Two families from Northern Ireland on how a violent dog changed their lives for the better during the pandemic

They are credited with saving our sanity during lockdown social isolation, so it’s no surprise that a staggering 3.2 million people in the UK have become pet owners for the first time during the pandemic.

Old school teacher Mairead McAvoy resisted her daughter Ella’s requests for a puppy for several years, but eventually relented during the first quarantine in March 2020.

Admitting she “doesn’t really like pets”, Mairead says she was filled with apprehension when she let the eight-week-old cockapoo freely enter her immaculate home in south Belfast.

A self-proclaimed “purebred freak”, she feared the worst when little Murphy appeared in the arms of a besotted Ella.

But now, more than two years later, she admits that the addition not only stole her heart, but also became the main one in the McAvoy family.

A cheeky guy with his Instagram page, Murphy is surrounded by the love of proud owner Ella (13), her sisters Molly (15) and Nancy (11), and parents Mairead (46) and Conor (48).

Mairead, who teaches at Saint Clare’s Primary, says: “I can’t believe how much I care for him and how I protect him has changed.

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Mairead McAvoy pictured with her family Cockapoo Murphy

“I love him like crazy and never thought I could treat an animal like that.”

During lockdown, Mairead continued to work part-time, teaching the children of key workers as well as homeschooling her three girls.

Conor, who runs his own cab moving business, was also at home, leading the couple to change their minds about their “dog-free” stance.

Mairead explains: “Ella has wanted a dog since she was seven years old. I never grew up with dogs and have never been an animal person. I always hoped she would grow out of it, but every birthday and Christmas she would cry, saying that all she really needed was a puppy.

“I am also very proud of the house. My girls used to call me clean and I was horrified by the dog that came and completely ransacked the place. In addition, I was afraid that I would not bond with the animal.

“In March 2020, while we were all at home due to lockdown, I thought maybe it was time to get a dog for Ella as we will all be at home to train her and help her settle in.”

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Joe Boyd from Ballymena and his dog Yogi

The family found Murphy in Cork, where Conor and Ella were on their way to bring him back to his eternal home.

As cute as he looked, and as happy as Ella was to finally have a much-desired puppy, Mairead couldn’t help but feel anxious about what was about to happen.

She says: “For the first eight weeks, it was like having a newborn in the house. I would come down in the mornings to poop in his cage and he would fiddle around on my nice couches.

“I had a mini breakdown. As if all my worst fears came true, and I was sure that the house smelled of a dog, even if it was not there!

Struggling with a period of homeschooling, Mairead wasn’t prepared for how much Murphy would change their lives for the better – and now they can’t imagine life without him.

She admits: “Murphy is terribly spoiled. I shower with it once a week and shampoo it well.

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Ella McAvoy with Murphy

“Then Ella is ready with a hair dryer and comb and it’s like the dog parlor in our house.

“I walk well and always tried to get my husband to walk, but it was none of his business.

“Now he gets up at 6 a.m. every morning to take Murphy out and it really got him in shape. Conor likes to spend time with just him and Murphy before he gets to work.

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Joe Boyd with Yoga

“He also takes him to the Errigle Inn every Friday and the local Centra staff on Ormeaux Road love him too.

“When he comes in, he takes sausages from the deli counter. He’s a really tiny character.”

As restrictions eased and the family returned to work and school, they understandably didn’t want Murphy to be alone.

He was originally enrolled in dog daycare, which meant Mairead had to leave the house an hour early every morning to pick him up before she went to work.

However, Murphy’s boisterous nature soon proved too much even for professional dog breeders and he lost his place.

Mairead laughs, “Going back to work, I was very nervous because we didn’t like leaving him alone.

“He wasn’t in kindergarten for long when one day I got an email saying he got kicked out for frolicking too much with the ladies.

“They said your dog is adorable, but you have to either neuter him or he has to leave.

“I felt he was too young to be castrated so he had to leave.

“It was too much anyway when I went there every day before work, so we luckily agreed on other activities, and now he spends most of his time at home with the company.”

Mairead says she doesn’t regret her decision to get a dog at home.

She adds: “Ella adores Murphy and they have a special bond when they cuddle, but now he is the family dog.

“We honestly can’t imagine life without him now.”

You can follow Murphy’s exploits on Instagram @murphy_the.cockapoo.

Meanwhile, Ballymena journalist and writer Joe Boyd (45) says his pet dog Yogi was a lifeline when he was forced to self-isolate at home during the pandemic.

Joe, who was born with cerebral palsy, was vulnerable to the virus and had to defend himself early in the pandemic.

He believes that without fellow Yogi, his mental health would have suffered.

Joe says: “Because I was in a vulnerable category, I couldn’t go out at all.

“My wife has been a key worker and has continued to work throughout the pandemic.

“Without Yoga, I would be completely alone, looking at four walls.

“He was my companion, I talked to him and he hugged me. He was my tiny buddy.

“Without him, I would have definitely struggled mentally. Even when I was writing, I could tell Yogi what I was working on.”

Yogi, a cross between Lhasa Apso and Jack Russell, was Joe’s surprise Christmas present from his wife in 2019.

Joe also has spastic diplegia, which makes it difficult for him to walk, and is often confined to a wheelchair.

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Joe Boyd from Ballymena and his dog Yogi

However, his disability has never prevented him from living life to the fullest and he is one of the most famous church news reporters in Northern Ireland.

Joe’s career began in 1997 with the Ballymena Times and he was their church correspondent for 18 years.

Since 2015, he has been writing for The Church Page, a Christian news website that publishes the events of every Christian church.

Joe also wrote an autobiography, The Exchange of Places:

From Hopelessness to Happiness, as well as another book, Making a World View—God, Faith, and Disability, which explores what the Bible says about disability.

He is currently working on Stories of Transformation: Conveying Hope Through Lockdown, a collection of real-life experiences from local people he interviewed for his radio program on a former Christian online radio station.

An active man despite his physical handicaps, in recent years Joe has become a qualified fitness instructor and volunteers three times a week at the Pure Wellness Gym.

He says not being able to get to the gym or leave the house during the lockdown has been difficult.

However, Joe is grateful that thanks to Yogi, he survived the pandemic in good health.

He says, “When you’re stuck at home for a long time and can’t get out, it starts to feel like groundhog day.

“I am grateful that Yogi was my companion in isolation; he was great company.

“He has always been on my side, and although he is absolutely and completely destroyed, he is the friendliest dog.

“For people with disabilities, dogs can be a lifeline as you spend more time alone in the house and don’t have much TV to watch and not much work to do. Yogis have been my lifeline.”