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The day I was mauled by Britain’s misguided dog owners

Border Terrier
A dog. It's just a dog… Credit: Martin Barraud/Caiaimage

Last week, while swimming on Hampstead Heath, I overheard two fellow swimmers talking seriously about not seeing any “drowning today”. Drowning? I hadn’t heard of anyone drowning.

I continued listening, concerned. A minute later it became clear they were actually talking about wasps. That’s right. Wasps. They had not seen any wasps drown that day on their swim.

To be clear, I’m (almost) used to hearing people speak in grave tones about the “mood”, “personality” and dietary preferences of Ludo, Sprinkles and Daisypop, their dogs. I recently heard two mothers at the pond talking about their pups.

One of the women worriedly discussed the “introspection” of poor Doodle, unluckily on display just when they had guests round (human, I think). She felt anxious that Doodle’s “true personality” – the best representation, she felt, of his outgoing and gregarious owners – was being concealed from friends. I nearly choked on a mouthful of pond water.

Have we finally reached peak animal madness? Last week it was announced that Jennifer Aniston and her ex-husband Justin Theroux had come together for no other reason than their beloved pooch’s funeral.

For and against: The Telegraph's Zoe Strimpel with pet-loving Towie star Peter Wicks on Good Morning Britain Credit: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/ REX

The announcement of Dolly’s passing was a bizarre mix of the macabre, the sentimental and the downright lunatic – as if Dolly was, say, a parent, not a furry friend (however adorable and noble).

“Tonight, at sunset, after a heroic struggle... our most loyal family member and protector, Dolly A. laid down her sword and shield,” a social media post read. “She was surrounded by her entire family.” Errr.

Yet on some level none of this surprises. After all, one has become used to seeing dogs in pushchairs with booties, wearing designer coats, and being fed special delicacies. Last week I saw, with my own eyes, a banking executive roast a haunch of venison for her tiny chihuahua, and I felt for it. The poor thing just wanted a bit less fur (it was during the heat wave), a good run in a field, and some tasty dog food.

It gets better. A recent survey from Mattress Online revealed that 50 per cent of owners would let a pet interrupt a romantic evening, while three in five would cancel a date with their other half to look after said animal. And last year, a 2018 Foxtons survey found that a third of Londoners would choose a house that suited their pet over one near a good school for their children.

This, I’m sorry, is bonkers.

Last week, Jennifer Aniston and ex-boyfriend Justin Theroux announced the death of their pet, Dolly Credit:  Corbis Entertainment/ Stephane Cardinale - Corbis

Weirdly, I seem to be the only one who sees this, and find myself virtually marooned in a nation drunk on pet-attachment. A guest last Thursday on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, I was invited to make what seemed to me almost a non-point, or at the very least, a comedy point: your pet might need you or express affection to you but it doesn’t, cannot and will never “love” you in a human sense. In debate with dog-loving star Pete Wicks, I asserted – to gasps all round - that the relationship with one’s dog is not, in fact, reciprocal. It can’t be because, wait for it... your pet isn’t a human.

The rage! Turns out, pointing out that dogs aren’t people (however cute they are) is tantamount to saying the nation’s first-born babies should be fed to bears. According to reports, I left viewers ‘infuriated’, caused Twitter to go into “meltdown” and prompted pet owners to share snaps of their pooches to show me just what true love looks like.

Britain has a long history of pet, and particularly dog, love. As the historian Michael Ledger Lomas has pointed out, Queen Victoria “drew no clear sense between [dogs’] moral sense and our own”. The queen ensured that “a life-sized bronze” of her sheepdog Noble sat alongside statues of her human friends and relatives at Balmoral, with an inscription that read (in a tone not far off that used by Aniston and Theroux): “Noble by name, by nature noble too / Faithful companion, sympathetic, true."

But Victoria’s love of dogs had a Christian complexion; she saw them as “God’s creatures” with a soul. Being a good Christian included being kind to animals. What, then, lurks behind our modern anxious attachment to pets?

I have the feeling we are turning to them as our relationships with other people feel more uncertain, chaotic and hard to navigate. The rise of social media has made bonds shallower, frailer and more volatile. Perhaps we’re all just giving up on human relationships – they’re too difficult. Especially romantic ones. After all, your dog isn’t going to disappoint and disconcert you with a non-committal text message, or a passive-aggressive Facebook update.

The answer to flailing faith in humanity, though, is not to project the gamut of human feelings, needs, tastes and behaviours onto poor pets. This is not only mad, it’s insulting. It’s time we worked on our own relationships, and let them, poor things, get on with the business of being what they are: furry animals.