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A dog is for life, not just lockdown: how to buy a healthy puppy in a pandemic | Dogs

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It was seeing the disappointment on my little girl’s face that hurt the most. “So we’re not going to see the puppies, after all?” she’d say, after hearing yet another phone call to a breeder end badly.

How could I explain, to an eight-year-old, that there are people out there making huge amounts of money, and some are treating their dogs like dirt? That many responsible, licensed dog breeders have closed their waiting lists, following a huge increase in demand during lockdown, while unscrupulous sellers are cashing in on soaring prices?

I have been a “dog person” ever since my parents adopted a rescue dog called Sylvester when I was nine. As a freelance journalist, I work full-time from home and have often wished Sylvester was still around for company. But my husband is allergic to dogs and we never thought it would be possible to have one.

Lockdown, however, made us realise how much our daughter Flora, an only child, would benefit from having a pet to play outside with – and how much she longs for a playmate she does not have to Zoom call or socially distance from.

And so, after months of careful consideration (by me and my husband) and strenuous campaigning (by Flora), we finally decided to get a “poochon”. This so-called “designer breed”, with its mix of poodle and bichon frise fur, fails to arouse my husband’s allergies, we recently discovered after getting to know a friend’s dog. I searched rescue centres for poochons and other poodle cross-breeds, but couldn’t find any. I also noticed many of the dogs deemed suitable for families with young children were already reserved.

Undeterred, I looked for a licensed poochon breeder. But none of them seemed to have any puppies available either – in fact, none even offered a waiting list. I searched for other popular hypoallergenic breeds, like poodles and cockapoos… again, no litters were for sale. Warnings flashed up: “Puppies are for life, not for lockdown – our waiting list is closed until 2021.” Others said the wait would be at least two years.

I called one breeder to ask what was going on. “We went from three inquiries a day to 73 during lockdown,” she told me. Stuck in the house, people have been buying puppies to keep their children occupied. Others working from home aren’t thinking about when they may leave their dog at home and return to the office, she said. After 40 years, she has decided to stop breeding for a while because she is unable to tell who would be a responsible owner. “People started getting so aggressive on the phone, we decided to close even the waiting list.”

Before lockdown, a pedigree or a designer-breed puppy (like a poochon) would typically cost up to £1,500, she said. Now prices for these dogs usually start at £2,500. Some puppies with desirable “blue merle” fur are advertised for as much as £7,000 each online.

Donna Ferguson’s daughter Flora photographed with her new puppy, Rosie.
Donna Ferguson’s daughter Flora photographed with her new puppy, Rosie. Photograph: Donna Ferguson

With so much money at stake, puppy farms are thriving, the Kennel Club warned recently. A quarter of new owners recently admitted they purchased their dog after doing little research, with one in four pandemic puppy-buyers admitting they may have inadvertently bought their pet from a puppy farm.

“Red flag” warnings which buyers missed include paying money before actually seeing a puppy, not seeing the breeding environment in real life or via a video call, and not being asked by the breeder about your suitability as owners. The president of the British Veterinary Association, Daniella Dos Santos, told me: “With the current situation, it is even harder to discern a reputable breeder.”

I felt uncomfortable with what I experienced when I started contacting private sellers. Covid restrictions might have made things difficult for sellers but they have created a minefield for buyers. One woman, who wanted £3,000 for her puppy, said I could only look at it in her front garden. While I was prepared to pick it up from outside the home, I wanted to be able, at least once, to see it a inside, where it was being raised. A vet advised me to do this so that I could be sure the puppy was part of a well-looked-after litter, a course of action the RSPCA recommends. When I suggested this, I was accused of being a potential puppy thief.

Another seller said her husband would meet me in a park with the £2,500 puppy. When I asked to see it at home, she said I was being “ridiculous” and “not ready to own a dog”. I explained I was following my vet’s advice – and she hung up on me.

My search also raised questions about the suitability of some homes, something that experts suggest could be becoming more of an issue because of the number of inexperienced breeders who appear to have started under lockdown.

One admitted he worked full-time and shut his puppies in a garage all day, because of the “mess” they made. Another was rearing a litter in the garden because, they said, the mother preferred being outside.

Donna Ferguson and her daughter Flora.
Donna and Flora. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/the Observer

Many sellers did offer to let me see the puppies over the internet, using a website like Zoom, but I was uncomfortable about this because I was unsure I would be viewing the puppy I was actually buying, and felt that anyone who did want to create a temporary set-up with the puppies for the camera could easily do this. Claire Wilson-Leary, spokeswoman for the Dogs Trust, said that at the start of lockdown, when viewing puppies in person was not possible, video calls were a viable alternative – but “now, we would always recommend that buyers visit the puppy in the home with its mum”.

I began to despair of ever finding a puppy. Then, by chance, I found a seller 187 miles away who was happy to let us visit her poochon puppies in her home. She also agreed to sign the Puppy Contract, a free contract created for responsible breeders by the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Association.

That’s when we discovered our Rosie. We drove for four hours and, when we arrived, she curled up on my daughter’s lap and fell asleep. “Look, Mummy, she trusts me,” said Flora, smiling. “She feels safe.”

It was a wonderful moment. Later, we watched Rosie suck her mother’s milk, and I revelled in how healthy and happy, how confident and relaxed both dogs seemed to be, in the owner’s home. The next day, we put down a deposit. To say we are looking forward to bringing our new puppy home in a few weeks’ time is an understatement – it is all the whole family can talk about. But I can’t stop thinking about all the puppies we didn’t buy, and wondering what will happen to them.

Top tips for buying a puppy

• Always ask to see the puppy’s mother

• Ask to see the relevant health test certificates for both the puppy’s parents

• Be suspicious of a breeder selling multiple different breeds

• Report your concerns to your local council animal health officer, the police or the RSPCA if you suspect the breeder is a puppy farmer

Source: Adapted from tips from the Kennel Club

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Autumn seems to come later these days – is the climate crisis to blame? | Autumn

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I’ve noticed that trees begin turning colour much later in autumn in recent years, and don’t begin to drop their leaves until late October or November. Our mulberry tree was always “last to come, first to go” but not in recent years; the apple trees are later too. Is this another aspect of the climate emergency? Has anyone else noticed this?

Jill Bennett, St Albans, Herts

Post your answers – and new questions – below or email them to [email protected]


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‘It’s literally the perfect knife’: Dan Hong on the three most useful objects in his life | Food

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How does a chef get through one of the most challenging times the hospitality industry’s ever faced?

For Dan Hong, it’s been a chance to get buff.

The Merivale executive chef – behind restaurants including Mr Wong, Lotus, Queen Chow – hopped on the phone to tell us about the most helpful things in his life right now.

The My Fitness Pal app

Every couple of years I go in phases of gaining weight and losing weight. I first started using this app five years ago. I started going to the gym, I got a trainer and I lost a lot of weight – 12 kilos.

But then, Covid made me gain eight kilos. At first, I was drinking a lot. So, for the last nine or 10 weeks I’ve been on a massive diet and not drinking. I decided at the beginning of July I wanted to lose weight. And the only way for me to really see results is to record every calorie I put in my body – not everyone is like this, but for me, it’s essential.

A lot of people think they’re eating healthy but they’re not. They think “I can still eat olive oil, I can still eat a poke bowl”. You can still eat carbs and oils and stuff, but you have to know when to stop, and recording it really helps.

Of course it’s difficult as a chef, to really commit, because I was always travelling. If I was going overseas or interstate I’d be eating a lot. So this was the perfect time to start, because I knew I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

Kiwi knives

Someone chopping baby corn with a wooden handled blade.
‘It’s so perfect for what I need to do, from julienning and simple chopping and dicing.’ Photograph: PhotoTalk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Kiwi brand knife is one of the cheapest knives on the market. They’re available at any Asian grocer, and they come in different sizes for no more than $10. They’ve got wooden handles and they’re super sharp and light. We use them at home and when they go blunt, we just buy a new one.

When I was a second year apprentice we had this French-Canadian chef who’d just come back from a stage (an internship) at El Bulli, he told me about them. This was in 2002 and they were $2 each. I’d been spending hundreds of dollars on knives – so this was a revelation.

It’s so perfect for what I need to do, from julienning and simple chopping and dicing. They last quite a while, if you use them every day they stay sharp for a month. Once they go blunt, you can just buy a new one. I’ve used them all through my career. I would always have a box of them in the draw in the office, a stash.

If you go to Thailand, all the street food vendors use them too.

It feels good to have something so cheap that works so well. It’s nothing against good knives. If you look at sushi chefs for instance, you just can’t do your job with a Kiwi knife. It’s the same for butchering. But for simple at home chopping jobs, it’s literally the perfect knife.

Magnesium tablets

I find it hard to sleep every night, especially with the amount of training I’ve been doing. I have aching muscles every now and then, and magnesium really helps to relax them, so I can have proper sleep and a clear mind.

Not drinking helps too. I like this, rather than trying to take melatonin or something that makes you drowsy, because this way you wake up feeling really refreshed.

Taking them is an old personal trainer thing – they always recommend it when you first start working out. Now, it’s pretty much become ritualised for me. It’s not that I notice a big, big difference when I take them, but I do notice I have a deeper sleep and I’m not waking up in the night as much.


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Try sugaring at home instead of waxing

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It helps remove hair using a gel-mix of sugar, lemon and hot water.

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