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A dog's life



It’s been a year of dogs. Tilly and Chilli and Louis and George and Lulu and Chip. The handsome Groodles — one a forest of golden curls, the other a tumble of butterscotch tresses — jogging with their athletic owners; they sprint across the road at precisely the same time each day, pausing just long enough to sniff cursorily in our direction (is that a gesture of friendly acknowledgement or chilly superiority?) before disappearing up the road.

The twin Labradors swishing up and down the footpath and flopping periodically in a flaxen heap along the pathway or beneath the grevillea. The French bulldog racing up and down the fence-line as we pass by, his face crumpled with confected ferocity, his snort and squeal communicating unbridled delight at our appearance. The dainty old Moodle sitting in the back seat of her mistress’ car as she’s driven to the dog park.

And then there are my own dogs, Loepies and Pie — Shih Tzu-poodle and Moodle respectively, lapdogs who’ve provided additional companionship and solace during lockdown. I’d assumed, too, that lockdown would have afforded them consolation in return, for not a day has passed for them in the loneliness and somnolence which is often the feature of a dog’s life. Though well cared for (excessively, some might say), these fur-babies had existed pre-pandemic as anchors to our family’s ceaseless movement; while they stayed home (for the most part) the members of our household came and went with the business of life: work, school, university, social engagements, travel.

I frequently undertook assignments abroad; the dogs’ eyes and ears would droop perceptibly each time I brought my suitcase down from the cupboard and started to pack. Upon my return they would launch themselves at me in a state of exquisite jubilation, as though I were some prodigal apparition; these reunions were particularly consoling for Loepies, who would nuzzle my neck for long minutes, her little body emitting shudders that felt for all the world like sobs.

But for almost two years our pets (including a less-invested though equally-loved cat) have had us all to themselves. Everywhere I go now, the dogs follow: to the study, to the television, to the bathroom, to bed. I’m the recipient of that same loyal companionship sought out by so many during the pandemic: across the world, demand to adopt or foster animals — and dogs, in particular — has surged. The positive impact of pet ownership on people’s mental and physical health — including stress reduction and a lowering of blood pressure — has clearly been intuited and harnessed by humans during these past 18 months. 

But research has indicated the stress suffered by pet owners during the pandemic may in turn affect their animals. While dogs and cats in one study were found to have provided substantial support to their owners, 62 percent of respondents also believed their pet's quality of life had decreased; around 40 percent said they’d observed behavioural changes in their animals – excitability, nervousness, irritability, attention-seeking.


'It’s already well-documented that dogs can sense and absorb their owners’ distress, particularly if the relationship is emotionally dependent; such potential has no doubt been exacerbated by the pandemic.'


It’s already well-documented that dogs can sense and absorb their owners’ distress, particularly if the relationship is emotionally dependent; such potential has no doubt been exacerbated by the pandemic. There is the risk, too, that once lockdowns are finally behind us we will abandon the animals on which we have relied for succour (though data from another study indicate that ‘not only is the concern of increased dog abandonment not justified, at least so far, the opposite has occurred’ although researchers acknowledged ‘the potential risk for dog relinquishment in the coming months cannot be completely excluded’).

I ponder these possibilities as I wander my dog-filled neighbourhood with Loepies and Pie. Abandonment of some degree will be inevitable in even the most committed of pet-owning households once we transition back to normality. These daily neighbourhood scenes so redolent of communal living I’ve often seen on my travels — people pouring from homes and onto streets awash with dogs, cats, brush turkeys and even goats, such as have appeared in a garden on my street — will gradually dissipate. Will dogs excrete that surfeit of stress they’ve absorbed from us even as they spend more time alone in backyards?

It’s a distressing thought, and one which, in my own home, is coupled with the anticipation of a far greater — and irreversible — abandonment: Loepies’ impending death. A year ago the now-12-year-old was diagnosed with congestive heart failure; she might live for 12 or 14 months with care and medication, the specialist vet had told me at the time; but eventually the condition will take this little dog’s life.

And so this time of lockdown has taken on a great sense of purpose and poignancy: our daily walks, circumscribed by Loepies’ fatigue, have been gentler and languorous and more investigatory. She has become more tolerant of Tilly and Chilli and Louis and George and Lulu and Chip; her once-haughty sniff is a gesture of friendly acknowledgement rather than chilly superiority. Perhaps she senses the shortening of time, knows that she must slow down and smell the lampposts and stop sweating the small, human-induced, stuff.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist. Professor Ian Hickie is the co-host with James O’Loghlin of Minding Your Mind podcast.


Main image: Woman takes selfie with dog  (Vanessa Nunes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, pandemic, isolation, dogs, pets, purpose, lockdown, COVID-19



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Existing comments

A dog is a book’s best friend. You can’t smudge or stretch the rib cages of your book while you smoodge or stretch the emotions of your dog. It must put a writer who cares about both in a quandary.

roy chen yee | 01 October 2021  

Outside of a dog, a book is a wo/man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. (Sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx, but possibly incorrectly).

Ginger Meggs | 03 October 2021  

Thanks Catherine. Great article. I believe some research is indicating that while dogs have by and large enjoyed and are enjoying more time with their human companions. cats on the other hand wish they would leave them alone. Use the next few months with privilege at the end of Loepie's journey. I have been there and regret the time I had to spend doing other things

geoff | 13 October 2021  

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