Fionola Meredith: Why the chaos of Christmas is the worst time to bring the gift of a dog into anybody's life
They are life-enhancing companions, not toys to be handed back once the novelty wears off, says Fionola Meredith
A dog is for life, not just for Christmas" - it's hard to believe that the familiar slogan, originally coined by the Dogs Trust animal welfare charity, is now 40 years old.
And it's equally difficult to believe that people still think it's a great idea to buy or adopt a dog as a special surprise for the children on Christmas morning, only to dump it at a shelter weeks later, when the novelty has worn off.
But they do.
It's not a coincidence that January is the month that shelters get the highest number of "surrender requests" - people wanting to hand their unwanted pet back.
The result? A dog that has already been abandoned once is now abandoned again.
This year, the Dogs Trust has actually suspended the adoption of dogs and puppies over Christmas to try to prevent people from returning them in the New Year. It won't resume rehoming animals until January 4 - presumably they hope that by then the annual Christmas craziness will have worn off.
The trust is also pausing its live "puppy cam", which streams footage of puppies at its shelter in Dublin, for the same reason.
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Apparently the charity typically receives close to 700 phone calls and emails in the first three months of the year from people who wish to return a dog or puppy that was adopted over the festive period.
Honestly, I don't know how these selfish, heedless idiots can live with themselves.
Dogs are my soft spot, you see. In particular, I can't bear to read or hear about instances of canine cruelty. If I catch a glimpse of a newspaper report involving something sad or horrifying involving dogs, I turn the page fast.
Why? Well, there's a purity and an innocence about dogs that you don't find in any other animal - let alone human beings. They rely on us totally and in return they give us complete devotion, loyalty and unconditional love - yes, I believe it really is love.
They are always deliriously happy to see you when you come home, tails wagging like mad. Many dogs are highly intuitive, with a deep connection to their owner's state of mind. They know when you're happy or when you're sad, and they're right there with you, bounding with delight or providing a slobbery sympathetic lick.
The most common reason given for returning a dog is that people "didn't realise the time commitment involved in looking after it". Frankly, that's a pathetic excuse.
You don't need to be an expert in veterinary science to know that if you bring an animal into your home, you have to care for it.
In fact, the chaos of Christmas is the worst possible time to get an un-housetrained young pup, or even an older dog. These animals need calm attention and a gentle period of getting used to their new surroundings, not noisy relatives picking them up to coochy-coo over how adorable they are before ditching them in a crate while they slug back more Baileys.
If you absolutely insist on getting a puppy for Christmas, and are truly prepared to put in the hard work they require, during the most hectic period of the year, then be very careful where you pick one.
In expectation of increased demand just before Christmas, the Paws for Thought campaign is a new multi-agency initiative aimed at cracking down on illegal puppy farming in Northern Ireland. The PSNI says that people shouldn't be fooled into thinking they're saving a puppy by buying from illegal breeders - all you're doing is supporting a lucrative criminal industry, and you may end up with a sick or behaviourally damaged pet.
My own dog, Rudi, is a naughty old Dalmatian who still thinks he's a puppy. Over the years, he has got me into many scrapes: snatching people's sandwiches in the park, devouring a fisherman's box of bait, and in one awful instance running off with a man's elegant overcoat clamped in his jaws, which didn't look so elegant once was it was covered in muddy paw-prints. In his senior years, Rudi has skilfully trained us to completely spoil him. His favourite spot, on cold winter mornings, is curled up in bed between my husband and I.
When you adopt a dog from a shelter, you might think you're rescuing them. But it may well turn out that they rescue you, bringing unexpected joy, love and deep companionship to your life.
Wait until after the madness of Christmas, though. Dogs give us their best, so they deserve the best from us.