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Dublin: 2°C Monday 12 April 2021

Opinion: Let's celebrate the dog - man's best friend in a pandemic

Tom Inglis and his Wheaten terrier, Pepe, lived together for eighteen years. Here, he pays tribute to Pepe and all the furry friends who have helped us through 2020.

Tom Inglis

IT WAS REPORTED in October that dogs are being used in Helsinki airport to sniff out signs of Covid-19 from incoming travellers. The dogs sniff wipes that passengers have used. It seems they are able to detect traces of the virus days before people develop symptoms and with close to 100 per cent accuracy.

But this is not the main story about dogs and Covid. Without dogs, and indeed cats (I confess that I am not a cat person) I think the toll of despair and depression would have been much higher these past months, particularly among older members of the population (myself included) and those living alone. 

We hear it so often when referring to their dog, people say ‘I would be lost without Fido’, and we nod in agreement.

But there is a lack of recognition and celebration of the important work that dogs do. Dogs are not frontline workers; they cannot look after us and save our lives during a pandemic. But, for many people, they are central to their mental health and well-being.   

Dogs have been useful to humans for thousands of years. In the early stages, dogs and humans hunted together and then, when the move to farming took place, dogs were used for protecting homes, farms and livestock, catching vermin and searching for food. 

Over the years, dogs have been bred to carry out specific tasks. For example, the Glen of Imaal Terrier was bred to hunt badgers; Cocker Spaniels to raise Woodcock. But the uses of dogs have changed.

Cockers are now used to sniff out drugs and, more recently we have learned that Bernese Mountain Dogs are used in Áras an Uachtaráin as diplomatic icebreakers.

From worker to companion

From the beginning, one of the most common uses which humans have had for dogs is as companions and family members. An indication of this is a 12,000-year-old grave in Israel in which a dead woman was found cradling a puppy.  

It used to be that keeping dogs as pets were the preserve of aristocrats. Then, with the industrial revolution, a new urban bourgeoisie began to emerge who treated dogs as luxury items that brought them social distinction.

Over the last two hundred years, this idea of having a dog as a pet has spread throughout the world.

Ireland is no different when it comes to dogs; there are 455,000 of them in this country; one for about every second household. We all either have a dog or know someone who is devoted to one. A recent opinion poll showed that 94 per cent of owners saw their dogs as members of the family.

Over half (54 per cent) would consider ending a relationship if they thought their pup did not like the partner they picked. Over half (56 per cent) said that when they came home, they said hello to their dog first before their loved ones. And just under half (47 per cent) said they found it harder to leave their dog for a week than their human partner. 

A major commitment

Dogs are a burden. They have to be cared for, trained, fed, groomed and walked. And they have to be greeted, petted and talked to. And they are costly. They are particularly costly in 2020, it seems. It is estimated that in the UK, so far this year, the cost of a puppy from the more popular breeds, doubled.

A report on the situation in Ireland during the summer indicated the demand for popular breeds of puppies was so high that prices had increased by up to 800 per cent, from €350 up to €2,700 for a cockapoo or labradoodle, or four times more, from €500 to €2,000, for a Labrador pup. 

Pepe on Deck Pepe, Tom's dog Source: Tom Inglis

And dogs are expensive to keep. A study a few years ago suggested that the annual cost of keeping a dog was €2,500. That could be the cost of a family might spend on an annual holiday.  

But look at what they give back. They are a source of companionship, consolation and comfort, particularly in these times. In a world of confusion and uncertainty, they are a major source of meaning and fulfilment. We become attached to them. They bring so much love and it is good to love. 

Unconditional love

In an ideal world, humans would all love one another. We would not be dependent on dogs for love. But love is an emotion. It is not rational and reasonable. People love different things. They fall in and out of love. Humans may be sophisticated, but emotions make them fragile.

This is one of the reasons why we love our dogs. They don’t do emotions. They don’t play at being hurt, sad or resentful. When they are happy, they show it. 

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I have been in love with dogs all my life. When Pepe, my Wheaten Terrier died, I grieved. I had tried to keep her alive but after seventeen years, I had to let her go.

She brought me through many tough times, particularly the death of my wife Aileen. When Pepe and I looked into each other’s eyes, I felt a strong sense of bonding, as if we shared the same sense of loss and, at the same time, appreciated the beauty and magic of life and our attachment and commitment to each other.  

Pepe on Couch Pepe

Humans become attached to all sorts of things. They love and care for them. Often it is unconditional love. Many of us love our partners, parents, children and friends. But many of us also love our dogs and talk to them as if they understand us.

And in these times, when you can’t be with the ones you love, it is okay to love your dog and, equally significant, for that love to be recognised and appreciated.

So, there should be no shame in loving a dog. As well as being great companions, dogs are a source of inspiration. They live in the moment. They live in an enchanted world. They take delight in it.

They do not try to master and control it. They are stoical about the conditions of their existence. There is much that we can learn from them. 

Tom Inglis, To Love A Dog_Jacket Source: Tom Inglis

Tom Inglis is a sociologist and a life-long dog lover. Born and raised in Dublin, he now lives in a former schoolhouse in County Roscommon. For eighteen years he lived alongside Pepe, his beloved Wheaten terrier bitch. He is the author of several books, including Making Love: A Memoir and Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland. To Love a Dog, published by Sandycove, is out now. Available here.

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Tom Inglis

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