They were credited with saving our sanity during the social isolation of lockdown, so it’s no surprise that a staggering 3.2 million people in the UK became pet owners for the first time during the pandemic.
Belfast schoolteacher Mairead McAvoy resisted her daughter Ella’s pleas for a puppy for several years, but finally caved in during the first lockdown in March 2020.
Admitting to having “no great love for pets”, Mairead says she was filled with apprehension at allowing an eight-week-old cockapoo loose into her immaculate south Belfast home.
A self-confessed “clean freak”, she feared the worst when little Murphy arrived in the arms of a besotted Ella.
But now more than two years on, she admits that the addition has not only stole her heart, but also rules the roost in the McAvoy household.
A cheeky chappy with his own Instagram page, Murphy is surrounded by love from proud owner Ella (13), her sisters Molly (15) and Nancy (11) and parents Mairead (46) and Conor (48).
Mairead, who teaches in St Clare’s Primary, says: “I can’t believe the change in how much I care for him and how protective I am of him.
“I love him to bits and I never thought I could feel that way about an animal.”
During lockdown, Mairead continued to work part time, teaching the children of key workers while also home-schooling her three girls.
Conor, who runs his own portacabin business, was also at home which led to the couple having a change of heart over their “no dog” stance.
Mairead explains: “Ella had wanted a dog from the age of seven. I never grew up with dogs and was never really an animal person. I always hoped she would grow out of it, but every birthday and Christmas she would cry, saying all she really wanted was a puppy.
“I’m also extremely house proud. My girls would call me a clean freak and I was petrified of a dog coming in and completely ransacking the place. Also, I was afraid I wouldn’t bond with an animal.
“In March 2020, when we were all at home because of lockdown, I thought maybe this is the time to get a dog for Ella as we would all be at home to train it and help it settle in.”
The family found Murphy in Cork, with Conor and Ella driving down to bring him back to his forever home.
As cute as he looked and as overjoyed as Ella was to finally have a much-wanted puppy, Mairead couldn’t help but still feel alarmed by what was to come.
She says: “The first eight weeks was like having a new-born in the house. I came down in the mornings to poo in his crate and he was piddling on my good sofas.
“I was having a mini breakdown. It was like all my worst fears were coming true and I was convinced there was a dog smell in the house, even if there wasn’t!”
While struggling through the house-training period, Mairead wasn’t prepared for just how much Murphy would change their lives for the better — and now they can’t imagine life without him.
She admits: “Murphy is spoilt rotten. I take a shower with him once a week and give him a good shampooing.
“Ella is then ready with the hairdryer and brush and it’s like a doggy grooming parlour in our house.
“I’m a great walker and always tried to get my husband to walk but it just wasn’t his thing.
“Now he gets up at 6am every morning to walk Murphy and it has really got him into shape. Conor loves that time with just him and Murphy before he starts work.
“He also takes him to the Errigle Inn every Friday and the local Centra staff on the Ormeau Road also love him.
“When he goes in, he gets sausages from their deli counter. He really is a wee character.”
When restrictions eased and the family returned to work and school, they understandably didn’t want Murphy left alone.
Initially, he was booked into doggy day care which meant Mairead had to leave the house an hour earlier every morning to drop him off before she went to work.
However, it wasn’t long before Murphy’s boisterous personality proved too much for even the professional canine carers and he lost his place.
Mairead laughs: “When going back to work, I was very nervous because we didn’t like leaving him on his own.
“He wasn’t in the day care centre very long when I got an email one day to basically say he was being kicked out for being too frisky with the ladies.
“They said your dog is adorable but you have to either get him neutered or he has to go.
“I felt he was too young to get neutered so he had to leave.
“It was a bit much anyway with me driving out there every day before work so we thankfully made other arrangements and he is now at home with company most days.”
Mairead says she doesn’t regret her decision to allow a pet dog into her home.
She adds: “Ella adores Murphy and they have a very special bond, with their own cuddle time, but he is a family dog now.
“We honestly can’t imagine life without him now.”
You can follow the exploits of Murphy on instagram at @murphy_the.cockapoo.
Meanwhile, Ballymena journalist and author Joe Boyd (45) says his pet dog Yogi was a lifeline when he was forced to isolate at home during the pandemic.
Joe, who was born with cerebral palsy, was vulnerable to the virus and had to shield in the early part of the pandemic.
He believes that without companion Yogi by his side, his mental health would have suffered.
Joe says: “Because I was in the vulnerable category, I couldn’t go out at all.
“My wife was a key worker and continued to work throughout the pandemic.
“Without Yogi, I would have been totally alone looking at four walls.
“He was my companion, I spoke to him and he gave me cuddles. He was my wee mate.
“I would’ve definitely have struggled mentally without him. Even when I was writing, I was able to talk about what I was working on to Yogi.”
Yogi, a Lhasa Apso and Jack Russell cross, was a surprise Christmas present for Joe from his wife in 2019.
Joe also has spastic diplegia, a condition makes it difficult for him to walk and he often depends on a wheelchair.
However, his disability has never prevented him from living his life to the full and he is one of the best-known church news reporters in Northern Ireland.
Joe’s career began in 1997 at the Ballymena Times and he was their church correspondent for 18 years.
Since 2015, he has written for The Church Page, a Christian news website which publishes events from every Christian church here.
Joe has also penned an autobiography, Trading Places:
From Hopelessness to Happiness, as well another book, Creating Mind-sets — God, Faith and Disability, which examines what the Bible says about disability.
He is now working on Transformation Stories: Broadcasting Hope through Lockdown — a compilation of real-life experiences from local people he interviewed for his radio programme on a former online Christian radio station.
An active man despite his physical disabilities, in recent years Joe became a qualified fitness instructor and volunteers three times a week at Pure Wellness Gym.
He says not being able to get to the gym or leave his home during the lockdowns was difficult.
However, Joe is grateful that, thanks to Yogi, he has come through the pandemic in good health.
He says: “When you are stuck at home for a long period of time and are unable to go out it, starts to feel like groundhog day.
“I am grateful that I had Yogi as my lockdown companion; he was great company.
“He was always at my hip and although he is absolutely and completely ruined, he is the friendliest wee dog.
“For people with disabilities, dogs can be a lifeline as you spend more time on your own in the house and there is only so much TV you can watch and only so much work you can do. Yogi was my lifeline.”