need to be carefully nurtured, being introduced to the household gradually and calmly, and avoiding sudden loud noises or over-assertive people. If a puppy has a distressing emotional experience, they can be left with long term fears and anxieties that can scar them for life. There's too much unpredictability at Christmas time.

The third reason why pets should not be given as presents is that this adds an irresistible, emotional reason to get the pet in the first place. We all know how difficult it can be to choose the right Christmas present for a loved one: we are all under pressure at this time of year to find that ideal gift. We want to buy them something that they really want, and something that will make them happy. On the face of it, a pet can tick those boxes for some people. But the problem is that our desire to find a gift can pressurise us to get an animal that we might not really think is appropriate in other circumstances. And every year, I get people coming up to me after Christmas saying things like "my children got me the dog; I didn't feel ready, but what could I do?" Deciding to get a pet is a personal decision for an individual: it should never be forced on them by a well-meaning family member or friend.

So what should you do if you are certain that your family is ready for a new pet at Christmas time? Here's an idea: Santa Claus could bring presents like a dog bed, dog toys, and other doggy bits and pieces. Your family will get the message about what is coming soon. Then in the days or weeks after Christmas, when the seasonal madness has calmed down, you can collect the new arrival from the rescue centre or breeder.

Even then, before leaping into anything, remember that all-important message:

A dog is for life, whenever you get it.

Drogheda Independent