It's a dog's life in Belfast - and that's official. According to research published by OnBoy Pet Supplies, Belfast is one of the top five places in the UK to be a happy dog, thanks to its accessible parks, plentiful pet shops and surge in pet-friendly accommodation.
The company says the city has scored highly in its index of six factors that can determine the happiness of pets - number of parks, pet-friendly accommodation, pet shops, dog grooming facilities and dog vs cat population.
Belfast tails only the cities of Swansea, Plymouth, Manchester and Blackpool in terms of canine joy - but spare a thought for the unfortunate hounds of Oxford, Cambridge, Southend-on-Sea, Milton Keynes and Bradford, the UK cities that score the lowest in the happy dog index.
But are the experts convinced that Belfast is the place for happy dogs?
Joanne Crossley, who runs the Dog Friendly NI Facebook page and Dog Friendly Guru and produces the Dog's Guide to Northern Ireland, says Northern Ireland has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years when it comes to pet-friendly accommodation.
"I think dog owners are sociable people when you meet them out and about - they always stop and say hello," she says.
"There are some great dog-friendly places and some places that just pretend to be dog-friendly. But I think a lot of local businesses have seen that the hound pound is very worth investing in, and if you do it right, you will get these customers coming through your door regularly."
Joanne says there are plenty of pet-friendly places in Co Down and on the North Coast, yet there's a dearth west of the Bann, and even in the popular walking destination of the Mournes.
"When I started doing tours of dog-friendly places in 2017, you could count on one hand the number of dog-friendly bars. Then all of a sudden, there were lots more bars getting involved. They realised that by making them dog friendly they weren't going to open their doors and twenty dogs would come bouncing in - but if someone came in with their dog after a walk, they wouldn't get turned away."
Joanne says she's definitely seeing more dogs during the pandemic than usual.
"I don't know if people are out of the house more, but I've seen a lot more dogs around the area where I live in south Belfast than ever before," she says.
"It's great because people are getting some fresh air and also getting their dogs walked. To walk along the towpath and grab a coffee at the Coffee Box with your dog is a bit of normality in a very negative situation."
Animal behaviourist Robin Bates says he comes across a lot of owners here who truly want the best for their pets and he says the city is well provided with fantastic walking routes such as Stormont Estate and Cavehill Country Park, as well as loads of pet shops offering excellent enrichment toys.
"There are lots of great facilities now and people are more pet-minded and aware," he says.
"When I started as a trainer, there were no reward-based trainers. But now there are a lot more trainers that use positive reinforcement to teach good behaviour and teach dogs the proper things to do.
"Before that, some people would have tried to train dogs by smacking, using choke chains and things that hurt. Now it's much more common to use lots of treat training, not over-handling them, not pushing them to sit, but instead luring them to sit. That side of things has changed and most trainers are using positive methods."
At the moment, many dogs are getting a lot more attention from their families than usual with owners working from home and that can often mean more exercise, fresh air and mental stimulation.
Robin says he's noticed a lot more families acquiring a family pet during the pandemic, but dogs are currently missing out on valuable socialisation classes, although he is still offering one-on-one training and remote training via Zoom.
"The key time for socialisation training is eight to 20 weeks, so it's a very small window, so we may have to pick up a few bits and pieces later on to sort issues out," he says.
Robin says that after the pandemic, dogs may even have to learn to adapt to things as simple as the increase in people calling at the house.
"They could be frightened of people coming through the front door because it isn't being done at the moment - that's got to have an impact on them," he says.
"It's hard for them - they get used to a particular routine and maybe things will change quite quickly for them."
At the moment, he says, people are paying much more for dogs - as much as £4,000 - and that can be reflected in how well they are cared for.
"So people investing that amount of money into their dog will also invest time and effort in them as well."
Meanwhile, former journalist and zookeeper Andrew Johnston (47) says Belfast has noticeably improved in pet-friendliness in the six years since he set up dog walking service Andrew's Animals.
When he launched the service, it offered doggy daycare and home boarding but it's mostly dog walking and taxiing at the moment due to the Covid restrictions: "I'm allowed to do dog walking under the Covid restrictions - I checked with my MP."
He says his favourite places for walking the dogs in Belfast are Belvoir Park Forest, Lagan towpath, the docks, Cavehill Country Park and Ormeau Park.
Outside Belfast, he likes to visit Murlough Beach, Antrim Castle Gardens and Lough Neagh.
"Ormeau Park is very handy for me and it's really one of the most beautiful parks I've been to anywhere in the world," he says.
But he's sceptical of the claim that Belfast is among the best places to be a happy dog.
"I think people do love their dogs here, but I'm surprised to learn that it's one of the best places," he says.
"In my experience, I've never found Northern Ireland to be particularly pet-friendly. The first thing you see when you arrive at Ormeau Park is the sign saying 'All dogs must be on leads'. There's one dog park up at Stormont and that's it really in the city - where do the council want us to exercise our dogs off the lead?
"I find it a bit of a hostile environment for dogs. It has changed in terms of dogs being allowed into pubs and restaurants - that has changed a lot over the last few years with proprietors recognising the value of the pet pound.
"I started Andrew's Animals six years ago and there was almost nowhere you could take your dogs - there was the Salty Dog in Bangor and not much more."
Andrew says Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of pet ownership in the UK.
"People really love their animals, but there are also a lot of people who don't really like dogs and that creates a bit of a clash at times," he says.
"I travel a lot around Europe and in every capital city you see a dog park - not just a big field, but just in the city centres are little fenced-off areas where you see everybody sitting around drinking their coffee and their dogs are playing everywhere. You don't see it here - it's as if we are always trying to keep our dogs out of sight."
If we really want to make dogs happier, he suggests, setting up more dog parks in the city where energetic pets can run free and socialise with other animals would be a good start.
And while the rescue centres are full of unwanted dogs, we should be clamping down on over-breeding, he says.
While Andrew admits there is a bit of a problem with poorly trained dogs causing difficulties in parks, he suggests the council might consider requiring owners to take part in council-funded socialisation or training classes.
"If people had to do that, it might dissuade some of the less responsible owners and you might end up with a better behaved dog population," he says.
How to tell if your pooch is a truly happy pet
Natalia Ashton, author of Perfect Cocker Spaniel Guide, says it's easy to tell when a dog is happy.
"A happy dog has a dreamy soft gaze and relaxed eyelids, lips are loose, the forehead is wrinkle-free.
"The body is completely relaxed, the ears are floppy, and the tail is raised to the mid-level and wagging," she says.
"A happy dog will seek engagement with you by greeting you with great enthusiasm, initiating fun time, play bowing or bringing a toy. They will also blissfully snooze for hours, often stretching out on their backs to take most of your sofa."
But one of the first signs of a stressed dog is an exaggerated yawn.
"A stressed pooch will have tension in his body, try to avoid eye contact, have enlarged pupils, raised eyebrows or tension in his forehead and ears, which he is likely to keep pulled back or erected and pointy (depending on a breed and situation)," Natalia says.
"Stressed dogs may start to destroy the furniture or rip out carpets as their way to relieve stress through chewing."
To keep your dog happy, choose activities that suit your dog's age to avoid overstimulation, she says.
"Have at least one walk a day and allow your pooch to run and exercise depending on his age and physical abilities. Visit new places, especially if your dog is an adventurer and enjoys these activities," she says.
"Let your pooch enjoy a safe chew or a stuffed toy - licking and chewing are really relaxing. Learn your dog's habits - not every dog likes to be touched by strangers.
"Some would rather share their time with people than dogs: others would prefer to avoid certain pooches or places."