Wednesday 25 April 2018

Is it fair to keep a dog if you're at work all day?

Dogs get bored if they are left alone all day
Dogs get bored if they are left alone all day

Peter Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

As a vet in the media, I get many questions from members of the public. It's impossible to answer each one privately, but I do my best. And once in a while, I'm asked a question that's worth answering publicly, because the answer is likely to be of interest to many other people. This week, the following query came in, and it fits neatly into this latter category:

"I am thinking of getting small dog but I work full time, and I'm not at home from Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. I am wondering if it is appropriate to keep a dog in this situation"

This question - or a similar variant - comes up repeatedly, and I can understand where people are coming from. If you like animals, there's something appealing about sharing your life with a dog.

In many ways, dogs have evolved as ideal companions for humans. They like us, having adapted their social view of the world to include humans as members of an extended family pack. They are affectionate creatures, and they seem to offer us unconditional love. While other humans may tell us they love us, they still get grumpy if we misbehave, and they may have random moods when they are less than charming to us.

In contrast, dogs seem to remarkably emotionally stable and loving. If you accidentally - or even deliberately - do something wrong, your dog will still be as friendly to you as ever. Dogs don't judge us: they just carry on liking us.

Dogs also have practical functions: they have evolved to be excellent monitors of our environment. The term "watchdog" describes most dogs: they may seem to be sleeping at night, but if there are any strange goings on (such as people loitering in your garden, or even full-on burglars), dogs are quick to wake up and bark. Even in countries where dogs are not kept as indoor pets - in areas like the slums of Delhi - street dogs are valued as security guards, barking to alert people when something out-of-the-ordinary is going on.

And plenty of studies have shown that dogs are good for us. They reduce loneliness and depression, they lower our blood pressure, and they encourage to get outside and exercise.

So all in all, it's easy to see why so many people want to keep dogs. They are a popular part of Irish life: surveys have shown that over half of Irish households own a dog.

However the important aspect that seems to be easy to forget is that dog ownership is a two-way street. Anyone who is considering getting a dog needs to answer two questions. First, will it be fun for me to have a dog? And second, equally importantly, will it be fun for my new dog?

Dogs are social, sentient creatures who have needs, just as humans have needs. They enjoy - and they need - the company of a pack. They need to engage with the world around them. They can't just be left in a space, all on their own.

So, for starters, if everyone in a household is working from 9am to 5pm, then the situation is not right for a dog. Arguably, it could be possible, but it would need special circumstances. For example, if the dog was taken to a doggy day care facility when the humans head off to work. Or if there was a local person who was happy to take care of the dog on a one-to-one basis during the day time. But the concept of owning a dog, but leaving the animal on its own for eight hours a day is a non-starter. The dog would suffer from social deprivation, and this would be manifested in clear ways, such as barking, howling, chewing the house and other so-called "bad behaviours".

In fact, there's a strong argument that it would be illegal to keep a dog in such circumstances. Under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, it's against the law for a person "to do, or fail to do, anything or cause or permit anything to be done to an animal that causes unnecessary suffering to, or endanger the health or welfare of, an animal," That's legalese for saying that it's against the law to do anything that makes animals suffer. And keeping a dog on its own for eight hours a day, five days a week, is pretty much guaranteed to cause suffering.

The sad truth is that there are many dogs in Ireland who do live solitary, lonely lives like this. There are many possible reasons, including the fact that people's lives change over time. Someone may get a dog when they are based at home, then five years later, their circumstances change. Perhaps their new job means that they can no longer spend so much time at home.

There are many other circumstances which may mean that a dog is unexpectedly forced to spend more time on its own than their owners intended. It's unfortunate when this happens, and hopefully a way may be found of making it easier for the dog, such as lunchtime walks, day care or other ways of lessening the solitude.

It's bad enough that these type of circumstances accidentally occur. But to deliberately create a situation where a dog will predictably be on its own for long stretches of time, five days a week? That's just wrong.

So my answer to this questioner, and to the many other people who ask me similar questions, is simple.

No, it is not appropriate to keep a dog if you're going to be out at work all day.

Drogheda Independent