Suffering from Dogs Trust Anxiety
I published, as part of my work for DogEd, a paper on how we need to take a “systems thinking” approach to dog welfare as long ago as 2012. Subsequently, I have made several presentations to stakeholder groups such as Dog Advisory Council, Association of Dogs and Cats Homes and Canine Feline Sector Group explaining why it would be such a constructive methodology to help us tackle the issues we face not least, because when it comes to animal welfare the problems are not just complex, they are often “wicked” too.
So, at the inaugural meeting of the All Party Dog Advisory Welfare Group I was gratified to hear Dogs Trust announce plans for a collaborative-systems based approach. But my excitement has been short lived as I have real anxieties over the sincerity of the Dogs Trust in this and here’s why.
Anxiety #1: A Tale of two Dogs Trusts
Last week I heard two talks given by DT’s Paula Boyden, and believe me when I say I am playing the ball here, I am not getting at her personally.
She delivered two talks last week that I attended, to two different audiences. One was the APDAWG group of stakeholders and the other was at the International Partnership for Dogs dog health workshop 2017.
Two talks to two different audiences given by the single same senior executive from the same dog welfare charity. But the messages in the second markedly contradicted the messages in the first. In truth, for this I am grateful because it was a relief to hear sound arguments in the second instead of the spurious content of the first, but I am confused as to how or why the same animal welfare expert would put out such different messages in the space of just five days, and confused as to how, if Paula believes the points made in the second she can even countenance most that she made in the first. I am also now confused as to which message is the one genuinely held by the Dogs Trust.
I found the APDAWG talk on a ban of third party sales deeply patronising, full of flawed logic, punctuated by the conflation of unrelated issues and littered with suggestions I believe are potentially, nothing short of downright dangerous for dogs.
Patronising, because the audience kept being told how “complex” the third party puppy sales issues are, implying that those of us calling for a ban are being naïve at best or stupid at worst. This was an audience full to the doorjambs of experienced, dogged, knowledgeable, resilient campaigners, all of whom are only too aware just how complicated it all is and frustrated by the large welfare stakeholders’ capacity for procrastination.
The danger comes in DT’s insistence that the increasing demand for dogs HAS to be met, see point 13 of their policy here. This is a call for dog dystopia – a nightmare world in which anyone wanting a puppy, just anyone, can have one regardless of their intent or capability to care for it. A nightmare world in which anyone wanting a dog can have one right now. A nightmare world which if taken to its logical conclusion means that anyone can supply puppies, they don’t have to health test, they don’t have to account for temperament, they don’t have to take responsibility for the welfare of the breeding parents because we need to get those pups to market as soon as we can – the demand for them must be met. As I said in my previous post – I understand the laws of economics and that supply will always equal demand one way or another. But demand does not, nor should it equal X, it should equal X-Y where Y equals those individuals who are not equipped or prepared to commit to their dog ownership responsibly. For my take on supply and demand and why it MUST not always be met see here.
Why would a veterinary director of some esteem make such a nonsensical statement about demand? There are so many cases in our modern society where it is obvious that demand must not be met by supply: cream cakes, sugar consumption, chip suppers, smoking, alcohol, gambling, crack cocaine, the list goes on. There are many cases where human whim and appetite must be curtailed and in some cases the state simply has to intervene.
Demand for puppies, unfettered or otherwise was not the topic of DT talk two last week. The second talk from Paula Boyden was on the intersection of welfare and behaviours in dogs. In this, the focus was on the importance of positive experiences in the socialisation and habituation of puppies and the consequences for their cognitive, behavioural and social development further on in life if they are failed in those formative weeks. In fact, a clear link was made between bad experiences in the “critical” 3 – 14-week development phase and an increased likelihood dogs are relinquished later down the line. I lost count of the number of times the word “positive” was used, but when the video is loaded on the Workshop website we will be able to get the exact number.
A typical snippet of Boyden’s second talk is as follows:
“in the 3 – 14-week window of a puppy’s life it’s really important to socialise them to things, to habituate them, and it has certainly been suggested in the past that during this stage puppies are like sponges, and they just absorb everything and they are pretty bullet proof. What we know of that period, a massive period in their development in terms of development of the brain, and in terms of connections within the brain is that it is really important, that we have the impact of first exposures, that they have good, positive experiences.”
I will add the link to the talk when it is available online.
The degree of contradiction was stark. If the requirement for positive experiences is as essential as Boyden claims in talk 2, how does she square that circle with her claim in talk 1, that demand must be met, regardless of the consequences that has for those formative puppy experiences? For within the third-party sales model it is in exactly that “critical” period of puppies lives that the harm is done. Puppies are taken from the comfort of their mother, boxed and crated up to be transported across country, sometimes across several countries, to be delivered to outlets entirely unsuitable for their welfare. In short, experiences totally devoid of positivity. She knows this.
The question to Paula Boyden has to be this: would you have given talk 1 to audience 2, or talk 2 to audience 1? The answer is of course not. Talk 2 does not serve DT’s purposes for audience 1, and vice versa. In my opinion there is no way she would have even contemplated giving talk 1 to audience 2, it would have been rejected out of hand by those international delegates all working hard to improve the health and welfare of dogs.
I’d go as far to say that given the two talks were so contradictory my fears that the Dogs Trust is dissembling here are legitimate.
Anxiety #2: Dogs Trust worldview, easy come easy go?
Dogs Trust has to accept that fears over its motives and questions about its sincerity are fully justified. I believe Boyden and her colleagues call for this “demand must be met” nonsense because their entire business plan relies on a steady supply of relinquished dogs for re-homing. That is their core business. Furthermore, to meet DT’s strategic plans they require the numbers of relinquished dogs to increase. And what better way to ensure a steady supply than to ensure plenty of opportunity for joe public to impulse purchase dogs they have no hope of caring for properly for any length of time.
Snippets like this from their Business Plan 2015 make for worrying reading; they aim to “rehome even more dogs”, “identify potential new sites for rehoming centres” and most worrying of all this about their call centre operation:-
“Our contact centre celebrated its first full year of operation by releasing figures – revealing that our staff took calls from 44,000 people wanting to hand over their dogs for rehoming. The combination of the number of calls from people wishing to hand over their dogs, with the findings of the stray dog survey, gives us clearer insight into the actual number of unwanted dogs in the country and helps us plan our activities accordingly.”
These are calls about relinquishing a sentient being, supposedly one which is a cherished family member, not calls about switching utility suppliers!
Letting “Alfie” go
DT have built capacity to offer us a comprehensive service in the rehoming of our dogs. I have just tested the call centre (approximately 16.30 24/04/2017). I spoke to a lovely man called Rob and told him that I could no longer keep my 3 and half year old Weimaraner called Alfie. Rob filled in a form with me over the phone that took 18 minutes, not once did he suggest any other solution for my bored Weimaraner, he offered no counselling, no alternatives, he did not challenge me in my decision to rehome. He was keen for me to email over a photo. He said that DT Leeds would be in touch to arrange an assessment of Alfie. Within literally a few minutes DT Leeds had called me back to do just that, the service was seamless. But scary.
I am shocked by just how easy they made it for me to even consider rehoming my dog. I don’t have a recording of that conversation but presumably DT has, so they can check. And if that was typical of the calls their centre takes I would urge them to reflect on just what they are creating. Making it that painless a process is important for those who really have no alternative but to rehome their pet, but to not even explore alternatives was disappointing to say the least. There may be very legitimate dog welfare reasons why the call was made to be painless and I’d be happy to hear them, but DT will have to accept that the conversation I had with Rob made the need to surrender a dog after 3 and half years seem like nothing more troubling than trading in an old dishwasher for a new model.
Anxiety #3 The data DT fails to collect
As I’ve already said, Dogs Trust’s call for a “systems” approach chimes with what I and others have been calling for these past few years. But I fear that DT are being a little disingenuous here. There is already a mass of data they could be collecting but have not. Or maybe it is a case that they do collect it but don’t publish. There are no stats in their Business Plan for instance relating to the median length of time dogs stay in their centres, the longest length of stay, how many dogs are returned after rehoming and for what reasons, the number of dogs they bring over from Ireland. A systems approach won’t work on a cherry-picked approach to data.
Anxiety #4 Dogs Trust using a “systems” approach as a tactic
One worrying element of the DT’s scoping document is the timeframe they set out. We are already sitting on data sets that offer insight, the RSPCA for instance have already done a wealth of work on buyer motives, the PDSA annually report on owner behaviours, our own coalition published the Great British Puppy Survey last year. There is already the mechanism through which this could all be co-ordinated into a systems approach, CFSG for instance. Why are they starting from scratch and setting up something in parallel? To me this smacks of a power-grab. And indeed, they conclude the document with this:
“the findings of this study will be used as a basis for Dogs Trust policies relating to the breeding and sale of dogs in the UK and to inform responses to legislative review”. I hope that they are not expecting the rest of us to put all our work on hold just to allow them to catch-up, but that seems to be what they are asking. Note also, they set out a clear intent there to continue lobbying government for the legislative changes that suit them.
I have more anxieties regarding the current approach of the Dogs Trust but enough for now. In summary, I beg them to become more reflective, to understand that my fears are not mine alone and we have good reason to doubt their motives.
Dogs Trust has become big business. A business totally reliant on dysfunctional dog ownership, and I for one need no more data to understand that this is going to continue to harm dogs immensely.
So please DT reflect on how corporate you have become, reflect on the world you are building for dogs, reflect on whether a different approach like this from Downtown Rescue might not get our dogs to a better place, reflect on how patronising and smug you sometimes seem, reflect on some genuine social responsibility but most of all please reflect on what is best for dogs rather than what is best for you.
Finally, I ask them to reflect on this from Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism
“The most effective thing reformers can do is to reduce the effects of corporate money on politics, and enhance the voices of citizens. No other avenue of reform is as important. Corporate executives who sincerely wish to do good can make no better contribution than keeping their company out of politics. If corporate social responsibility has any meaning at all, it is to refrain from corrupting democracy”.
I will continue to track very closely the effects of the Dogs Trust’s corporate money and ethos on our politics, because the dogs can’t do this for themselves. I will continue to track closely the effects of their growing corporate-ness on our dogs, not least because I fear it inherently troubling. If my many concerns and anxieties about them really are unfounded I welcome being put right, but given last week’s performance from Boyden and her contradictory messages, whether the contradiction was deliberate or otherwise, I’m not expecting reassurance coming my way anytime soon.
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