Sniffing out a bargain: how dog-friendly are Britain’s shops?

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m crammed into a small changing room, attempting to try on a new pair of trousers. It’s always a struggle with the multiple layers of autumnal clothing, and I’m even more flustered than usual. Because also crammed into the tiny space is a large dog, giving me a quizzical look and clearly wondering if this is the start of a new game. She quickly decides, yes, yes it is.

Dog ownership is booming. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, there are 12.5m dogs in the UK this year, with 33% of households having a canine companion, while the Kennel Club is among the charities and organisations that have reported a surge in puppy ownership during the Covid pandemic.

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It seems that the high street is taking note. While assistance dogs have the right to enter most premise s, some businesses have welcomed regular canines for years, including various independent shops, cafes and pubs as well as big names from Hobbycraft to – where possible – Apple stores, Oliver Bonas and Cath Kidston.Others are newer recruits. John Lewis began allowing non-assistance dogs into its stores in 2019 while Wilko has been trialling the approach in four branches since July, as a “direct result of customer comments and feedback”, a spokesperson tells me. And the new director of Eastbourne’s Beacon shopping centre has just announced that dogs on leads are welcome, describing its previous ban as “unnecessary and antiquated”.

No night vision goggles needed! Dogs’ eyes contain a special membrane, called the tapetum lucidum, which allows them to see in the dark.

According to dogfriendly.co.uk, by this summer there were around 2,300 British retailers listed on its database that allow dogs into their shops – a 10% rise on the previous year. But just how dog friendly are shops really, and what happens if something goes wrong?
A tussle in the changing rooms at Seasalt Cornwall.A tussle in the changing rooms at Seasalt Cornwall. Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer
Cambridge is one city with an apparent plethora of dog-friendly shops, so my canine companion – Calisto, a flat-coated retriever – and I have decided to pay a visit. Still a puppy, she’s always up for a new experience, while for me it is more about practicalities. With dog theft on the rise, it would be unwise to leave her outside stores, while being able to pop into a shop on the way home from a walk is nothing if not handy. Besides, a dog is part of the family, not an optional extra.

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Our first stop is Seasalt Cornwall – a chain of clothing stores across the UK, all of which welcome dogs. Slurping at a bowl of water outside the shop, Calisto is already impressed.

Inside, the staff seem genuinely pleased to see a puppy, while Calisto – clearly excited by the racks of garments – is fascinated. She sits quietly while I browse through patterned tops, before playing peek-a-boo behind a tunic. But the sock display is just too tempting, and as I hold up a pair, she starts tugging at the toe. Fortunately, we have been practising “drop it”, but I had not imagined needing it for a tussle over hosiery.

Move over Rover! 45% of dogs sleep in their owner’s bed (we’re pretty sure a large percentage also hog the blankets!)

A pair of trousers catches my eye – can we, should we, attempt it? Going for broke, I take Calisto into the changing room. Her feathery tail pokes out under the curtain. As I am halfway dressed, she decides she’d like to help, then pounces on a receipt left by another shopper.

A small scuffle later, in which nose, paws and tail make sporadic escapes from the cubicle, and we are back on the street – minus the trousers, which escaped unscathed, but plus a £6.50 pair of socks that, covered in puppy saliva, were too revolting to tuck back on the stand.

Did you hear that? Sound frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). The higher the Hertz, the higher-pitched the sound. Dogs hear best at 8,000 Hz, while humans hear best at around 2,000 Hz.

Also on Trinity Street is Heffers – a Cambridge institution that has been selling books since 1876 and is now part of the Blackwell’s group.
Calisto devours literature in Heffers.Calisto devours literature in Heffers. Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer
Sarah Whyley, department manager of the literature section, says the number of customers bringing dogs into the store has risen but there hasn’t been one memorable canine disaster in all her years there, not even a shredded book.

What about puddles? “There would probably be more of those in the children’s department,” she says. The store, she adds, has its own canine – a guide dog that comes to work with a member of staff. “He quietly sits with his toys under her desk,” Whyley says.

Did you hear that? Sound frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). The higher the Hertz, the higher-pitched the sound. Dogs hear best at 8,000 Hz, while humans hear best at around 2,000 Hz.

Given that Calisto is surrounded by bookshelves at home, this one, I think, will be a doddle. And it is – to start with. She calmly walks past shelf upon shelf. But just as I go to pick up a tome, Calisto finds one too. Lying on the floor, presumably dropped by another browser, is a tiny book of war poetry. Before I realise it Calisto does battle, and the tiny book is left for dead.

Mortified, I head for the counter and sheepishly explain the skirmish, reaching for my wallet. But rather than a telling-off and bill for £3.99, I’m given an enormous smile. “When we let dogs into the shop it is a risk we take with having them in, and we like to have them in, so it’s absolutely fine,” says the sales assistant behind the till.

Parrots, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), are the nation’s fourth most popular pet; according to a 2012 survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 3.1 percent of U.S. households owned birds. Some parrots can scream as loud as an ambulance siren. These birds are beautiful, but they’re difficult to care for and require lots of space, so the HSUS doesn’t recommend keeping them as pets at all.

Our final stop – and possibly the greatest challenge yet – is Modish, an independent shoe shop on Green Street. I have left it until last because, quite frankly, Calisto loves shoes. More specifically, she loves trying out her new teeth on the laces of my partner’s trainers. But, perhaps because the shoes are all new, Calisto is an angel. Apart from attempting to snaffle a used pop-sock she patiently sits and sniffs while I try on a pair of trainers.
Calisto passes the test in Modish shoe shop.Calisto passes the test in Modish shoe shop. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Sarah Decent, owner of the shop, tells me she, too, has yet to have a doggy nightmare in store.

Be realistic. Unrealistic goals will only prevent you from growing. There are two common mistakes a dog owner can make that will slam the brakes hard on any potential progress you might be hoping for. First, the expectations we place on our dogs and ourselves. The misguided belief that your dog “should” be performing or responding at a certain predetermined level. Another mistake many owners make is having unrealistic assumptions. Many of us assume that our dog understands what we want and that he knows what we’re asking of him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of us assume that the dogs failure to perform means he’s either rebelling, stubborn, or just plain stupid.

Should chaos occur, Decent is philosophical. “If a dog chewed a shoe up, I think I just have to probably take that on the chin,” she says. It’s a sentiment I find, perhaps surprisingly, echoed in several other stores.

After a morning of shopping, it seems that many stores not only welcome pooches, they positively love them, willing to both overlook unfortunate incidents and embrace an unexpected smackeroo.

Looking down at a wagging tail, it seems Calisto and I are of one mind: dog-friendly shops are a howling success.

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