MARY HARRINGTON: Covid let me see how devotion to dogs connects humans

MARY HARRINGTON: Covid let me see how devotion to dogs connects humans

MARY HARRINGTON: Covid made me see it’s not social media that connects us as humans – the real glue is our shared devotion to dogs

Just over a month into owning my first puppy, I’m no longer crying on dog walks or wondering if getting her was a mistake.

Instead, this four-legged addition to our family has taught me just how ‘virtual’ my own life had become, particularly since the pandemic thinned out our social world.

In fact, I’ve discovered just how much, in an age of so-called ‘social’ media, Britons are relying on our dogs to keep local, real-world community life alive.

When Sapphire, an adorable eight-week-old golden labrador, arrived in our household, I fell instantly in love with her. But what followed was a week from hell.

First, my husband had to travel overseas. Then my daughter’s sickness bug turned out to be Covid-19.

Writer Mary Harrington pictured holding three-month-old labrador puppy Sapphire in her hands

I found myself solo-parenting in quarantine, shuttling frantically back and forth between a sick child and a tiny pup who needed constant supervision or she’d howl and leave puddles on the floor.

I barely ate or slept for five days. By the time husband returned, I was grey-faced with exhaustion and half a stone lighter.

My daughter feared Saffy’s jumping and sharp little teeth. And my husband was less charmed by her antics than horrified by the little bundle of chaos who’d brought the house to a standstill.

A few weeks on from that low point, though, things are very different. She’s no longer waking us at night. My hands aren’t covered with tiny puncture wounds. And my daughter’s enjoying puppy cuddles.

Most of all, as we take her out for little puppy-sized walks, she’s changing our social lives both in the family and beyond.

With activities limited during lockdown, we’d all got into the habit of watching TV or scrolling through social media after breakfast and before work or school. Now, instead, we all put on coats and shoes and take the puppy out as a family.

‘When Sapphire, an adorable eight-week-old golden labrador, arrived in our household, I fell instantly in love with her,’ Ms Harrington writes

The garden’s getting more use too. Our daughter’s getting much more fresh air.

I’ve also realised how much everyday local contact had disappeared from my own life – even before the pandemic.

As a writer working at home, there’s always the danger of living life in my head or through my computer. Saffy has forced me to unplug and get out into the street. 

And in doing so, I’ve discovered the hidden miracle of dog ownership. It’s not just about a dog who adores you. It’s also other dog people: the lifeblood of Britain’s streets.

Dog people are out in all weathers. They’re usually not in a hurry, and much more sociable than your average passer-by. And dogs are great conversation-starters, especially for reserved but animal-crazy Brits.

Everyone wants to say ‘Hi’ to a puppy. Thanks to Saffy, I’ve meet more neighbours in the past two weeks than in the previous two years.

And it’s the regularity too. People take the same routes at the same times. Your local dog people don’t say: ‘Nice to meet you.’ They say: ‘See you around.’ Because, tomorrow or soon, they almost certainly will. I’m starting to recognise the faces – human and canine.

No wonder then that Britain rushed to buy dogs when the pandemic forced us into our houses, diminishing social contact to awkward video calls.

We bought 3.2 million pets during lockdown, with dogs among the most popular. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the price of puppies more than doubled, to an average of £1,900 for a pedigree pooch.

And for many, those dogs were a lifeline. One study showed that while all of us were hit by pandemic restrictions, older adults with dogs were less lonely. As well as the company provided, dog-walking provided social contact in the outside world.

Ms Harrington writes: ‘Dog people are out in all weathers. They’re usually not in a hurry, and much more sociable than your average passer-by.’ Stock photo used

Not that this doggy companionship has been plain sailing. Saffy has been a wonderful addition to our home. But teaching a puppy to be a pleasant member of the household takes time and effort.

And it’s easy to skimp on this when under pressure. During the pandemic, life for many families was like my week from hell – but for months on end. And with owners forced to juggle home-working, remote school and quarantine too, many lockdown dogs missed out on training.

The result has been an epidemic of maladjusted canines. Since the pandemic, animal charities report a surge in calls for advice about noisy, nervous or aggressive dogs – the more so since we started getting back to normal life and homes empty for most of the day.

Meanwhile, some are accused of getting too cosy with their pets. Some younger people, many of whom are locked out of home ownership and struggling with insecure jobs, face criticism for treating their dogs like children – or even replacing children with dogs.

But it wasn’t just the pandemic. Lives were getting lonelier long before social distancing. People live in ever smaller households. Families are more scattered. Working hours grow ever longer. Local shops, post offices, pubs and village schools close year by year.

Time for the business of everyday living is squeezed ever harder.

Over the course of the pandemic, the price of puppies more than doubled, to an average of £1,900 for a pedigree pooch. Stock photo used

So while it’s easy to sneer at Mother’s Day cards from the dog, or pampered pooches in pushchair-like buggies, we should look at the warning this sounds.

If it tells us anything, it’s that many today – young and old – know our social fabric is desperately frayed. Loneliness and isolation were already at epidemic levels when Covid struck.

For millions across the country, lockdowns shattered what social life remained. Today, about 7.9 million of us live alone, including 1.4 million elderly. The Office for National Statistics predicted this could rise to 10.7 million by 2039 – one in seven of us.

A poll conducted before the pandemic showed that 22 per cent of the generation heading for their 40s, millennials, report having no friends.

The ‘social’ in ‘social media’ doesn’t seem to fill the gap. One study showed those most often online are three times more likely to feel isolated.

The pandemic shattered our social bonds still further. Casual chat with neighbours was out. So much of social life relies on little moments. A quick hello. ‘How are you?’ in passing. Even playgrounds were locked.

Grandparents tried to keep in touch with baffled toddlers via laptop screens. Families said goodbyes to dying relatives over Zoom.

Humans aren’t meant to live like this. No wonder millions have turned to dogs for companionship, and for an excuse to speak to other humans in the real world.

We’ve been living with these amazing animals for 40,000 years. They’ve been many things to us over that time: guardians, soldiers, co-workers, friends and now – for some – even substitute babies.

But we’re leaning on them to hold together a social fabric in danger of disintegrating altogether.

Are we asking too much of man’s best friend? 

  • Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at online magazine UnHerd.

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