It's a dog's life

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MY PRODUCTIVITY is being affected… by a dog.

I’m serious. I work from home, and most of the time I love it. I look out onto a birdbath, where White-eyes and Thrushes and Weavers and Barbets come to freshen up; there’s a careless tangle of cerise bougainvillea dangling over the window, and I watch the sun tip the leaves on the trees daily.

I work longer hours than I ever did in an office – no way a freelancer gets to clock in and clock out – but I can choose when those hours happen: if I want to do a personal errand in the morning, I can catch up by working into the night.

The downside, of course, is that you never really switch off. You can’t stop working because you simply have to earn. So when I was recovering from an op recently, for which process employed people are usually booked off for six weeks, I started working again, albeit at a slow pace, within days.

I can’t concentrate in offices the way I do in my home office, where I can put my head down and get lost in my work. But for the past few weeks, it’s become steadily harder to focus.

Because the neighbours have a little Jack Russell-type dog (I’ll call him Jack) who, until recently, was in the company of a couple of Staffie puppies. Then first one puppy, then the other, disappeared. (The neighbour-across-the-road told us that they’d gone to friends.)

Now Jack is quite alone.

And more alone than most. His male owner does work which takes him away from home for a week or more routinely; his female owner is a nervous type, and is afraid of being alone in the house, so she packs up the kids and takes off to stay with family or something. Jack is sometimes without any company for as much as 23 hours in the day, as far as I can tell.

No wonder the poor little sod raises his head and howls, a heart-breaking, full-bodied wail of sound that peals out at intervals all through the morning and sometimes into the afternoon. You’d have to have no soul to be able to work through that, uninterrupted. (Sometimes I sneak out and feed little bits of treat through the Vibracrete wall, just to distract him. I think he believes there’s a fairy godmother living in the wall.)

Bad stewardship and unwitting cruelty

His people are not bad people – they just don’t understand that dogs are pack animals who need company. They’re being cruel unwittingly. And it’s impacting on my life.

I encounter another example of bad stewardship of companion animals almost daily, on my morning walk: dogs romping through the suburb. I had a record day recently, counting nine dogs in my 50-minute walk.

They’ve escaped their properties due to carelessness (a gate left open, probably) and are having a jol, but the consequences for them are potentially dire – I’ve actually witnessed a dog being hit by a car three times. And there are potential costs to our economy, too.

In a 2013 article, Yanna Erasmus noted: “While there are no official figures available, it is not rocket science to figure out that there are thousands of companion animal carcasses that are not incinerated by owners that must be disposed of in South Africa every year.

"A contractor that landfills animals in Cape Town estimates that around 2 000 carcasses are landfilled monthly in that city. This excludes those animals that die or are euthanised at veterinarians in the city.”

Two thousand monthly! That’s a cost to the city, a cost to us all.

There are health implications, too: “Stray and roaming dogs and cats are usually poorly cared for and are often carriers of disease. Many diseases of animals, including dogs and cats, are zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people). Some of these diseases, such as rabies and leptospirosis are well known, however others are not so commonly recognised.” (Regional realities: Impact of stray dogs and cats on the community, Dr Mark Trotman)

Lonely dogs howling and crying

And then there’s the possibility of aggression. As I watched three happy big dogs lope down the street past the school recently, a horde of primary school kids stumbled towards the gate, all shrieking: “Don’t run! They bite you if you run!”

Good basic advice; their squeaking voices were attracting the dogs’ attention, though, and I felt a frisson of fear – who would be blamed if a bite occurred, triggered by the turmoil of terrified kids? (I’ve been bitten twice myself while walking, both times by dogs carelessly allowed to escape their properties.)

Irresponsible ownership of companion animals has an impact and a cost, whether it’s aggression, disease, carcasses in the street or simply the disturbance I’m experiencing, which is not exclusive to Jack: our nights are often disrupted by other lonely dogs elsewhere in the suburb, howling and crying.

It would be cost-effective if we as a society put more energy into educating people about being responsible, about what animals need to thrive, resulting in animals that do not impose economic and social burdens on the humans they live alongside; animals that are not just healthy but also happy.

Unlike Jack.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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