AWF: Is it a Dog’s Life?

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RACHEL CASEY – DIRECTOR OF CANINE BEHAVIOUR AND RESEARCH DOGS TRUST

The talk begins with a review of the five basic welfare needs with an emphasis on dogs and reminding the audience of some basic differences in needs compared to other animals.

Dogs like humans were ancestrally social predators. Within their group, they are good at facial signs predicting emotions leading to their behaviour modification according to perceived circumstances. They are very driven to maintain social contact and it is not surprising that the biggest behavioural problem seen in behaviour practice is separation anxiety.

Owners very often misunderstand dog behaviour and compounding this is the research done on captive wolves 80 years ago suggesting the concept of attaining status from the dog’s point of view by exerting or trying to exert dominance. The research has been shown to be flawed as studies on wild wolves have demonstrated them to be family oriented and adept at reading emotions within the group. Yet dominance continues to rear its head in some training programmes much to the frustration of the speaker.

Moving on to key welfare issue for dogs.  These are considered by the speaker to be:

  • Physical characteristics which impact on welfare
  • Misunderstanding of behaviour needs and motivations
  • The issue around puppy breeding and supply.

The problems associated with brachycephalic dogs are well known and are briefly recapped here. An interesting insight is that some pugs, following corrective surgery for the elongated soft palate, have subsequently shown behavioural problems, presumably to be able to breathe and exercise like ‘normal’ dogs for the first time.

Lots of dogs are still developing behavioural problems. According to an owner survey, and therefore possibly underestimated, a quarter of dogs are aggressive to other dogs, a quarter suffers from separation anxiety (possibly only reported if destructive behaviour results,) and half demonstrate fear with noise stimuli.

There are major problems relating to puppy sales and supply. There are simply not enough responsible breeders to fulfil the demand for puppies and this need has resulted in poor quality sources such as puppies from abroad and irresponsible breeders in the UK.  Many such pups have physical problems, disease and behavioural problems.

So the question is asked ‘What can we do?’

The two broad headings are:

  • Education
  • Legislation

For education, the main stakeholders should, and largely seem to be giving, the same messages.  It is also very useful to engage using social media.

New regulations under the Animal Welfare Act are being considered, particularly tackling irresponsible breeding and there is a need for increased penalties and better enforcement.

To attempt behaviour change there is a need to ask basic questions such as ‘Why do people buy dogs that will have a shortened life and health problems?’  In finding solutions we must engage with people and encourage changing practice.

In conclusion: –

  • Dogs are an incredibly adaptable species but there are constraints on what they can adapt to
  • Problems arise from human demands on dogs that are (to professionals in animal welfare) illogical, cruel, or ridiculous but not so for many dog owners
  • Solutions lie in changing human behaviour, by asking the right questions and engaging the audience.
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