This is like Internet dating. Perhaps signing up to a dog sharing webiste would be a better option? I could have doggy dates, up and down the country - a dog in every port with none of the cost and less environmental impact
Don't you hate it when, out for a country walk, you come across poo bags swinging in trees? What is it with dog walkers who think it acceptable to leave plastic-wrapped turds dangling like forgotten Christmas baubles? Or chucked into a canal?
Such obnoxious behaviour by irresponsible dog owners is an obvious environmental impact of Britain's increasing pooch population.
There are an estimated 8.5 million canines in our small island today. To produce all that offending ordure, I work out that 8.5 million dogs - a worrying number of them obese - must wolf down about 2,000 tonnes of food daily.
A typical tinned and processed dog food includes ‘by-products' of the human food industry including testicles, udders and chicken feet, all cooked up with maize, wheat, brewer's yeast and fish oil. Don't like the sound of that? There is a growing market for raw dog food that the manufacturers proudly announce is good enough for owners to eat (after cooking it first I imagine.)
Raw, organic, free range chicken, beef or pork is mixed with (organic) vegetables. I'm sure Buster loves it and it keeps him very healthy but meat is an inefficient use of land for my dinner - let alone the dog's. There are vegetarian and vegan dog foods of course. These include such treats as baobab seeds and coconut oil. The food miles! And what about the associated carbon emissions of the multi-million pound pet industry churning out 101 varieties of dog toys, beds, brushes and doggy hairdryers? Can dog ownership ever be an option for a committed environmentalist? Is it sustainable? It seems that the answer is a resounding ‘No!'. Which is a shame - as I'd really, really like a dog.
There Is A Dog-Shapped Hole In My Life
I live alone on a narrowboat, trying to lead a low-impact life, making amends for years of jetting around the world as a travel writer. I don't see this basic, off-grid, low-emissions life as a kind of penance, rather it is a joy. There are 2,000 miles of waterways on which I cruise my 55ft long home. My home is an island - a floating one. I am home and away, dwelling and travelling.
In six years of living aboard I've travelled the length of England and crossed the Penines twice. My preferred mooring spots are rural. Cruising, for just an hour each day, heats the water and recharges the batteries, literally and metaphorically. I love this nomadic watery life and, being an introvert, find contentment in solitude. Friends and family are scattered around the country. We meet up when I am near. I have a living-apart-together relationship. I rarely feel lonely but for a while now there has been a dog-shaped hole in my life.
Dogs are increasingly being employed as stress-busters and confidence-boosters in offices and schools. I can understand why. For the past six years, two sleek black labradors have stayed with me for several weeks annually while their owners go on holiday. With Jethro and Kassie on board, life feels complete. Their joy is infectious. Rain or shine we walk the towpath - off the lead - and play ball. I never need to call them; they keep an eye on me and walk to heel when told. They are the perfect dogs. In the evenings, I join them on the floor to curl up in front of the fire. Sometimes we spoon and hold paws. I cried when they left after their first six-week holiday.
It has been a privilege to care for those adorable dogs. But the reality is that they also cared for me. They would greet me in the morning, Jethro's big tail thwacking the carpet before he did his downward-dog yoga stretch. I would go back to bed with a cuppa and shortly afterwards one or other would come and rest their head on the bed and look at me with ‘let's go for a walk' eyes. I talked with them while we walked, often more words in a day than I would speak to fellow human beings. Other walkers were more inclined to stop and chat than when I walk alone. I do believe those bright-eyed hounds have kept me this side of sanity during some hard times.
My mother died in February, just ten weeks after being diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. I miss her very much. Jethro and Kassie brought joy to dark days. Jethro died in November. He was 15, a grand age for a labrador. I am so thankful to my friends who not only let me share their dog over the years but paid me for the privilege. I still yearn for a labrador of my own; one as waggy, shiny and well-behaved as Jethro or Kassie. But my angst about whether it is environmentally responsible to own a dog remains.
Having A Dog Of My Own Will Save The NHS Money
Maybe if a dog keeps me fit and healthy and reduces my cost to the National Health Service, thanks to an improvement in physical and mental wellbeing, a dog of my own is an acceptable extravagance? (If extravagance is the right word?) That is how I am justifiying it to myself anyway. I am seeking out a labrador in earnest now. I have been vetted by Labrador Retriever Rescue Southern England (labrador-rescue.org.uk): my narrowboat and I have been deemed suitable.
I keep checking the charity's website and visiting the ‘Dogs Needing Homes' page. I feel heartless being fussy but my expectations are high. I will forever judge a dog against my two holiday visitors. There was one, Tia, a lean and alert fox red labrador who tugged my heart strings but before I could pick up the dog-and-bone, she had gone. This is like Internet dating. Perhaps signing up to a dog sharing webiste such as borrowmydoggy.com would be a better option? I could have doggy dates, up and down the country - a dog in every port - with no commitment, none of the cost and less environmental impact.
If I lived in Greater London, Yorkshire or Hertfordshire, I could even foster a dog for Dogs Trust and have food and vet bills covered. (https://www.moretodogstrust.org.uk/about-freedom/about-freedom)
But for now, if a man on the towpath wanders up to you and asks to stroke your labrador, take pity on him, he can't help it.
Paul Miles will be writing regularly for the Ecologist on the joys (and otherwise) of his low impact lifestyle choices