Art for bark's sake: Stray dogs take up painting for UK charity

AFP , Wednesday 29 Nov 2023

In their studio in Bristol, western England, rescue dogs Rosie and Alba are hard at work on their canvases, redefining the essence of abstract art -- one tail swish at a time.

(Photo: AFP)


To the untrained eye, their work at Bristol Animal Rescue Centre (ARC) could be seen as boisterous, childish at times and even just plain old messy.

But the two canines have a far more important job than pleasing critics.

Inflation and high interest rates across the UK plus people abandoning pets they bought during the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a surge in strays and stretched the ARC to its financial limits.

"People just can't afford insurance and veterinary care and just to look after their dogs in general," Bee Lawson, an animal behaviour specialist at the ARC, told AFP.

"At the moment, we are just taking in strays because we are experiencing such a high level of dogs coming in."

- 'Unprecedented crisis' -

The RSPCA animal welfare charity has said it is "desperately concerned" about soaring animal abandonments as winter approaches.

Up until the end of October, the RSPCA in England and Wales received 17,838 reports of abandoned animals.

If the trend continues, it said it expects to see around 21,417 reports in 2023, compared to 16,118 reports in 2020.

"Many rescue centres are full to bursting, so we are facing an unprecedented winter crisis," RSPCA inspectorate commissioner Dermot Murphy said.

As such, the privately funded ARC has had to come up with creative ways to bring in money.

One of the ideas conceived by staff at the centre was to hold an online "Mutt Gala" in December, an event inspired by Vogue Magazine's Met Gala in New York, where animal art would be auctioned.

Armed only with their snouts, paws and a natural disregard for the rules of composition, Rosie, Alba and a pack of strays currently boarding at the centre have been more than willing to help.

- Art therapy -

Lawson said painting is used as a therapy tool for stray dogs, who often arrive at the centre traumatised after their abandonment and having to live alone and unfed on the streets.

"Anything that encourages sniffing, licking and chewing is really beneficial because those are actually naturally calming behaviours for dogs," she said.

"So when they're sniffing or licking, it triggers the neurotransmitters in a dog's brain to release the happy chemicals."

To coax the dogs to the canvases, carers at the ARC use peanut butter and "squeezy cheese" from capsules, which encourages them to sniff, lick and get creative.

"We basically get a blank canvas or something similar to that, put some non toxic paint on the canvas, cling film on top of that, and then we put on their favourite treats," said Jodie Bennett, a community and engagement officer at the centre.

"For the dogs here, it's usually squeezy cheese or peanut butter or something like that. And then the dogs will go over, lick and play with it."

Sometimes some of the more energetic dogs walk on their canvasses while others will use their whole bodies to create their art.

- Up and coming -

Bennett said "Major" -- a white husky rescue dog -- had proved to be one of the more popular artists at the centre, with his two works "Excited I" and "Excited II" drawing keen interest from both critics and art investors.

"His paintings show how he loves the feeling of excitement," she added.

"So they're really big and bold and all over the place, like Major's personality, so look out for him. He is a big up and coming artist."

A yellow, orange and red highly abstract piece named "Burning Man" by a cat called "Cammie", who arrived unexpectedly during one of the painting sessions, had also drawn keen interest, she said.

"Cammie did 'Burning Man' -- she used her favourite colours of fire because she's a feisty lady," she added.

As for Rosie and Alba, their work is "pretty good", Bennett said.

Both had managed to produce some notable pieces that had raised a few eyebrows in the local dog art community.

"We've just done some really nice artwork with them," she said.

"I'm very proud of them and I would hang it up on my wall, definitely."

With practice and effort, they might, she said, even find their work hanging in the Tate one day.

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