A list of Recommendations is not a Strategy – my December 2014 Our Dogs “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthWith a General Election due in 2015, it’s interesting to see a range of reports being published which the authors hope will influence party manifestos and future government policy. Three of the main documents issued recently that relate to canine health and welfare are:

No doubt there are others that I’ve missed and I expect more will hit the press in the run-up to next May’s election.

In this month’s article I want to reflect on the KC and APGAW documents as some of their content aligns with my “Best of Health” focus. That’s not to say the Puppy Smuggling issue isn’t important and it is pretty clear from the report that there are significant health and welfare issues related to smuggling of pedigree dogs.

Steve Dean’s introduction to the Dog’s Life manifesto says:  “The results of a recent YouGov poll on the importance of animal welfare to the electorate showed that when voters were asked to name issues determining how they will cast their vote, 14 percent named animal welfare – more than HS2 or equal marriage. However the mass of voters are in the 29 percent who said none of the parties are committed to animal welfare or the 42 percent who said they didn’t know.

“It is for this reason we have written a ‘Dog’s Life’ manifesto, to guide the next government on issues pertinent to those passionate about dogs and what more can be done to improve the lot of the UK’s approximately 9 million dogs.

The KC’s recommendations to an incoming government cover:

  • Breeding; including the need to make the principles of the Assured Breeder Scheme mandatory
  • Acquisition; including the banning of puppy sales from pet shops and promoting breeders who meet the standards of the ABS
  • Training; including adopting the KCAI requirements as a standard for all trainers and behaviourists
  • Responsible ownership; including creating preventative legislation based on “deed not breed” and supporting education programmes such as the KC Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme
  • Routines in everyday living; including allowing legally docked dogs to be shown at all dog shows
  • Animal testing; including reducing the use of dogs for toxicity testing and increasing funding to develop alternatives to animal testing

There are 21 recommendations in total.  Their three key themes seem to be: the requirement to amend existing legislation, a focus on increasing education of dog owners, buyers and those who have to enforce legislation, and an emphasis on endorsing as “good practice” programmes that the KC has already set up.

There is little mention of the resources that may be required to enable effective enforcement of any revised legislation or to deliver improved education. The manifesto pretty much says there is no need to invent new systems and that the KC is well-placed to deliver these (e.g. through the ABS, KCAI and Charitable Trust).  I guess that’s a more palatable message for politicians at a time when signs from all parties suggest more cuts in public spending will be needed during the next parliament.

A balanced approach by APGAW

The All-party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) Sub-group for dogs has previously published reports that have been quite critical of the KC and of pedigree dog breeders.  Their latest report is more wide-ranging and is endorsed by the KC, RSPCA, Dogs Trust, BVA and others.  So, to some extent, this time it has the support of the key stakeholders.

It starts by saying “Parliament has become increasingly aware of, and concerned with, dog-related issues in the last five years. Whether this is about dangerous dogs, irresponsible breeding and trading or cruelty we have seen numerous debates, meetings, parliamentary questions and an e-petition with 111,563 signatures triggering a House of Commons debate in September 2014.

The sub-group who worked on the report set out with an agreed Vision: “For all those responsible for dogs in England to ensure their welfare is maintained at the highest possible standard and to be aware of and have consideration for that dog’s interaction with people and animals in their community.

The report estimates that the annual cost of irresponsible dog ownership is around £80 million and that the RSPCA saves the taxpayer a further £52 million by its work on dog welfare.

By coincidence, the APGAW report also makes 21 recommendations. These cover:

  • Dog control
  • Dog breeding, dealing and trading
  • Dog identification
  • Responsible ownership and guardianship
  • Resources

Recommendation 21 refers to resources, saying “There is an urgent need to identify a means for ensuring there are adequate resources to tackle dog related issues. Further work in creating some form of regular funding stream that can be ring-fenced for this work is crucial to ensuring an effective and sustainable approach.”  This really is the sting in the tail as, without adequate resources, many of the other 20 recommendations are little more than a wish list.

Having said that, the named supporting organisations of the APGAW Dog Strategy had a combined income in 2013 of £366,000,000.  Maybe we need to see a bit more collaboration and a bit less duplication.  Maybe, with some pooling of resources, we could actually have a sustained national education programme to help people make the right choices when thinking of buying a puppy.

I have to comment specifically on one of the APGAW recommendations in relation to dog breeding.  The report says “The key experts in this field are often veterinary surgeons” and goes on to suggest “Proper advice should be taken during the process of selecting breeding stock and breeding from them by seeking a veterinary surgeon who is competent in providing knowledge of genetics, inherited disorders and the relevant screening tests and exaggerated conformations.”  That caused mild amusement on the Breed Health Coordinators’ Facebook Group!

Overall though, pedigree dogs (and the KC) were not “picked on” in this APGAW report and it seems that the group working on it were able to take a more balanced view of the dog issues that need to be addressed in England.  Yes, there are health issues associated with pedigree dogs, some of which are due to exaggeration and some due to breeding practices and a lack of genetic diversity.  But, in the overall scheme of things, this is just one element of canine welfare that needs to be addressed.

But, is it a strategy?

To answer this, we need to define “strategy”. My favourite definition is that a strategy is an action plan with a rationale.

Taking that definition, the APGAW report does pretty well in giving us a rationale for improvement, but it falls short on action planning.  That’s probably inevitable given that the report’s title is “Review and Recommendations…”, and therefore I don’t want to seem too critical.

I think their Vision is a good aspirational starting point that everyone concerned about dogs should be able to sign up to.  Each of the Recommendations provides clear guidance on what should be done.

There are plenty of stakeholder organisations that have the capability and resources to turn that guidance into operational action plans.  If they can adopt a more collaborative approach, to pool resources and avoid duplication, there is the real potential to make a significant impact that will benefit dogs and their owners.  My fear is that, for those recommendations where action by government is required, we will continue to see a lack of will to implement change and a lack of resource to back up what’s already in place.  All the actions need to be owned and resourced, if the APGAW Vision is to be achieved.

In the absence of that political will, the rest of us will have to recognise where we can improve things and collaborate even more in trying to make a difference for dogs.




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