TV presenter and animal activist Andrea Hayes knows first-hand what a gift a dog can be in life – and not just during a pandemic, she tells Claire O’Mahony.

Ever since she was a child, Andrea Hayes has had an enormous love for animals, as well as a passion for the outdoors. Although the author and TV presenter didn’t have a childhood dog or grow up in the countryside, she speculates that her affinity for animals stems from having hearing problems in childhood.

"I wondered if it was some kind of unconscious connection, where there’s no language needed so you’re picking up on the energy of the animal," says Andrea, who has presented programmes including Animal A & E and Dog Tales.

"I never had a fear of animals and I always feel I had this way of communicating with them, which is quite evident in various different shows that I’ve worked on to do with animal welfare."

For many years, her constant canine companion was a Labrador retriever called Dash, who helped her with her health struggles over the years, including being diagnosed with the rare brain condition Chiari malformation type 1. "He was just wonderful, particularly when I had a lot of chronic pain," she says. "He seemed to know when I was in pain and just even having him there really was quite calming for me."

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Dash, who died in 2019, also helped her get out of the house on days when she least felt like doing so. "With chronic pain, you often don’t want to be social and it’s very easy just to lie in bed but there’s a requirement to walk your dog so even if it was just a slow walk, at least I was out and I was getting fresh air," says Andrea, who is a Bethany Grief Minister at her local church in Shankill.

"And having a dog is very social. You get to meet people in the park or your neighbours, even if it’s just a 'hello’. It brings you out into the community, which just has such a positive effect on you if you’re not feeling very well in yourself or you’re very down or depressed because of something like chronic pain or an illness."

These days, Andrea and husband David and their daughters Brooke (7) and Skylar (3) share their home with their new rescue dog, Millie, a goldendoodle. "She’s great fun. She’s a large dog who is very, very active," the Dubliner says. "It’s a bit challenging for our family to get used to her level of activity and she needs a lot of enrichment and puzzles to work out because her brain would be quite active as well."

Millie has also provided an opportunity for Andrea to re-educate herself and the children about being dog smart. "It’s important to be safe around animals, regardless of whether it’s your pet at home that you know. You just have to have that awareness all the time around any animal," she says.

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In Ireland, lockdown has led to a spike of interest in pets and Andrea believes this can only be a good thing.

"I know there was a lot of concern about when people go back into the office and that the dogs would be left there, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because really we’ve changed as a society, we’ve changed globally and I think we’re probably going to become more dog-friendly. We are living outside now and there are restaurants where you can bring your dog and happily have him sit outside," she says.

She adds: "They offer this connection and this friendship and this kinship and it really is a relationship that’s unrivalled by anything else because they offer this incredible unconditional love, a loyalty and a friendship that can be so beneficial, not only during a pandemic when we’re isolated and maybe feeling a little anxious, but just in everyday life, especially for children."