Radical Transparency: A Dog’s best friend
I was kindly invited to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association AGM and seminar earlier this year, and confess I arrived with a full set of prejudices intact. After all, PFMA may say their aim is to “create a credible and responsible industry” but surely commercial pressures are such that in truth all they really want to achieve is a much larger pet owning population, so all those revenue streams are satisfyingly bolstered and share prices boosted. It did not take long into the morning’s programme for me to realise that an open mind would have been a much more appropriate travelling companion that day. The programme blew me away.
PFMA clearly wanted to showcase the work they are doing on delivering a responsible pet food industry and their invited speakers were fascinating. The first, Jim Ormond from Article 13 Consultancy advised the industry that it should be aware of four key trends: declining resources worldwide, increasing customer expectations, technological interconnectedness, and radical transparency.
The value of transparency
All four of those trends have implications for pet welfare but the one I feel is most valuable is radical transparency, and whilst its relevance to dog food manufacture is obvious – we want to know the quality of the ingredients, the safety of the manufacture process, the recyclability of the packaging etc. it also has relevance, and I’d argue, more value, in the context of the supply of dogs themselves.
Radical transparency (RT) put simply is about knowing exactly where things come from, how they are made, and the impact that entire process has on the environment and people. It’s radical because businesses have a history, in the main, of being secretive and hiding much behind “commercial confidentiality” – but that is no longer thought to be a) ethical nor b) even necessary. The key components of RT include:
- Certainty that people are not cruelly or detrimentally exploited
- Certainty that the environment is not detrimentally exploited or where it is there is at least some justification for it.
In the context of where we get our dogs from radical transparency has a great deal to offer because sadly, we know far too little about far too many of them. In the context of dogs RT could additionally include:
- No exploitation of the breeding animals
- Full disclosure of health records
- Full disclosure of temperament assessments
- Effective socialisation and habituation of the puppies
- Full compliance with all aspects of the Animal Welfare Act etc. etc.
Supply of puppies
- It is estimated that between 700,000 to 900,000 puppies are bought/acquired each year in the UK (Source PFMA and Dogs Trust).
- About 220,000 supplied through the Kennel Club registry (24 -31%).
- A small percentage come through rescue organisations (No figures yet available from the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes).
- 80,000 sold to the public through pet shop license holders (Canine Action UK Report).
- An estimated 67,000 puppies from 865 licensed breeders (Battersea report on Licensed Dog breeding 2015).
There is overlap across those routes leaving a massive number of puppies coming from unknown sources. But the reason why radical transparency should be demanded from all of us working on behalf of dogs is that even where, on paper there appears to be traceability, the licensing regime for instance, in truth we have found there is no guarantee at all of transparency.
In a fantastic piece of work done recently by Canine Action UK, a Freedom of Information sweep of Local Authorities revealed far too many failures in the licensing system for any of us to maintain faith with it. Though licensed breeders are meant to be inspected annually, that entire process is so flawed and so void of transparency it cannot be trusted. The full report from CAUK can be read here.
The graphs on page 9 show the number of dogs each of the licensed breeders is permitted to keep, as you will see many have large numbers. Let’s focus on Breeder 10. How transparent might their operation be?
They are licensed for over 140 breeding animals. Yes 140! CAUK’s findings revealed that breeders such as this:
- Frequently fail to identify their puppies in any way despite this being an offence under the Breeding and Sales of Dogs Act 1999
- Were less likely to microchip the puppies
- Were much more likely to only sell their puppies to a third party i.e. pet shop licence holder, thus hindering both transparency and traceability
Shockingly the report also found that establishments like Breeder 10 are:
- Much less likely to be rated excellent or good in terms of cleanliness than small establishments
- Were significantly less likely to provide “other” areas for exercise in addition to the kennel runs/yards
- Are often inspected by people with no animal welfare or breeding knowledge, they may be Environmental Health Officers for instance, more used to inspecting the kitchens of Fast Food Restaurants
- Often not benchmarked against up-to-date criteria; many inspections don’t use the current Model Licence Conditions
- Confident that their inspection reports will be often cursory, incomplete, and/or minimal in their content.
People operating like Breeder 10 do offer the puppy buying public guarantees, but they are not of the well-bred puppy kind. You can guarantee that they are allowed to get away with very poor welfare precisely because this legitimising regime allows them to avoid a transparent and traceable operation.
You know just by the volume of dogs that Breeder 10 is a puppy farmer. Read up on dog welfare and you can guarantee it is highly unlikely that with that number of dogs the welfare needs of each animal are being met. If Breeder 10 is proud of their breeding programme, they would surely allow people to come and take a look at it so we could see for ourselves how they are maintaining good standards. But breeders like this will never allow visitors other than the requisite inspection, and they can work with that because the system has guaranteed it won’t be that rigorous and bears no relation to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Breeder 10 and their ilk go to great lengths to avoid the public seeing their operation, hiding behind, not just remote postcodes, but also the “legitimacy” of their local authority licence.
The licensing regime here in the UK guarantees nothing. What does guarantee something is transparency – seeing the litter for yourself, seeing it interact with the mum, seeing the premises, meeting other family members of the dogs, seeing the paperwork, seeing the health test certificates affording some protection against dog diseases and dog illnesses, meeting the breeders and asking questions of them directly. A good breeder will be able to offer you all this, without ever having to get involved with a licensing scheme. And a really good breeder will be as transparent as all this AND work towards the highest of breeding standards such as those being developed by the Kennel Club’s Assured Breeder Scheme, where the inspection is far more rigorous.
Ask your breeder
So don’t ask your breeder if they are licensed or not – ask them “how transparent are you?” A paper licence (as done currently anyway) offers us little, and the dogs nothing. Transparency, radical or otherwise offers us all a great deal.
I was really heartened to see PFMA put it on the agenda, and hope that every stakeholder with an interest in dogs will see it should apply not just, to the source of protein used in kibble, or the robustness of a travel crate, or the prices of veterinary treatments, but should be applied to where and how we get the puppies themselves. A fully transparent supply chain, no matter what route it takes, would be a simple solution to the very many welfare issues currently faced by our wonderful canine companions.