This article was written before the current national lockdowns
There’s never been a better time to be a culture-loving dog owner. There are dog-friendly viewings in cinemas, canine tour guides such as Monty the French bulldog in Edinburgh, and the National Trust even allows dogs into some of its catering outlets.
While dogs are a familiar sight in the grounds of historic sites and welcome at many open-air museums, including Ryedale Folk Museum in Yorkshire, Killhope, the North of England lead mining museum in Durham, and Blists Hill Victorian town, part of Ironbridge Gorge Museums in Shropshire, most museums and galleries are understandably hesitant about allowing our four-legged friends, apart from assistance dogs, into their indoor spaces.
But a growing number of venues are seeing the benefits of inviting dogs inside. Well-behaved dogs on leads are welcome in the exhibition hall and display boats at the National Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, which was declared Dog Friendly Business of the Year by Marketing Cheshire in 2018.
“We were delighted to get this award as we always welcome dogs who join their human companions in the whole museum,” says Michelle Kozomara, marketing and communications manager for Canal & River Trust Museums.
“The seven-acre site is great for outdoor walkies, with lots of grassy areas to enjoy. Many of our exhibits, such as the historic slipway and narrowboats and barges, are outside and we also welcome dogs into the Island Waterhouse, which is our main exhibition area.”
Dogs are also allowed in the museum’s Waterside Cafe, which has ice-cream for dogs. “All their needs are met, including poo bags,” says Kozomara, “and the museum shop also has a selection of dog-themed items, from treats and toys to dog-walking guides.”
Inclusive and welcoming
At Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle upon Tyne, the sellout monthly Storytime for Dogs has visitors – and their dogs – enjoying classic dog-themed stories read by their trained “storycatchers”.
“What is key for us is that although Storytime for Dogs can be seen as a novelty event, it is a great opportunity to reach new audiences and is rooted in the idea that reading to dogs can help develop literacy skills and improve confidence in children,” says John Coburn, the creative director and acting co-chief executive at Seven Stories.
The sessions take place in a dedicated space where bowls of water are provided. The cafe and bookshop are also accessible to dogs during the sessions. These have to be booked and are limited to a maximum of 20 people and 10 dogs, with tickets at £3 per person (dogs attend for free).
“When dogs arrive, their owners are asked to complete a form confirming that they will take full responsibility for any mishaps or injuries during the event,” says Coburn. “We ask that all dogs are kept on a lead while in Seven Stories. Beyond that, we trust that owners know their dogs best and will manage their behaviour.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a temporary halt to the sessions, which run outdoors in the Ouseburn valley, where the centre is based.
Museums and galleries in coastal areas and holiday resorts are perhaps more attuned to the needs of visitors with dogs, especially during holiday seasons.
“Dogs are very much welcome in our buildings, including cafes, and we are proud of our dog-friendly policy,” says James Green, the director of Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange in Penzance.
“Cornwall is a key destination for people to holiday with their dogs, so allowing them in means we don’t exclude a significant number of visitors. When dogs can’t enter the gallery space, we often see that one person, if it’s a couple, will hold the dog or wait in the cafe while the other looks and then they swap over.”
Occasionally, artworks lenders’ conditions mean that the dogs can’t be allowed into exhibition spaces, as with Arts Council Collection pieces loaned for a recent exhibition.
“We avoid having dogs in the space if there are large unglazed works that could be at dog height, or delicate mixed pieces at a lower level, but whenever possible they are welcome,” says Green.
The response has been positive, he says. “Dog owners are always delighted, and often surprised. And other people don’t seem to mind. We think it helps make the space more welcoming and perhaps less intimidating if there are people with dogs.
Popping into the gallery when you’re out walking the dog becomes something you can do. Newlyn Art Gallery is between Penzance and Mousehole, and locals and visitors like to walk from one to the other, and many of them will have a dog. Dogs and children make a space inclusive and welcoming.”
The RSPCA launched its #DogKind campaign in 2019 after research suggested that eight out of 10 dogs may be suffering from separation anxiety when they are home alone.
“If more places were dog-friendly then fewer pets would need to stay behind when their families head out for the day,” says Sam Gaines, an RSPCA dog welfare expert, “and fewer owners would make the dangerous decision to leave them inside parked vehicles in hot weather.”
While it’s good for the welfare of pets to admit them to museums, Gaines advises venues, and owners, to think carefully about how their visits are managed.
“Museums and galleries can be busy with lots of people and new sights and sounds, so it is a good idea to expose pets to these experiences in a positive way and introduce them to these spaces gradually.
“Give them lots of praise or treats when relaxed and calm, and don’t force your pet to do anything they don’t like or seem afraid of or worried about.”
Dogs have been lifelines for many of us during lockdown, and opening more cultural spaces to them is a recognition of their importance in our lives.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist