2020 proved to be a year where Australian households, gripped in a global pandemic, turned in earnest to owning a pet.

Hands up who considered getting a pet last year when a certain virus became that annoying party straggler who refuses to go home, even after the music has finished? And hands up who tried in vain to adopt or buy a pet for companionship to ease the interminable boredom of a lockdown?

Well, you’re certainly not alone. 2020 saw prodigious levels of pet sales and adoptions across Australia, as households took advantage of time spent at home to welcome a new family member. Animals experienced unprecedented levels of attention and physical exercise as we all bunkered down in a shared domestic space.

According to Allie Small, Cranbourne Shelter Supervisor at the Lost Dogs’ Home in Melbourne, pet adoptions in 2019-20 were up 17 per cent over 2018-19.

“In 2019-20, a total of 5,152 pets were adopted,” she reveals. “These were our biggest adoption numbers in more than five years, and this included an incredible month in May 2020 where 566 were adopted.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Ask any pet owner to discuss the benefits and you’ll be there for hours – and that’s before they pull out a limitless gallery of smartphone photos supporting their obsession.

The benefits of pet ownership have never been more important given the crisis the world is currently navigating. Enforced isolation has, understandably, had an inevitable impact on mental health across all age groups.

“Pets don’t judge.”

Pets don’t judge. They are excellent company and provide unbounded affection and unconditional love. Owning a dog can provide the impetus to get active, with daily walks improving the physical wellbeing of dog and owner alike. When an owner pats, smiles at and cuddles their dog, for instance, increased oxytocin – also known as the ‘love hormone’ – is produced in both parties. And studies have shown that pet owners live longer.

As we continue to face similar challenges in 2021, the inevitable return to the office is becoming a reality for many Australians. So, what happens when you have to leave your four-legged (or otherwise) friend at home for the day? For some pets, it won’t be an issue, but for others with underlying separation anxiety issues, there could be some problems that need addressing.

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Where did it all begin?

It’s widely accepted that dogs were the first animal to be tamed. Through archaeological finds, wolves, the common ancestor of all dogs, are believed to have become close human companions over 12,000 years ago when they were used to hunt, herd and guard.

Cats were long thought to have been first domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians. But in 2004, a grave containing a human and cat was discovered on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus – pre-dating Ancient Egypt by around 4,000 years.

Preparing to return to work

Throughout this pandemic, there has been one clear winner – pets. For anyone caught in a lockdown, between the incessant Zoom meetings, the challenges of home-schooling, and staring at the same four walls in a desperate search for inspiration, many turned to their pets for solace. During these periods of isolation, pets have become accustomed to being the centre of attention. Dogs, in particular, are social animals and enjoy constant stimulation and interaction. So, how can we prepare them to adapt to a more isolated existence?

“You need to make a pathway for your dog that is based on routine, and do it for gradually longer periods,” explains Dr Dieuwerke Schepers from the Gisborne Veterinary Clinic in Victoria.
“Make sure you’re familiar with the environmental enrichment concepts for dogs. You can use certain foods in a Kong (a rubber toy with a hollow centre that can be filled with food) and when you leave you say, ‘Here you are, this is for you to keep yourself occupied with for five minutes’ and you literally go out the door with your keys and your bag. When you come back in again after two minutes, they should still be busy with that Kong.

“The important thing is that you don’t make a fuss when you leave, and you do not make a fuss when you return; they get rewarded for calm behaviour. So, you are creating a rewards system for the behaviour that you want. In many ways it’s very similar to children – you kind of ignore the stuff that you don’t like, and you actively reward the behaviour that you do want.”
And while maintaining the physical exercise regime that your dog has become used to is important, Dr Schepers says that combining this with essential mental stimulation is the key to success.

“Dogs get far more worn out by doing training – like sit, drop, roll-over, shake paws, etc. If you spend five minutes in the morning and night doing some training, that is far more fatiguing for a dog than to go on a 2km walk.

“It’s about marrying good exercise, a good training regime, and particularly paying attention to what’s called ‘environmental enrichment’ for dogs. That’s probably one of the key things to get across – that dogs have certain behavioural needs. They need to eat, they need to play, they need to hunt for food, they need to have social interaction. So, there are certain behavioural needs to be met every day, and if we meet as many of those as possible and make their environment as normal for them as we can – and not try to think of what we would like as humans, but what it is that dogs actually need – then you’ll have far fewer problem behaviours.”

What age can I leave my puppy?

“It depends on what you are providing for your pup,“ says Dr Schepers. “If there is food, water and good shelter and adequate outdoor space, you could probably start to leave them on their own at 10-12 weeks. However, it’s important that you gradually train them for those longer periods of time that you are going to be away. There is no clear definition, but around 12-14 weeks you can probably start to leave your puppy on its own for longer periods of time – but you have to train it for that.”

Pet tech

Canines on the console

1. A PlayStation classic, PaRappa the Rapper is a rhythm game where players react to prompts on the screen by pressing the buttons on the controller. Get the sequencing spot on, PaRappa raps in perfection. Get it wrong, and you’ll end up with a ranking of, wait for it, Awful!

2. When you’re wandering through the post-apocalyptic wastelands in Fallout 4, the loneliness of such an ordeal can only be assuaged by the addition of a dog. Luckily, Dogmeat is on hand to serve, protect, and navigate a path through the desolation.

3. Hats off to the dev who came up with the superbly named Polterpup, the adorable ghostly hound in Luigi’s Mansion 2. Known for stealing the keys, the mischievous Polterpup is eventually adopted by Luigi and makes a return in Luigi’s Mansion 3.

4. The only redeeming feature in Call of Duty: Ghosts was Riley, a German Shepherd that not only proves to be an important team member in the game, but also a playable character during certain levels. And he can take out low flying helicopters!

Adopting a pet

It’s a conundrum that many families looking for a pet will face: should you buy one, or adopt from an animal shelter? For potential owners looking to buy a dog, waitlists for reputable breeders can stretch from six to 12 months. And then there are the costs involved; such is the demand that the price of ‘designer dogs’ has spiralled to astronomical levels over the last 12 months.

With so many unwanted cats and dogs currently residing in shelters around the country, adopting a pet not only gives an animal a second chance, but it also helps reduce the impact of unethical puppy farms.

“Some of the most wonderful dogs come through rescue organisations,” says Allie Small, Cranbourne Shelter Supervisor at the Lost Dogs’ Home in Melbourne. “The rescue process can take slightly longer to find the right dog – but it is worth it!

“I would recommend that people look at lots of different rescue and shelter organisations, get advice from each of them, and be patient. The ‘pawfect’ match will be there when the time is right.”

Allie also advises to lose any preconceived ideas when you’re looking to adopt a dog. “Look for the breed of dog that is going to fit your current lifestyle – don’t convince yourself that you will make the lifestyle fit the animal.

“Look for the breed of dog that is going to fit your current lifestyle.”

“This is often how owners end up not being able to manage their pet’s needs, as they have chosen a breed that requires more attention, exercise, grooming or training than they are able or willing to manage. If you don’t currently walk twice a day, don’t look for a breed that will require high levels of exercise. Or if you are adamant about owning a particular breed but cannot meet its training or exercise needs as a young dog, then maybe an older dog of that breed is more suitable.”

Despite the prevalence of literature advising against pet ownership in smaller residencies, Allie suggests that this isn’t always the case.

“Don’t let size fool you. Just because you live in a small apartment, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a dog or even need to have a small breed of dog. Greyhounds are well suited to apartment living provided they get one decent walk every day.

“Owners are also often unprepared for veterinary expenses,” adds Allie. “Many dog breeds have medical issues that are likely to require care over the course of their lifetime and it is important for owners to research this before choosing a suitable dog for their lifestyle.

“The best way to establish what breeds are suitable for a particular lifestyle is to document what your lifestyle looks like, how you want that dog to fit into that lifestyle, and how much time you have available for extras such as puppy school, training classes and daily exercise. This will give you a clearer idea of what you want from your family pet.”

Dogs on disc

1. Old Shep, written in 1933 by Red Foley and Arthur Willis, tells the story of Foley’s dog poisoned by a neighbour. 12 years later, a ten-year-old boy dressed as a cowboy would sing Old Shep in a singing contest. It was the young Elvis Presley’s first-ever public performance.

2. Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp was written about Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant’s walks in the countryside with his dog, Strider, while recording Led Zeppelin III.

3. Man of the Hour is a beautiful romantic ballad by Norah Jones. But who is this mysterious sweet man she references in the song? Her poodle called Ralph.

4. Martha My Dear was penned by Paul McCartney for The Beatles’ White Album. The Martha in question was his English sheepdog.

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Worried about what sort of dog you’re adopting?

Don’t be.

“The Lost Dogs’ Home applies consistent and thorough screening methods for prospective adopters at all times to make sure the right matches are made for a forever home outcome,” explains Allie Small. “Our qualified veterinary and behavioural teams thoroughly assess dogs to get a comprehensive understanding of their behaviour and match this with what potential adopters are looking for. Our staff help potential adopters find the right home for their circumstances – whether that be older age, a small apartment, a low/high activity lifestyle, children or other pets.”

Mutts at the movies

1. Gallant dogs in film have long been a go-to subject for studios, with a guaranteed appeal for younger audiences. This was indeed the case back in 1905 with the British silent movie, Rescued by Rover, in which a Collie rescues a baby. The rest is history.

2. Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling wrote in one of his poems “Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware/ Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.” Never before has this been more evident in the harrowing Marley & Me (2008).

3. Remade in 2005, the 1943 classic dog flick Lassie Come Home tells the story of a couple forced to sell their dog to survive. However, the illustrious Lassie, perhaps the most famous dog in movie history, travels the length of England to get back with her family.

4. When you think of classic Disney films from the golden era of cartoon animation, 101 Dalmatians quickly comes to mind. This 1961 pearler, revisited in 1996, is essential family viewing and an absolute must for the home collection.