x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A furry source of family feuding

In the UK, 2,000 pet owners claimed that their dogs cause three arguments a week. But pet ownership teaches important life lessons and responsibilities, and the relationship can be an immensely rewarding one – provided you and your pet are compatible.

Sam and Lucy Dulka at home with their dog Crunchie, a 16-month-old Cocker Spaniel.
Sam and Lucy Dulka at home with their dog Crunchie, a 16-month-old Cocker Spaniel.

Would you consider someone who caused 2,000 arguments your best friend? Unlikely.

And yet dogs have been found to be a major cause of family strife, according to a study carried out by the insurance company Esure. In the UK, 2,000 pet owners claimed that their dogs cause 156 rows every year. That's three a week. Among the most common causes were the dog being allowed to go in the house, whose turn it was to clean up the mess in the garden and disciplining the pet. Eighteen per cent of couples reportedly fall out often due to one being too harsh on the dog. More than a quarter of owners (26 per cent) have considered getting rid of their dog after a particularly bad family row.

The reasons why families keep dogs are numerous, among them being companionship and helping to teach children about responsibility. So should we be reconsidering the impact of a dog on the family dynamic? Dr Martin Wyness, a veterinary surgeon and the owner of the British Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, thinks not. "The psychologists and people who study these things are pretty well pro the experience of pets in terms of the development of nurturing and caring and teaching kids how to look after something and real responsibility for something that matters," he says.

That dogs cause more arguments than, say, children, money, where you live or what you do, is, Wyness believes, questionable. "I can't believe that animals would make things any worse than the kinds of arguments that happen in an ordinary family anyway."

As an owner of two rescued crossbreeds (he has never bought a dog), Wyness has seen the benefits up close. "Our children have always had animals in the house and, also being a vet, we bring sick animals back when they need very close care and the kids would help with those," he says, though adds that owning animals is no simple undertaking. "Having a pet is not a way of achieving domestic bliss - that's not what it's all about. It's the relationship people have with pets or animals that is mutually rewarding. If you look at how much people suffer when they lose a pet, it's an indication of how important those animals are when they're alive."

In fact, Wyness believes that bereavement at the loss of a pet can be a valuable lesson in itself. "Losing things is part of life and when it happens with pets or animals it's a great learning experience."

We need only look back through history to see that dogs have been integral to human development. "For tens of thousands of years," says Wyness, "people have hunted with dogs and they've been part of the human experience and they have shaped how we have developed."

Far from being a cause of discontent, Caroline McElwee's Pomeranian, Pebble, (which she adopted from Strays of Abu Dhabi) is, she believes, a force for good. "One of the lovely things about owning a dog is that they help to promote stability and harmony," says the stay-at-home mother who lives in the capital. "They love nothing more than when the family is all together resting at the end of the day, or all out walking together. This is the pack mentality coming out, the urge to be together with every member present, no one missing. So a dog is a good mirror to the family dynamic. If all is well within the family, often the dog is happy. If there is conflict or tension, the dog is jittery or anxious. In this way, dogs help to make families see the consequences of their actions. Dogs are real peacekeepers."

Although she is against treating dogs like another member of the family ("A dog is not human. It's an animal with its own specific needs."), its loyalty to its owners makes it an integral part of the family unit. "When I brought my newborn son home," she says, "Pebbles whimpered every time he cried as though to protect him and call me to his attention. He had a natural instinct to protect the newest family member."

If anything, says Lucy Dulka, who works in property and lives in Dubai with her husband Sam and their Cocker Spaniel mix, Crunchie, having a dog has brought them closer together. "We argue less," she says. "Crunchie is a good equaliser. If we are having an argument, all you have to do is look at the dog, and he's normally doing something daft, so you forget what you were annoyed about in the first place."

It is important, she says, to establish the ground rules from day one. "From the start, we worked out how we were going to manage it and that was that. If people aren't willing to put the time into a dog, then just don't bother. Get a cat or hamster instead. You have to make sacrifices for sure, and you don't have as much freedom, so you need to be comfortable with that. For us, it's a fair trade-off. The positives of having a dog far outweigh the hassle, so we don't moan about it."

Tension can arise if owners are not prepared to make the necessary changes, says Lucy's husband Sam, who works in communications in Abu Dhabi. "If you aren't willing to make some sacrifice than you'll resent the dog. Also, if someone in the family is doing all the work and the others aren't lifting a finger, then there are obviously going to be issues. I think that is true of anything and I would hedge a bet that sometimes when people are arguing about dog issues, they are indicative of something bigger that's going on. However, if everyone agrees to pitch in, then having a dog should be a great addition for the house. It has been for us."

Choosing the right breed to suit your lifestyle is crucial, says Nabil Abiaad, the regional manager of NestléPurina Petcare MENA, who lives in Dubai with his wife, two children and their German Shepherd, Champ. "I live in an apartment, but I walk him often. My quality time with the dog is when he is out, when we play, catch the ball. I don't see it as a chore. He is part of my life, part of my family. I cannot imagine life without my dog."

Of course, the UAE's punishing climate brings its own set of challenges. However, says Wyness, dogs, like humans, are adaptable. "If your house is cool and you adapt your behaviour so that you walk out when you can - early in the morning and late at night during the summer - one way or another you can make it work."

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