‘Happy dog time’: boom in UK dogsitting as owners return to office

After a difficult year including a bad breakup and her parents moving abroad, Aimée Lou McAvoy was desperate for a change of scene. She started occasional dogsitting, escaping London for days at a time to stay in country homes and care for adorable pets while their owners were away.With more people returning to the office after the end of the government’s advice to work from home because of the Covid pandemic, the business of looking after dogs has been booming. New customer inquiries at Barking Mad, which offers local dog home-boarding services, are up by 1144.36%, in the year to date for 2022 against the same period last year, and up by 482.75% compared with pre-pandemic demand in 2019.

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While McAvoy’s short breaks are hard work and unpaid, it means she can work from the countryside homes she stays in, and the dogs give her a welcome sense of routine as well as a mood boost.

“They all love me and even after a week it’s really hard to leave them,” she said. “It’s a relief if you’re anxious to have animals around. They follow me around the house and come sit by me when I’m working, they wake me up in the morning – it’s really cheerful.”

About 3.2m households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of the Covid pandemic. While this has brought a myriad of benefits to new dog owners, from helping them cope emotionally with the social isolation and stress of lockdowns to keeping them fit and active, the ending of restrictions has raised fresh challenges, among them how pets fit into their owners’ post-lockdown lifestyle.

The routine of caring for a pet can bring structure and purpose to daily life. Maybe you don’t always want to get out of bed, but your pet wants you to. Isn’t that a good thing?

In a Kennel Club survey, one in five new owners cited worries about behaviour, time and costs related to caring for their dog after lockdown. About 20% of new owners who bought a puppy during the pandemic said they had not fully considered the long-term commitment or responsibility of having a dog, and 18% were not sure how they would look after their animal when they returned to the workplace.

Even for many existing dog owners, their pets had grown so used to them being at home that the changes have led to similar difficulties, including separation anxiety.

Rikke Rosenlund, founder, BorrowMyDoggy.Rikke Rosenlund, founder of BorrowMyDoggy, says many people sign up to combat loneliness
Rikke Rosenlund, the CEO and founder of BorrowMyDoggy, noticed more borrowers signing up to the platform during lockdowns, while more owners had signed up for help after. While some owners had less need for somebody to walk their dog during the pandemic as they were at home more, others such as key workers some needed the help, she said.

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She said people were continuing to borrow dogs to help them cope with loneliness.

The end of restrictions also brought together the problem of people going out more while realising their dogs – many of them new – had not properly socialised, Rosenlund said. BorrowMyDoggy has also experienced dog owners borrowing dogs, rather than buying another, to help socialise their pet.The pandemic reinforced a sense of community between borrowers and owners, she said. “When we were all told to stay at home, a lot of our members started to deliver food for each other, or dogs would temporarily move over to the borrower’s house if needed,” Rosenlund said.

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“A member of my team had Covid early on and the person she borrows dogs from delivered food to her. Then later on in the pandemic, the owner had long Covid and the dog actually moved over to her house for three months.”

Jeanette Blackaller, 71, and her husband, Michael, 78, of Plymouth, would have faced total isolation during lockdowns were it not for the walkers and sitters who borrowed their five dogs through BorrowMyDoggy. “We were vulnerable and neither of us have family in the area – we could’ve been really isolated. But they were on the doorstep saying what shopping do you need, let us take the dogs and give you a break. It meant that our lives could carry on as normally as possible, and the dogs stayed fit and well.”

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One of their dogs, Maya, a chihuahua, was eventually rehomed with one of her sitters. “It’s opened up the world for our dogs and saved us so much stress trying to exercise them. We couldn’t have managed Covid without our walkers,” she said.

Rosenlund said people who use the platform build strong relationships over their love of dogs, with no money exchanged between parties: “They’re just doing each other favours by either getting some happy dog time, or getting help with socialising and walking their dog.”

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Aimée McAvoyAimée McAvoy began dogsitting after a difficult year. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
Meanwhile, McAvoy says most of the owners she helps out need their dogs looked after while they visit holiday homes or go on business trips abroad, so she will continue dogsitting whenever she needs to get away from it all, taking the opportunity to stay in lovely places she wouldn’t normally visit and enjoy the unconditional love of dogs.

“It’s like going on holiday, it’s short-term relief, but it’s good for when you really need to get away from everything and just roam the fields with a dog,” she said.

Most animals are creatures of habit. It will be important to develop a consistent schedule to follow with your new pet. Potty breaks at regular intervals, feeding at the same time(s) every day, playtime, walks – everything needs to be scheduled. At first, this can seem overwhelming but soon enough, you and your new pet will be on the same schedule.