#parent | #kids | The power of the dog

We live in a dog-crazy land. You know it’s true. There are 12.5 million pet dogs in Britain, and no fewer than one in three households have one. Which is, by any measure, a lot of dogs, especially when we’re confronting a cost-of-living crisis.

Most people, of course, will already know why we have quite so many of them: they’re cute when they’re young and beautiful or handsome when fully grown; they provide companionship, yet they don’t do passive aggression or sarcasm. Most of us already have siblings, parents or a spouse for that.

Dogs also offer the not inconsiderable challenge of training them and the concomitant pleasure of their eventually doing what they’re told – as well as the public humiliation that comes when they continue to jump up on strangers or knock old ladies down with their enthusiasm. (Mind you, watching other people’s dogs do that offers the reciprocal pleasure of canine schadenfreude.) Dogs also provide child substitutes to those without them or for when your kids are too old cuddle – and you’re too old for a teddy bear.

But much more than all of this, dogs – in a way that cats can simply never be – are social connectors: they bring us together. In a land like ours famed for its reticence and ease of social embarrassment, they permit perfect strangers to have conversations they would never normally have.

Dogs provide a glue to society: like the church once did, or the pub, the café or even the gym

As anyone who has watched Lady and the Tramp knows, they facilitate introductions – and believe me, it’s not just Disney schmaltz. I promise you there will be people getting married this very day who met through their dogs. (And we know that our dogs are a much more reliable guide to a person than any dating website profile, so if you’re single, go for the dog not the dating app.)

Even in our coldest, biggest cities, dogs shine a warm light of familiarity that allows strangers to connect with one another, and therefore to express their mutual humanity which is otherwise denied by the strictures of urban anonymity. Dogs familiarise us through their wagging tails with our unnamed neighbours – and you get to know the dog by name long before you can say the same of the owner. ‘You know who I mean,’ you find yourself saying after a walk. ‘The woman with Beau, the bonkers French bulldog…’

Our four-legged friends therefore provide a glue to society: like the church once did, or the pub, the café or even the gym. And that makes them a species of social worker, but without the power to section you. This social contribution is the real reason why dogs matter. If there isn’t already a sociology module about them there ought to be.

But their societal contribution goes even further. Owning a dog and the responsibility that comes with it gives people who live alone – a quarter of households are one-person homes – another point to their day. It can be a focus, too, something to care for in an increasingly solitary world where – whether we’re retired or working from home – we sit alone blinking at screens and devices, and where even the supermarket checkout assistant has been replaced by a robot that can speak Polish but can’t tell if you’re over 18. As well as life-affirming company, our dogs are the willing recipients of our love and affection, which is all the more acute in the absence of others.

And then there’s walking the bloody things. Just think how many heart attacks or strokes have been obviated by the twice-or thrice-a-day dog walks that each of Britain’s 12.5 million canines requires. That’s actual human exercise in the face of what’s for many an otherwise sedentary day. And with it comes the promise of another day of hassle-free ventricle-motion from the heart, or another 24 hours of unclogged aortic blood delivery. Thank God for dogs, because otherwise the NHS’s cardiac units would be even more swamped than they are already. If you’re worried about your weight, don’t get a gastric band, get a Hungarian vizsla. They’ll walk your heels off. But walks are just the start. Even the act of bending down twice a day to pick up your dog’s poo is good for you — a form, dare I say, of canine faecal yoga. Don’t believe me? Well, if you’ve not balanced the needs of a straining dog lead, while holding a torch, with the act of scooping up a limp warm canine stool and managing a mobile call all at the same time in the pitch black, then you’re not in a position to judge.The brutal fact is if you can pick up dog poo you can probably get your shoes on: with an ageing Britain – 15.5 million of us are over 60 – and a shortage of carers, perhaps owning dogs should be compulsory? And that’s before we’ve even considered the benefits of throwing a ball…

Taken together, dogs are important in ways that many of us haven’t even begun to consider or acknowledge. But then, no wonder we take them for granted; we first domesticated them some 20,000 years ago. That means that humans and dogs have together weathered wars, famines, pandemics and at least one Ice Age, and it’s an open question how many of us would – or wouldn’t – be here but for a dog at some point along the way. A bark in the night 2,000 years ago might have made all the difference.

In the here and now, we can say this for certain: collectively dogs will be reducing heart disease and obesity and depression, and therefore saving the health service millions. They will be allowing people to live happier, healthier lives – one stoop to scoop at a time. No wonder we have so many of them. So, if you fancy a dog, I say get one. It’ll be a tie, of course, and kennels aren’t cheap, and nor is the vet. But it’ll be good for you, and you’ll never look back. As the 19th century American humourist Josh Billings said: ‘A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.’

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