Don’t underestimate “Pet Power”! My August 2015 “Best of Health” article for Our Dogs

Best of HealthIf you’ve got one of the native vulnerable breeds, or a breed with very low registrations, then every litter counts. For a breed with say 200 annual registrations, just one extra litter being bred per year could add 2-3% more puppies to the population. It may not sound like much, but this was one of the points Dr. Tom Lewis made when talking about Population Genetics at the Mastiff Health Day held earlier this year.

Of course, the question then is “who will breed that extra litter?”. The chances are it won’t be the breed specialists and enthusiasts, but it might just be an owner of one of their puppies. These owners are sometimes disparagingly described as “pet owners”, which I think is rather insulting. Most of us who show and breed would probably consider our dogs to be “pets” first and foremost. “Pet owners” are actually just a group of owners who probably hadn’t given any thought to breeding from their dog. Enthusing them to contribute to the future wellbeing of a breed represents an interesting opportunity.

One breed community that seems to have recognised that opportunity and done something about it is the Neapolitan Mastiffs through their CACEP (Circolo Amatori Cane e Presa) project. They held their CACEP UK day in Lincolnshire on 1st August and I’ve been hearing from Kim Slater how successful it was. Kim had kindly invited me to attend, but unfortunately it clashed with the Houndshow and a dash down to Paignton the same day (don’t get me started on the nonsense of hounds with CCs being scheduled on two consecutive days 180 miles apart!).

I understand that CACEP UK now has around 70 members and they attracted over 100 people and their dogs to the day. I don’t know how that compares to the typical entry the breed gets at shows, but it sounds like a pretty good turnout of enthusiasts. Assuming the breed club and show community recognise the value of engaging with these “pet owners”, they will have a fantastic opportunity to work together on projects to improve the health and viability of the breed.

One of the initiatives offered during the day was health checks carried out by vet Alistair Mitchell. Kim has been keen to gather more information on the health of the breed for some time, so she now has data, collected professionally and consistently. Briefly scanning the returned forms, Kim says the areas the vet scored less than ideal are a lot of tendon issues, weak feet and pasterns, lack of muscle tone etc. This is all lack of education in rearing, so is something which should be easy to address. The rest of the issues were eyes and dermatitis which obviously matches two of the concerns highlighted under the KC’s BreedWatch (NMs are a BW Category 3 Breed). Clearly, with such data, these are priorities to be highlighted in a strategy to move forward.

CACEP President Paolo Maranto wrote a short report after the day where he praised the UK owners and said it was clear how seriously health matters were being taken. He also noted the enthusiasm and skill of the young handlers present at the event; another aspect that will surely be important for its future success.

I’m disappointed not to have been able to attend what was clearly a fun day; there were lots of prizes, lots of food and lots of happy people with happy dogs.

Kim was keen to emphasise that the success of the event was down to the hard work of a working party of individuals who all pulled together, following an initial idea for a “get-together” which ultimately turned into something much more spectacular and important for the breed.

I’ll be interested to see how this is followed-up; it’s great to have one day of enthusiasm for improving the breed, but (as Kim would no doubt remind us) it’s a long-term effort that will deliver benefits for the dogs.

I know other breeds, including some of the native vulnerable breeds, have also run similar “fun days” and they do seem to be a good way to engage with owners who don’t have the slightest interest in showing their dogs.

In my own breed, Dachshunds, we have recognised the importance of “pet owners” in helping with our breed health improvement strategy. Some breed clubs hold fun days which include activities such as mini agility and lure racing. The Southern Club’s Fun Day at the home of their patrons Julian and Emma Fellows attracted well over 100 people and their dogs. No doubt the attraction of a day at Julian Fellows’ home was a big factor, but this is a regular annual event which really has put the emphasis on “fun”.

Our 2015 DachsLife Breed Health Survey had just over 2000 responses this year; of those, 89% of the dogs were not shown. That’s a significant change from our 2012 survey which was split roughly two thirds show dogs and one third “pets”.

Whatever you might think of Facebook, it is an amazing way to connect with other owners. For example, I’m aware of at least 30 regional Dachshund Groups, most of which organise regular walks and some of which have generously raised fund for our health projects. 16% of our survey respondents were participants in Facebook Groups and this was the second biggest activity Dachshund owners reported being involved in (surprisingly, Obedience was number 1).

Our Health Sub-committee has three “Pet Advisors” who are owners who have nothing to do with the show world. They are active among the Facebook Groups, offering advice to owners and potential owners. They also help with fundraising and, for the past two years, have organised the Discover Dogs style event at the Stoneleigh Pet Show.

You’ve probably read the recent KC Press Release about the growth in popularity of Dachshunds over the past year or so. With static, or declining, show entries, that popularity means there will be a great number of “pet owners”. If our breed clubs can engage with owners and potential owners we have a far better chance of educating people in how to rear and look after a Dachshund so that it is healthy and happy. We might also be able to influence better breeding practices and encourage people to breed Dachshunds for the right reasons.

In some breeds, the relationship between “pet owners” and the breed club/show community has not always been harmonious. Surely, we all want the same thing; to contribute to the long-term health and improvement of our breed. So, I am convinced “Pet Power” is a key resource more breeds should be tapping into.

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