Where I live, dogs are so popular that, if I see someone out of the house without one, I wonder what they’re up to. I mean, this is Bulldog Britain – home of everything from beagles to lurchers, and from Greyfriars Bobby to Petra, Goldie, and Shep.
But if you thought that man’s best friend had long-since maxed out its popularity, you might be surprised to learn that “celebrity dogs” have triggered a recent surge in demand. As ever, demand brings the opportunity for someone to make a few quid, and opportunity draws in opportunists – however unscrupulous.
The sad but completely unsurprising fallout is that, in the last ten years, there have been five times more reports of illegal puppy farms.
More awareness around the issue might have played a part in the increase in reporting, but so too does the newfound modishness of certain breeds as celebrity accessories. Look at pugs. Time was when the only pug that anyone knew was Little Willy. He was the surrogate husband of EastEnders’ resident widow Ethel Skinner, who would shuffle about Albert Square clutching the perpetually bewildered Willy. And so nobody bought a pug, because Ethel had a pug.
Fast forward several decades, and we have the likes of DanTDM – a sweet young YouTuber who plays video games all day for the entertainment of the kids who love watching him do it. We love DanTDM in our house, and DanTDM loves pugs, so of course his young fans do too. For a while, it was my full-time job to gently explain to my little boy that he couldn’t have a pug just because DanTDM did.
Along with pugs, French bulldogs and dachshunds have had a serious moment in recent years. A friend of mine, who loves dogs, paid £3,500 for her French bulldog. She bought hers from a reputable breeder, but with so many people looking for a “bargain”, can you imagine how much an unregistered puppy farmer can make? Vast stacks of cash change hands, while these most intelligent of animals spend their lives locked away in crates to be bred and bred again, until eventually the broken and exhausted mother is simply disposed of.
If you have ever owned or known a dog, you will know that they are creatures of love: highly social pack animals that need to be cuddled, praised, exercised, played with, and addressed in the stupidest voice you can muster at least seven times an hour. They are not machines, and while some registered puppy farms are not illegal, frankly that means little to me. The dogs are still monetised to within an inch of their lives, their happiness a distant second to the profit motive.
I can already predict that some of you will be irked by my lack of outright condemnation for buying pedigree puppies. “Adopt don’t shop!” I hear you howl, and I do get it, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
It’s very hard, for instance, to find a suitable rescue dog if you have children under 12. Of course, in an ideal world, every rescue dog would be found a loving home before commercial breeders even got a look-in, but the reality is that knowing your pet’s breed and lineage can lend a degree of predictability to their temperament, which is a huge factor for a dog that’s going to be living with little children.
The fight against animal cruelty took a leap this year thanks to the efforts of Redcar MP Anna Turley, who was driven by the horrific abuse of a bulldog called Baby to propose a new law that could see animal abusers jailed for five years, where previously they might have got off with a slap on the wrist. It’s progress, but there is so much more that we could do. Banning puppy farming, and giving the authorities the resources to enforce the laws that do exist, are essential steps forward.
In the meantime, we need to address some of the narrative around dogs. I’ll freely admit that, before I got my own dog, I didn’t understand just how needy they are – as much as people, if not more so. When she was a puppy, I tried to train her to sleep in the kitchen. She cried, so on the first night, I slept on the kitchen floor with her. And on the second night, and the third.
For three weeks I slept with her in the kitchen, until eventually I learned it was a lot easier just to take her to bed with me and let her practise jumping on my head there instead. Now, older and more secure, she sleeps happily on her own, but believe me: it is genuinely difficult to cling onto feelings of love for a puppy, no matter how cute or fluffy, when they leave you so exhausted that you can’t feel your own face.