How dog-friendly is the UAE? Friday finds out what it takes to own and care for a furry friend.
Shreeja Ravindranathan hounds local pet owners for their views on the joys and struggles of bringing up a furry friend in the UAE, and finds out how several groups are making the country even more pooch-friendly
When Richard Wilson was growing up in Bur Dubai, his dog-loving family was one of only two in the building they lived in. The Wilsons got their dog, Scottie, a cocker spaniel, in 1996. Wilson, 36, is now the proud owner of a chocolate Labrador called Courage, whom he adopted in 2015 and lives with in Business Bay, and he’s seen plenty more dogs arrive on the scene since Scottie, who died in 2007.
During Scottie’s lifetime, the BurJuman area where the family lived wasn’t as developed as it is now, and there were lots of empty spaces for dogs to run around in without a leash. ‘Even when we moved to a villa in Mirdif three years after we bought Scottie, we were one of three families with a dog in that area and he had plenty of open ground to play in. By the time I moved out in 2010, our complex had at least 12 dogs.’
The scenario has changed in the 20 years since Scottie scampered around Bur Dubai. While the number of dog lovers is high, (if he hundreds of people who wrote in to tell Friday their stories when we put a call out to owners on social media, is any indication) there are fewer dogs bounding around.
A new law, passed at the end of last year, requires owners to keep their dogs on a leash at all times, but there’s also a growing acceptance and understanding of pooches and their needs, including from the government level.
Earlier this month, Dubai Municipality took part in the first Walk for Animals at Zabeel Park, to raise awareness of animal rights and stop abuse, as well as to share information about pet ownership and adoption (no dogs were at the event, however, because dogs are not permitted in the park). The event was organised by Mahin Bahrami, animal activist and co-founder of Middle East Animal Foundation (MEAF), the first formally registered animal welfare organisation in Dubai.
‘We’re trying to bridge the communication gap and liaise between government authorities, developers, and animal lovers,’ Mahin says.
There are other festivals that show the level of interest in dog ownership: The Abu Dhabi Pet Festival on February 3 saw 4,000 people, 600 dogs and 35 cats make their way to du Arena, Yas Island. (Lock down February 2018 for the next one.) The Dubai Pet Festival, which was held on December 9 last year, and started in Mirdif in 2012, saw 1,010 dogs at its new location in Dubai Sports City. They were accompanied by 18,000 people and 50 cats. (The next
Dubai Pet Festival will take place in December.) Al Habtoor Polo Resort Club is running Horse and Hound shows, which welcome pet owners and their four-legged friends; the next one is on March 4.
Nonetheless, the UAE’s parks, beaches, boulevards and open public spaces remain inaccessible to dogs and dog owners for daily walks. Dubai Marina, which once allowed dogs, is now a no-dog zone, as is JBR, The Walk. Pets aren’t allowed on public transport, RTA taxis, buses or the Metro across the UAE. The epicentre of life in the country – malls and shopping centres – are also out of bounds for dogs. The Federal Law No 22 of 2016, passed by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, states that dogs must be licensed, vaccinated and kept on a leash at all times. Failure to comply will see owners given a fine of up to Dh100,000. The license has not yet been introduced, says Dubai Municipality’s Faisal: ‘Pet owners only have to register their pets either with Dubai Municipality or any veterinary clinic in Dubai. All they need is their valid Emirates ID and the pet with them’.
Sara Elliot, founder and vet at the British Veterinary Hospital in Dubai, points out the reasons why gaining open ground for dogs isn’t a cakewalk.
‘[Dogs] are seen as not a friendly animal,’ she explains. ‘Pet owners need to be aware of that, as there are a number of people here [in the UAE] who are scared of [dogs].’
Concern for public safety is key. ‘Leashes on dogs are necessary in public spaces for the community’s safety and to avoid any cases of bites,’ Faisal Ibrahim Al Muammari, head of veterinary control unit at Dubai Municipality, tells Friday.
Pet owners in the country are all too familiar with people fleeing in terror at the sight of their mutts. When Richard walks Courage by Dubai Water Canal, there are three types of people he meets. ‘People who see a dog and jump 10 feet in the air, people who genuinely like dogs, and then there’s the third who just don’t care.
‘Kids sometimes run after dogs and scream, pull their tails and startle them. The scared animal’s instinctive defence mechanism is to then snap at the perpetrator,’ Richard explains.
According to Sara, screaming and running is the worst response you can give around any dog because, ‘If you run screaming from a vicious dog, that dog will see you as backing down and therefore will chase. If it’s a friendly dog that’s used to children, they will often see it as a game and chase after to see what the game entails and how they can join in.’
In the four months that 35-year-old South African expat Lindi Beetge has been living in the UAE, her tiny French bulldog pup Luna has managed to spook ‘big, burly guys’. ‘I’ve explained to so many people that she’s a baby and won’t even bite. There have also been those who are really friendly and want to pet her.’
Dog owners might be saddened that their beloved pets are perceived as threats, but there’s a reason for this view. ‘There’s a lack of education, there’s a lack of exposure’, Sara points out. ‘In a lot of countries you’re brought up with pets and able to read the mood of the pet, whether or not it’s aggressive, whether it wants to play.’
In Cape Town, Lindi’s hometown, dogs are commonplace, dotting beaches, parks and even shopping centres.
Rashi Matthews, a 19-year-old student at Heriot Watt University, lives in Dubai’s Mankhool neighbourhood with her golden retriever Oscar, not far from where Richard and Scottie lived.
‘We live in a duplex apartment,’ she says. ‘My building is dog-friendly, but it’s one of the few in the Bur Dubai area that is. That said, I can’t say that the people in our building are too fond of dogs.
‘People who have never owned dogs or pets in general don’t know how friendly they can be. My mother is an example – she was uncomfortable at first but ever since Oscar came into our lives she’s a pet-lover too.’
Of course, the onus to demonstrate dogs’ friendliness, and prove to people that their fear of dogs is unfounded, falls on dog owners. Training pets from the day you get them, teaching them to not bark, engage with or chase strangers, steal people’s food and ensure that you clean after them, is the way to win trust. In Richard’s opinion, ‘There is never a misbehaving dog. It’s always an irresponsible owner. If a dog makes a mess in the lobby of apartment building, it sets a bad example and validates misgivings residents have.’
Hygiene is reportedly the reason why Emaar banned dogs from Dubai Marina, once a pet-friendly area (Emaar didn’t respond to requests for comment on how dog-friendly their other communities are).
Faisal says vaccinations and registrations of pets come under the umbrella of Public Health and Safety, ‘according to the local order No 11 of 2003’.
Responsible ownership also includes not abandoning or abusing pets. There’s no ignoring the horror stories of abused and abandoned animals that make the news. ‘Adoption agencies like K9 Friends’, says Mahin, ‘are full of these pets and have no space to take on any more.’
Beckie Ashton, a mum of three who lives in JVT, explains how her family rescued poodles Tim and Marley, who were abandoned in a villa in Ajman without food and water for four days. ‘They both had liver issues and still shiver at being touched and hesitate to go out. They’re healthy now but the trauma runs deep.’
‘Owning a pet is an expensive affair that requires time, commitment and money, just like having a child,’ Sara says. ‘They’re social animals so if you lock them up alone for eight or nine hours a day, like humans, they too will get lonely and bored and hence become destructive and start barking. This is why a lot of apartments don’t allow dogs.’
‘People who’ve never owned dogs or pets don’t know how FRIENDLY they can be. My mother is an example – she was uncomfortable at first but ever since Oscar came into our lives she’s a PET LOVER’
Over the past 10 years or so the government has made pets much more welcome, and protected, members of society – the requirement to register all pets is to ensure they are in safe hands, as registration ensures they’re vaccinated and microchipped.
Dogs and cats are ‘something likeable and a favourite of many people,’ writes Dubai Municipality in its pamphlet about pet ownership, which details fines for neglect and improper care of pets, as well as not keeping dogs on a leash.
‘They have also closed down adoption agencies that didn’t meet the requirements or weren’t transparent in dealings,’ says Sara.
Richard feels the laws are fair. ‘Honestly, I don’t think there needs to be a leash law. A dog needs to be on a leash in public spaces, that’s just good ownership and common sense.’
Rashi is on the same page and says
the law also protects pet owners: ‘It ensures our pets don’t run away or get lost.’
Dubai Municipality has also launched Aleef, an app for pet owners that gives access to records of pets, pet owners, pet adoption, registration, treatment and pet care.
While the dog owners that Friday spoke to understand concerns people have about pets and are happy to stay out of public parks and beaches, they voice the need for designated dog parks and beaches.
Specialised indoor centres exist, where dogs can go to swim, socialise with other dogs and have supervised play dates, such as Paws Planet and My Second Home in Dubai and Cloud9 in Abu Dhabi.
However, it’s in a dog’s genetic makeup to be out in the open and exercise their high-spirited, energetic nature. Not doing so can impact physical and psychological health negatively.
At her practice, overweight dogs are the norm for Sara. ‘It’s a common problem here due to over-feeding, lack of routine and exercise. We definitely need some spots for them to be exercised in.’
When Richard adopted Courage, the dog was overweight but has now been trimmed down to his ideal weight with runs.
Oscar isn’t as lucky: ‘Oscar is 5kg over his ideal weight. In Bur Dubai, apart from the sandy lot near our house where he runs around every day with my dad, there are no spaces for dogs.’
With the leash law in effect, open green spaces are a good 45-minute drive away for the Matthews family.
‘OVERWEIGHT dogs are a common problem in this country due to OVER-FEEDING, lack of ROUTINE and exercise. We definitely need some SPOTS for dogs to be EXERCISED in’
Obesity aside, dogs are social animals, Sara highlights, and need dog parks to interact with and learn about their species. ‘It’s very, very important for dogs to socialise with other dogs. Otherwise they will be afraid of or aggressive to other members of their species,’ she warns.
‘The way to not let the leash law affect pets’ activity and lives is to set up a dog park,’ says Mahin. The good news is that dogs may soon have their day in the sun. The MEAF, Mahin tell us, has initiated talks with Dubai Municipality to donate a piece of land to the organisation that can then be converted into a dog park.
Dubai Municipality confirmed this, telling Friday that a dog park ‘is in the plan for the future.’
Until the proposed dog park materialises, the UAE’s dog lovers keep looking for spaces where they can let their dogs run free.
The Greens, an Emaar development, is a pet-friendly space where both residents and non-residents take their furry pals to gambol around in the grass. There’s a dog park there but it’s exclusive to residents.
Priyanka Mehrotra, a 29-year-old public accountant, takes Tango, her King Charles Cavalier, for walks at Burj Park and the manicured paths around Zabeel Palace. Lindi favours the Golden Mile in her Palm Jumeirah neighbourhood, the open grassy area around Sky Dive Dubai; Al Qudra Lakes’ sandy, empty banks are a hotspot too.
In Abu Dhabi, Jing Sintos walks her 10-month old chow chow Jack Daniels around the Al Bateen area and he runs amok in Cloud9 Pet Hotel’s open garden.
Areas like The Greens, Meadows, Burj Park and JLT are dog-friendly zones because developers’ communities fall under their jurisdiction, explains Dubai Municipality’s Faisal. ‘It depends on the policy of the developer if dogs can be walked or not.’
Dubai Properties, the developer of Bay Avenue and Marasi boardwalk next to the Dubai Water Canal in Business Bay, did not respond to a request for comment about their policy on dogs. Nakheel told us that ‘pets are generally permitted in Nakheel master communities, subject to the terms set out in our community rules and regulations. These include ensuring pets’ registrations and vaccinations are up to date; keeping dogs on leashes when outside the home and cleaning up after their pets. However, restrictions apply in certain areas.’
Meanwhile, it is also necessary to continue to educate people about how animals can peacefully coexist in our communities and the joys of having pets.
‘People need a place to interact and acclimatise to well-behaved pets. It encourages other people and children to take interest and care for pets,’ Sara explains.
‘Being seen by the whole community to [be responsible owners] means that maybe in the future we will have proved ourselves worthy enough to have the privileges of dog-access beach or a dog park.’